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After Constantine's surprise victory over Maxentius and his taking of power in Rome, the civic authorities decided to show their loyalty by dedicating a triumphal arch to him in the heart of Rome. The arch was hurriedly built so as to be ready for Constantine's second brief visit to Rome, and it is mainly composed of sculptures and reliefs transferred from older monuments. A frieze was commissioned to tell the story of Constantine's march towards Rome and his defeat of Maxentius (a triumphal arch, in ancient Rome, was a permanent record of a triumphal procession, the highest military honour, and scenes of the events that led to the victory were typically depicted on it). Within ten years work had begun on the new basilicas including St. Peters and St. John Lateran.
The six frieze panels on each side of the arch are, apart from a few decorations and inscriptions, the only pieces which were made especially for the monument. They tell the story of Consantine's march to Rome and his victory against Maxentius. Their style gives a glimpse of several visual motifs which would evolve into christian images in the following years, with formal compositions arranged around a strict hierarchy from the centre. The arrangement of the panels has an added political message, with contrasts drawn between opposing faces of the arch: Maxentius' chaotic defeat is contrasted with Constantine declaring the new order in the Forum, soldiers throw stones at Constantine's army from the walls of a besieged city opposite a scene of Constantine distributing gifts to the people.
Most of the Arch of Constantine is built from pieces retrieved from other buildings, genreally known as spolia. The reason is unknown, though possibly there was no time to make new carvings in time for Constantine's visit to Rome. The choices of these spolia, though, was by no means random, they are all from buildings which celebrate the emperors with the highest of reputations, suggesting that their glories would be reborn in Constantine. Statues of Dacian captives and the inside panels come from Trajan's forum, panel reliefs from a monument to Marcus Aurelius, and the circular reliefs from the time of Hadrian.