Biblical descriptions of the menorah in the Tabernacle and Temple have much to say about its seven branches and their floral decoration (see, e.g., Exodus 25:31—40). The Hebrew Bible is silent, however, about the base. Filling this void, artisans during the latter Second Temple period made images of menorahs with triangular and rectangular bases—and even with no base at all.
The Arch of Titus menorah base is unique, however. It looks like a two-tiered wedding cake and is decorated with images of eagles holding a garland, a sea lion and mythological creatures, including a hippocamp (a seahorse or sea monster with the tail of a fish) and a dragon. This base has no parallels in Roman art of the first century C.E.
The arch’s menorah base has disturbed interpreters since at least the 17th century. Adriaan Reelant (d. 1718), a Dutch Protestant scholar, asserted that the base was inauthentic since Jews would never have tolerated such imagery. Rabbis, beginning with Moses Mendessohn (d. 1786) and continuing to modern Israel, agreed. They imagine the menorah having a three-legged base—following Talmudic opinion and reflected in Jewish art of late antiquity. This common tripod form was derived from standard Roman lampstands.
Scholars debate whether the base illustrated on the Arch of Titus represents an actual lampstand brought by Titus in 70 C.E. and subsequently placed in Vespasian’s Temple of Peace nearby—or perhaps a carrier for the menorah made by Roman artisans, called in Latin a ferculum. Israeli archaeologist Maximilian Kon thinks it is original. He points out that Rabbinic sources describe animal imagery in the art of Jerusalem (which has been confirmed by excavations).1 In fact, all the animals on the base were believed to exist in antiquity; they were not thought to be “mythological” at all—only rare. Our discovery of the same yellow ochre pigment on both the menorah branches and base suggests that they were the same color, meaning that they appear to be made of the same material—gold. This discovery tilts the balance toward those who consider the base to be integral to the arch’s menorah.
My guess is that a very wealthy donor (or donors) gave a lampstand like the one on the arch to the Jerusalem Temple and that his artisans improvised this base. Perhaps this was the menorah that Titus’s bursars liked and took back to Rome, while others were melted for their gold content. Whether this is what happened, or is just the start of my own menorah myth, will remain an open question.—Steven Fine