Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Inv. no.: IAA 1977-524/1-6
135 CE to 137 CE
Six fragments of a very large Latin inscription, originally presumed to have been part of a monumental triumphal arch.
Line 1: 41 cm
Line 2: 24 cm
Line 3: 18-19 cm
Inscription first mentioned in Gideon Foerster, “A cuirassed bronze statue of Hadrian,” Atiquot 17 (1985), p. 139-157.
Two years after the discovery of a fragmentary statue of Hadrian that was excavated at the Roman military camp at Tel Shalem, six fragments of a monumental inscription were located from nearby the camp. They probably came from a triumphal arch that was erected possibly in 136 CE, to commemorate the victorious outcome of the Bar Kokhba revolt, which had been crushed the previous year. The large and impressive dimensions of the inscription, the quality of the engraving, and the use of Latin all suggest that the construction of the arch was an imperial initiative, designed to emphasise the significance of Rome’s suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt and control of Judea in its entirety.
Although very fragmentary, it has been possible for Werner Eck to reconstruct the full text of the inscription with some confidence. His edition of the inscription refers to Hadrian as “Imperator Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus, son of the divine Trajan Parthicus, grandson of the divine Nerva, pontifex maximus, with tribunician power for the twentieth time (?), imperator for the second time, in his third consulship for the third time, father of the fatherland” (my translation). The titulature that Werner Eck has reconstructed from the fragments gives a precise date for the arch; Hadrian accepted the title of Imperator for the second time (Imperator II) in 136 CE. If this reconstruction is correct, and the title Imperator is given here in its second acclamation, then the arch dedicated at Tel Shalem would appear to have been to honour Hadrian’s victory over the Jews, and the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt (Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 87). It has previously been suggested that Tel Shalem was the site of a crucial battle in the rebellion, which would make the construction of a victory arch all the more relevant in this specific location (Peter Schäfer, The Bar Kokhba War reconsidered, p. 172). Werner Eck also offers a reconstruction for the third line, the end of which has been lost entirely, including the name of the dedicator. The reconstruction offered – using the scale of the earlier lettering to quantify the number of letters that would feasibly fit in the space – states that the arch was dedicated by SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the People of Rome) (Eck, “The Bar Kokhba Revolt,” p. 88). A dedication of this type fits with the scale and grandeur of the monument that the lettering of the inscription implies; it is known that triumphal arches were dedicated by the Senate and the People of Rome twice to Titus, in the capital city (see Arch of Titus_Architecture; Arch of Titus_reliefs; Arch of Titus in the Circus Maximus), as well as to Augustus and Tiberius at Aosta, in Pannonia, several to Germanicus in Germany, in the eastern provinces, and in Rome (Tacitus, Annals, II.83), as well as one to Claudius at Gesoriacum to commemorate the point from which he set sail for Britain (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LX.22.1). Although it does not appear that triumphal arches were dedicated by the Senate outside of the city of Rome following Claudius’s conquest of Britain, their dedication of one in Judea could be indicative of the importance of the victory here. When considered in light of the Jewish revolt towards the end of Trajan’s reign, the final suppression of the Bar Kokhba rebellion was certainly worth the expense of a monumental arch and a break with the Senate’s more recent honorific behaviour (for the revolts under Trajan, see Dedication for the rebuilding of the Basilica of Cyrene; The Temple of Hecate and the Jewish riot in Cyrene; Jewish revolt in Cyprus).
However, the dating of the arch to 136 CE has been met with some discussion. Glen Bowersock responded to Werner Eck’s reconstruction with the contrary suggestion that the arch was the work of the legionary forces stationed in the nearby camp of Tel Shalem, who were also likely responsible for the monumental bronze statue of the emperor Hadrian that was excavated from the administrative centre of the camp (Opper, Hadrian, Empire and Conflict, p. 92). He prefers the arch to be the result of that legion’s preparations for Hadrian’s adventus in the province in 130 CE, after which monumental arches were constructed to commemorate the locations that he had visited (Bowersock, “The Tel Shalem Arch,” p. 175). He argues that the use of Latin on the arch, rather than the Greek common to neighbouring cities such as Scythopolis, is a further indication of the Roman military’s involvement (Bowersock, “The Tel Shalem Arch,” p. 174). A parallel can be found in the arch built and dedicated to Hadrian at Gerasa in 130 CE, which was set up to mark the occasion of the emperor’s visit to the city, and in celebration of the alliance between Rome and the Gerasians (see Arch of Hadrian at Gerasa and Inscription of the arch of Hadrian at Gerasa for further discussion). Although precedents for such impressive building works being undertaken by legionary soldiers and their commanders can perhaps be found in the so-called ‘Great Temple’ area of Petra – the inscription from which is even more monumental than that from Tel Shalem – that example is found within a large and successful city, not in the comparatively rural countryside around it or a military camp (Bowersock, “The Tel Shalem Arch,” p. 175-77. For the arch at Petra, see Tracy, “An imperial inscription,” p. 371-375). Although Bowersock’s suggestions are certainly interesting, it is perhaps more likely that Eck’s original suggestion of imperial, rather than military, initiative is correct for the arch at Tel Shalem.
Irrespective of the date of the arch, its presence in Judea, and outside of the major cities such as Jerusalem or Caesarea is a clear statement of Rome’s enduring presence in the province. Along with the arche dedicated by Hadrian in the newly founded capital Aelia Capitolina - the so-called Ecce Homo triple-span arch that celebrated Hadrian’s victory in the Bar Kokhba war – the Tel Shalem arch was designed to communicate the permanence of Rome’s presence in the region (for the Ecce Homo arch see Arnould, Les arcs romains de Jérusalem). Whether it was built to herald Hadrian’s visit in 130 CE, or to celebrate his victory at the end of the Bar Kokhba revolts, the arch was a definitive emblem of Roman power and control. This is even more significant if we consider the location of the Tel Shalem military camp, close to where the arch was set up; the Tel Shalem camp was situated so as to hold command over an important crossroads between Scythopolis, Jericho and Shechem, meaning the arch itself was located at a highly visible and frequented point (see Mor, “What does Tel Shalem have to do with the Bar Kokhba Revolt?” p. 79-96). Its message was therefore even more keenly felt – to Romans and Jews, as well as visitors to the province, the inscription communicated the power of Rome and the strength and wealth of her army.