From Roman Triumphal Arches to the St. Louis Arch

From Roman Triumphal Arches to the St. Louis Arch

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis may be America's most famous arch. At 630 feet high, it is considered the tallest built monument made in the United States. The purpose of this Missouri arch is to memorialize the triumph of westward expansion - the vision of President Thomas Jefferson. The modern, stainless steel catenary curve was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, whose winning contest entry beat out other submissions for more traditional Roman-inspired stone gates. The idea for the St. Louis arch may have come from ancient Rome, but the arch as architecture has evolved since Roman times. In this series of photographs, explore the history of arch design, from ancient to modern.

Arch of Titus, A.D. 82

Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy, with Composite Columns Reconstructed from Original A.D. 82. Andrea Jemolo/Portfolio via Getty Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The ancient Romans loved a great arch. They used arches for aqueducts, bridges, and to honor the triumphs of war heroes and victories. Triumphal arches are a Roman invention in design and purpose. The Greeks knew how to build arched openings within squared buildings, but the Romans borrowed this style to create giant monuments to successful warriors. Since ancient Rome, most memorial arches that have been built are modeled after the early Roman arches.

The Arch of Titus was built in Rome during a tumultuous time in the Flavian dynasty. This particular arch was built to welcome back Titus, commander of the Roman armies who besieged and conquered the first Jewish rebellion in Judaea - the Arch of Titus celebrates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in A.D. 70. This marble arch provided a grand entrance for returning warriors bringing the spoils of war back to their homeland. Historically, the nature of the triumphal arch was to create a grand entryway and memorialize an important victory. Sometimes prisoners of war were slaughtered on site. Although the architecture of later triumphal arches may be derivative of the ancient Roman arches, the functional purposes have evolved.

Arch of Constantine, A.D. 315

Triumphal Arch of Constantine in Ancient Rome. Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

The Arch of Constantine is the largest of the surviving ancient Roman arches. Both the one-arch and three-arch designs have been widely copied throughout the world.

Built around A.D. 315 near the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, the Arch of Constantine honors Emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Corinthian design adds a dignified flourish that has lasted for centuries.

Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile, 1836, Paris, France

Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile , 1836, Paris, France. GARDEL Bertrand/Getty Images

One of the most famous arches in the world is in Paris, France. Commissioned by Napoléon I to commemorate his own military conquests and to honor his invincible Grande Armee, the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile is the world's largest triumphal arch. Architect Jean François Thérèse Chalgrin's creation is twice the size of the ancient Roman Arch of Constantine after which it is modeled. The monument was built between 1806 and 1836 at Place de l'Étoile, with Parisian avenues radiating like a star from its center. Work on the structure stopped when Napoléon encountered defeat, but it started up again in 1833 in the name of King Louis-Philippe I, who dedicated the arch to the glory of the French armed forces. Guillaume Abel Blouet - the architect actually credited on the monument itself - completed the Arc based on Chalgrin's design.

An emblem of French patriotism, the Arc de Triomphe is engraved with the names of war victories and 558 generals (those who died at war are underlined). An Unknown Soldier buried under the arch and an eternal flame of remembrance lit since 1920 commemorate victims of the world wars.

Each of the Arc's pillars is adorned with one of four large sculptural reliefs: The Departure of the Volunteers in 1792 (aka La Marseillaise) by François Rude; Napoléon's Triumph of 1810 by Cortot; and Resistance of 1814 and Peace of 1815, both by Etex. The simple design and immense size of the Arc de Triomphe are typical of late 18th-century romantic neoclassicism.

Patuxai Victory Gate, 1968, Vientiane, Laos

Patuxai Victory Gate, Vientiane, Laos. Matthew Williams-Ellis/Getty Images (cropped)

Patuxai is a combination of Sanskrit words: patu (gate) and jaya (victory). The triumphal war monument in Vientiane, Laos honors that country's war for independent. It is modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris - a somewhat ironic move considering the Laotian war for independence was against France in 1954.

The arch was built between 1957 and 1968 and reportedly paid for by the United States. It's been said that the cement was supposed to build an airport for the new nation.

Arch of Triumph, 1982, Pyongyang, North Korea

Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang, North Korea. Mark Harris/Getty Images (cropped)

The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea was, too, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but the citizenry will be the first to point out that the North Korean triumphal arch is bit taller than its western counterpart. Built in 1982, the Pyongyang arch looks a tad like a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House with that tremendous overhang.

