Thessaloniki Short Stories
By The Honest Explorer
The Arch of Galerius
The Arch of Galerius, or otherwise known as Kamara, is one of the most common meeting spots in Thessaloniki today. It was built in the era of the emperor Galerius as part of his four building complex known today as the Galerian complex: The Rotonda, the Arch, the Hippodrome and the Palace.
Galerius is a very interesting guy. He was born in modern day Serbia by a poor family in the early 3rd century A.C.E. Galerius was an ambitious man. Despite his lowborn origin, he pursuit greatness in life. First, he joined the Roman military where he excelled and found great success to rise through the ranks. However, his greatest political maneuver, might, have been, his marriage to the daughter of the emperor Diocletian – Valeria – which made him one of four co-emperors in the Roman empire.
His greatest achievement in life is, perhaps, his victory over the Persian Sassanid King Narseh. Following his victory, Galerius returned to his provisional capital – Thessaloniki – with lots of wealth and a determination to make Thessaloniki a proper Roman capital. His accomplishments in Persia are celebrated in the glyphs of the arch.
The arch itself, today, is half of what it used to be in the era of Galerius. In the eyes of a great observer, the two square footprints on the floor 5 meters parallel to the main “legs” of the arch, tell a story of destruction. In the remaining two legs one can see the propaganda laid down by Galerius.
Let’s take a closer look at the arch:
Here we see the battle between the Roman and the Sassanid Persians. In the middle you can see the two leaders on their horses. The left one is Galerius and the right one is Narseh.
The Roman soldiers stand tall and brave while the Persian are represented small and fearful. Galerius with an eagle on top of his head – a symbol to imply divine power and wisdom. Galerius goes even as far as to compare himself to Alexander the Great.
When you take – and you should – a long walk by the seaside, you will inevitably go by the statue of Alexander the Great. Note the stance of his body; his battle position; his armor and clothing. Now go back to the arch and see the same representation on the gate but this time you won’t see Alexander but Galerius imitating Alexander.
Another interesting thing about the arch is the “celebration” part. All four rulers came together to celebrate the victory of Galerius but the faces of the emperors are way too damaged as if someone intentionally tried to erase their memory. The answer to this might be: Damnatio memoriae. This Latin phrase means: to erase the memory, to condemn it. It is an indicator to tell us about an effort to delete someone for public records, to make one’s memory less.
So, what is the story here? Well, if you read so far good for you. You have the main info you need already, but for you who want to know a little bit more, let’s shed some light to things: First off, what is the tetrarchy, who are the main characters and what’s with the damnation thingy. . .
Well, let’s make a long story short . . .
In the 3rd century A.C.E. the Roman empire suffered from civil war. To exaggerate a little, every Roman general wanted to become the ONE emperor. Throughput the century more than 28 people claimed the status of the emperor.
In 286, Diocletian came on top of everyone and became the sole emperor of the Roman empire. However, he soon made a bitter realization . . . The Roman empire was soooo large . . From the UK to the West all the way to modern day Syria to the East. Well . . , with no flights and no internet you can imagine that running the empire efficiently was a little bit too much for one person alone. Diocletian, however, had a plan: Why not divide the empire to smaller geographical regions and appoint “small” emperors (rulers) to each one to help me govern?
Thus, the tetrarchy was born and at the beginning, at least, it was fairly successful. Galerius defeated the Persians in the East, Constantius crushed the British userper Allectus in the West, Maximian put the Gauls in order and Diocletian put down the revolt of Domitianus in Egypt and for a while everything was in order.
Peaceful times, though, don’t last long and soon (in 306) Diocletian retired to Split (Croatia) and build his empirial building there. Galerius was promoted from Ceasar (small emperor for simplicity) to Augustus (big emperor) and competed with Diocletian to build bigger, taller and more luxurius empirial nuildings in Thessaloniki using the wealth he brought from Persia.
On the other side of the empire, Constantine, (the later great) succeeded his father and self-proclaimed himself Augustus. In the years to come, Constantine had to fight a number of battles against his political opponents but eventually he became the rulers of the Western provinces of the Roman empire. In 311, Galerius died a gruesome death (probably bowel cancer) and by 324 he deafeated Licinius (who in the meantime had become the sole emperor of the East) and became the ONE and Only emperor until his death in 337.
Now . . , what do all this have to do with the missing faces in the arch of Thessaloniki? Well . . , perhaps, Everything . . . Let me explain . . .
Diocletian realized that the empire was falling apart. To unite the empire, he needed a common denominator; a value followed by everyone; an idea to bring people together; a god to be universally worshipped . . . in other words he needed someone to be a role model . . .
That role model became HIMSELF! To this end, an era of persecutions took place. Diocletian and Galerius were openly antichristian and the persecution of the latter picked during their era. Two decades later, however, with Diocletian and Galerius both out of the picture and with Constantine gaining momentum another god came forth to become this uniting factor
– The Christian God!
Whether Constantine was truly a Christian in his heart or whether Christianity was part of a political campaign to unite the empire is a debate for another day. For now, let’s focus on the gate. You can imagine, by now, that the faces of four pagan, Christian-persecution-emperors celebrating a successful Roman empire would be a little too much for the Christian emperor.
In the light of this information, it stands to reason that Constantine (who stayed in Thessaloniki for one to 12 months depending what historian you believe) ordered the damnation of the memory of his pagan predecessors (even that of his father) from the gate.
Now whether this is a conspiracy theory or an actual historical fact, it’s up to you to decide. Make your own research or hire a local licensed guide to fill in the gaps.
Thank you for taking the time to read through these line. For more stories check out more of my posts here. If you enjoy this blog and you want to help us continue writing interesting stories to help you explore the city like a local, a small donation would be a great way to show us your support. In the meantime, stay curious and keep exploring!
* For a 3D representation of the Arch click here