81 CE: Relief showing the Spoils of Jerusalem in the passage of the Arch of Titus

Commented by: Luca Frepoli

Material description

The two-metre-high, almost four-metre-wide and once polychromic relief depicting the Spoils of Jerusalem is located in the passage of the Arch of Titus on the Forum Romanum (Fine 2016, p. 8). The arch was erected in 81 CE under the Roman Emperor Domitian after the death of his brother Titus, former Emperor, in the same year.


The image focuses on a pivotal moment of the triumph over Judaea, a procession held in Rome in 71 CE, in which the Jewish halidoms, the Table of the Shewbread, the Menorah, and the Torah are presented to the Roman public. While the groups of eight bearers each emphasize the weight, and hence the material value of the massive golden pieces of booty, the mere production in the triumphal procession transforms the sacred objects into a political tool of the young Flavian Dynasty.


A group of laurel-wreathed men walk towards an arch monument crowned with tiered horses. In groups of eight, the men carry stretchers on which the attractions are presented: two long trombones, a large table and a deeply elaborated seven-armed candlestick, the Menorah, which clearly emerges from the otherwise sparse background (Savoy 2011, p. 74). In front of each group of bearers, a young man holds a plaque attached to a pole, the original inscription of which designates the plunder carried along. A panel on the left side of the picture, held upwards, announces a forthcoming display and gives the processional representation additional dynamism (Östenberg 2009, p. 116).

In 70 CE Titus Flavius Vespasianus (born 30 Dec. 39 CE; Roman Emperor 79-81 CE) conquers the city of Jerusalem. In retaliation for the uprising that had broken out four years earlier in the province of Judea, the population was slaughtered and enslaved by Roman soldiers and the temple – the symbolic centre of political and religious resistance – burned down (Gerber 2006; Östenberg 2009, p. 118). Titus returned to Rome and celebrated the triumph over Judea (Beard 2003, p. 550) one year later in 71 CE, together with his father, Emperor Vespasian (born 17 Nov. 9 CE; Roman Emperor 69-79 CE).

On the Arch of Titus, erected in 81 CE, two facing reliefs in the archway narrate the most significant scenes of the celebration: on the northern panel the triumphator relief depicts the protagonist Titus on a chariot, and the southern panel, discussed here, shows the Spoils of Jerusalem, carried away by roman soldiers (Pfanner 1983, p. 72). The Arch of Titus is aligned in such a way that the representation of the triumphal procession depicted in the relief – much like a procession actually passing through the arch monument – it appears as moving towards the Capitol, the traditional endpoint of all Roman triumphal processions (Rickert 2011, p. 456).

The procession is recounted by the Jewish-Hellenic historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE), who was imprisoned during the Jewish uprisings in 66 CE, before being granted Roman citizenship. In his Bellum Iudaicum, published at the same time as the Arch of Titus was erected, he describes the Jewish wars for the Roman upper class and gives a detailed description of the triumph in the seventh book (Mason 2017, p. 130; Beard 2003, p. 548). Josephus describes the large quantities of gold and ivory (BJ 7.132-6), the animals (136-7) and the prisoners (138-9) that are shown to the Roman people. In an emphatically announced passage he describes the triumph’s most spectacular objects:

“The spoils in general were borne in promiscuous heaps; but conspicuous above all stood out those captured in the temple at Jerusalem. These consisted of a golden table, many talents in weight, and a lampstand, likewise made of gold, but constructed on a different pattern from those that we use in ordinary life. Affixed to a pedestal was a central shaft, from which there extended slender branches, arranged in trident-fashion, a wrought lamp being attached to the extremity of each branch; of these there were seven, indicating the honour paid to that number among the Jews. After these, and as last of all the spoils, a copy of the Jewish Law was carried.” (BJ 7.148-52)

The booty relief emphasizes both the symbolic and also the material value of the pieces. If one follows Josephus’ description of the triumphal procession transcribed above, one can assume that the inscribed panel carried by the group on the left side of the relief announces the arrival of the last object mentioned in Josephus’ account, the Torah. Though it exceeds the Menorah in religious value, Östenberg explains this indirect representation of the Jewish roles of sacred legal texts, in favour of the almost human-sized seven-armed candlestick by its superior material value in weight of gold (Östenberg 2009, p. 116). The visually unspectacular Torah role could not be integrated to the same spectacular effect into the motif of the eight men, weighed down by the burden of their heavy load.

In Rome, the objects plundered in the temple of Jerusalem became important symbols of the successful suppression of the uprising (Östenberg 2009, p.117). Four years after the triumph, in 75 CE, Vespasian erects the Templum Pacis where, as Josephus recounts, the objects from Jerusalem were on permanent public display, amongst “masterpieces of painting and sculpture[…] for the sight of which men had once wandered over the whole world” (BJ 7.159-161; Panzram 2002, p. 173-178). The objects from the temple illustrate the claim to power of the beginning of the Flavian Dynasty, in which Titus and Domitian – both present in Josephus’ account of the triumphal procession and to be seen in the small group of figures crowning the arch in the relief-panel (Pfanner 1982, p. 72) – were to succeed their father as Roman Emperors. This legitimation of power obscures the fact that the Flavians actually came to power through a bloody civil war, in which Vespasian 69 CE prevailed against his opponent Vitellius (Mason 2017, p. 131). The prominent positioning of the Menorah in the centre of the examined relief-panel reflects this transformation of the temple booty into a political tool.


Translation used

Thackeray, H. St. J., 1928. Josephus. The Jewish War, Books IV-VII (ed. Loeb), Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Secondary Sources

Beard, M., 2003. The Triumph of Flavius Josephus. In: eds. A. J. Boyle and W. J. Dominik, Flavian Rome. Culture, Image, Text. Leiden: Brill, pp. 543-558.

Fine, S., 2016. The Menorah. From the bible to modern Israel. Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard University Press [online presence: https://www.yu.edu/cis/activities/arch-of-titus].

Gerber, J., 2006. Jewish Wars. In: eds. H. Cancik, H. Schneider and C. F. Salazar, Brill‘s New Pauly, Antiquity. Consulted online on 01 May 2018 <http://dx-1doi-1org-1500326584newpauly.erf.sbb.spk-berlin.de/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e12223080>, First published online: 2006.

Mason, S., 2017. Josephus’ Portrait of the Flavian Triumph in Historical and Literary Context. In: eds. F. Goldbeck and J. Wienand, Der römische Triumph in Prinzipat und Spätantike. Berlin/ Boston: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 125-175.

Östenberg, I., 2009. Staging the World. Spoils, Captives, and Representations in the Roman Triumphal Procession. New York: Oxford University Press.

Panzram, S., 2002. Der Jerusalemer Tempel und das Rom der Flavier. In: J. Hahn, ed. Zerstörungen des Jerusalemer Tempels. Geschehen – Wahrnehmung – Bewältigung. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 166-182.

Pfanner, M., 1983. Der Titusbogen. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern.

Rickert, , Y. 2011. Triumph. In: eds. U. Fleckner, M. Warnke and H. Ziegler, Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie. Band II: Imperator bis Zwerg. München: C. H. Beck, pp. 456-464.

Savoy, B., 2011. Kunstraub. In: eds. U. Fleckner, M. Warnke and H. Ziegler, Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie. Band II: Imperator bis Zwerg. München: C. H. Beck, pp. 73-78.

Cite this article as:
81 CE: Relief showing the Spoils of Jerusalem in the passage of the Arch of Titus, commented by 
Luca Frepoli, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/81-ce-relief-showing-the-spoils-of-jerusalem-in-the-passage-of-the-arch-of-titus, published 16/05/2018.
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