This arch commemorates Kim Il Sung's victory over Japanese domination from 1925 to 1945.

Cinquantenaire Triumphal Arch, 1880, Brussels, Belgium

Cinquantenaire Triumphal Arch, Brussels, Belgium. Demetrio Carrasco/Getty Images

Many of the triumphal arches built in the 19th and 20th centuries memorialize a nation's independence from colonial and royalist rule.

Cinquantenaire means 50th anniversary, and the Constantine-like arch in Brussels commemorates the Belgian Revolution and a half-century of freedom from the Netherlands. Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated, is in present-day Belgium.

Washington Square Arch, 1892, New York City

Washington Square Arch, 1892, New York City. Chris Hondros/Getty Images (cropped)

As the General of the Continental Army, George Washington was America's first war hero - the American Revolution was a War for Independence from Great Britain. As first president of the United States, Washington was inaugurated in 1789 in New York City. The iconic American arch near Greenwich Village commemorates this act of independence and self-governance. American architect Stanford White designed this neoclassical symbol in Washington Square Park to replace an 1889 wooden arch that celebrated the centennial of Washington's inaugeration.

India Gate, 1931, New Delhi, India

India Gate, 1931, New Delhi, India. Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

Although the India Gate looks like a triumphal arch, it is India's iconic national war memorial for the dead. The 1931 monument in New Delhi commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who lost their lives in World War I. Designer Sir Edwin Lutyens modeled the structure after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which in turn is inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus.

Wellington Arch, 1830, London. England

Wellington Arch, 1830, London. Mike Kemp In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Arthur Wellesley, the Irish soldier who became the Duke of Wellington, was the hero commander who ultimately defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. The Wellington Arch used to have a statue of him in full battle regalia atop a horse, but the statue was changed to a chariot drawn by four horses when the Arch was moved. "The Angel of Peace Descending on the Chariot of War" is the elaborate statue atop the Wellington Arch. The Duke of Wellington may be best-known worldwide for the rubber boots he used to wear, known today as Wellington boots.

If London's Wellington Arch looks like the Roman Arch of Titus, the nearby Marble Arch could be another famous arch from ancient Rome. Indeed, the British architect John Nash modeled his neoclassical 1833 design for Marble Arch after the ancient Roman Arch of Constantine. Originally planned as a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch, like Wellington Arch, commemorates British triumphs in the Napoleonic Wars.

Arch Into Palace Square, 1829, St Petersburg, Russia

Arch on Palace Square, 1829, St Petersburg, Russia. John Freeman/Getty Images (cropped)

Dvortsovaya Ploshchad or Palace Square in St. Petersburg was built to commemorate the 1812 Russian victories over Napoleon. Italian-born Russian architect Carlo Rossi (1775-1849) designed the triumphal archways and the General Staff and Ministries buildings that surround the historic square. Rossi chose the traditional chariot with horses to adorn the top of the arch, much like built atop London's Wellington Arch. The quadriga or chariot drawn by four horses is a common sculpture of triumph from ancient Roman times.

La Grande Arche de la Défense, 1989, Paris

La Grande Arche de la Défense, 1989. Near Paris. Bernard Annebicque/Sygma via Getty Images

Today's triumphal arches rarely commemorate war victories in the Western world. Although La Grande Arche was dedicated on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the intent of this modernist design was fraternity - its original name was “La Grande Arche de la Fraternité” or The Great Arch of Fraternity. It is located in La Défense, the business area near Paris, France. Capitalism has redefined architecture.


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  • Arc de Triomphe Paris, // accessed March 23, 2015
  • Patuxai Victory Monument in Vientiane, Asia Web Direct (HK) Limited, // accessed March 23, 2015
  • Laos profile - timeline, BBC, // accessed March 23, 2015
  • Triumphal Arch, Pyongyang, Korea, North, Asian Historical Architecture, // accessed March 23, 2-015
  • Cinquantenaire Park, // accessed May 19, 2018
  • Washington Square Arch, NYC Parks and Recreation, // accessed May 19, 2018
  • La Grande Arche, // accessed May 19, 2018
  • Additional Photo Credits: Marble Arch, Oli Scarff/Getty Images