The Flavian Amphitheatre is the greatest monument from the Roman Games. It has become a lasting symbol for western civilization, much like the Parthenon in Greece, a sentiment captured in these famous lines by Lord Byron:
”While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls – the World.”
Perhaps civilization will both stand and fall along with the eternal city and its Colosseum, but its massive scale and mythical status aside, it was simply the largest amphitheatre anywhere in the Roman world for spectacles and bloodsports. Some other venues actually came close to it in size however and every large Roman city had an amphitheater during the height of Empire. The average Roman Circus was even larger and some could fit several Colosseums worth of spectators. The elliptical shape of the arena floor probably offered the best way for experiencing gladiatorial combat. The lack of corners where gladiators could become trapped increased the tension making the fights more entertaining. The circus was instead used mostly for chariot racing. There are many known instances though where the Romans choose many different venues for the same popular games.
The rising importance of the Roman Games during the first two imperial dynasties help explain why the Colosseum was built. The Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 BCE – 68 CE) began with the first Roman Emperor Augustus who had 3,500 animals killed while also staging gladiatorial games described by Suetonius as unprecedented on all levels. As Caesar before him, Augustus then had an artificial lake made on the Tiber’s western shore staging a sea battle, reenacting the Battle of Salamis. It was even fitted with a small island in the middle just like at the Bay of Salamis and filled with ships and 3,000 soldiers. His successor Tiberius went in the opposite direction, making massive budget cuts and limiting state involvement in the games, largely transferring them to the private sector. This led to a badly designed wooden amphitheatre collapsing during a packed private game with supposedly gruesome death rates as a result.
Caligula, third Emperor of Rome, was an innovator in the games. During his short and notorious reign he decided to have a small pool constructed on Saepta Julia behind the Forum where he felt gladiatorial games would have more suitable surroundings. When the basin was complete only a single ship could actually fit making Caligula subject to ridicule from the masses. He had further plans for a larger venue in the same place behind the Forum, but his successor Claudius disliked the idea and cancelled the project. Claudius, the fourth Emperor, arranged many games, often attending them himself with reportedly great enthusiasm. He even enjoyed the midday executions where criminals where sentenced to damnatio ad bestias and thrown to wild animals between the more popular animal hunts and gladiatorial combats.
In 52 CE 19,000 rowers and soldiers fought against each other at Lake Fucine in the largest naval battle ever staged during the games. According to Tacitus, the doomed combatants had fought well making Claudius unsure weather to have them go on fighting to the last man, have them all killed, or perhaps spare the remaining men. Rising from the sidelines he then started running back and fourth along the riverbank. Claudius suffered a limp and the sight of the Emperor on the beach supposedly caused great amusement among the crowds of spectators. After enough men had either been killed or wounded Claudius decided to spare the survivors. This particular game was surrounded by a large Roman military force carefully monitoring the unfolding events.
Nero, fifth and final Emperor of the Julio-Claudians, did much to develop the games during his time in power. He introduced new elements in the program he thought would amuse the audience and felt as Caligula before him that a new, better venue was needed for the games. He built a large wooden arena in the Campus Martius and as many of his predecessors staged a sea battle, filling his new wooden arena with water. A variety of fish and marine animals where thrown in as Nero gave the starting signal for a battle between Athenians and Persians, a popular theme at this time. Nero’s wooden arena was destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. After his death the Flavians had his palace demolished and it’s adjacent private artificial lake filled in where they instead built the Colosseum. A clear signal that this part of the inner city now belonged to the people of Rome and that the new Emperor had a different style. A colossal statue of Nero remained from the previous palace, and was incorporated into the new architectural layout, giving rise to the name the ”Colosseum”. The building was originally referred to as the Amphitheatrum Flavium or Amphitheatrum Caesareum.
The Flavian Dynasty began with Vespasian’s rule (69-79 CE) who’s rise to power had been far from obvious. He did’t belong to the traditional power elite of the Roman nobility but instead came from the Ordo Equestris, the knightly class. His career during Claudius’ reign culminated with a consular office in the year 51. During Nero his career took off again and he was appointed proconsul of Africa in 63-64. He accompanied Nero on his trip to Greece and in the year 67 he was given the task of restoring order in Judea and Galilee. When a power struggle erupted in connection with Nero’s suicide Vespasian initially stayed out, before managing to gather support from one Roman legion after another until he soon came into possession of most of them. He was bestowed imperial status and associated privileges on December 22 in the year 69 CE.
Vespasian would build much in Rome during his following nine years as Emperor. Beside the Colosseum he also built the Temple of Claudius commemorating the previous dynasty. To finance this he increased taxes, for among other things the public toilets. When the urinal slowly started to return to European cities during the 19th century, they were thus called Vespasiani in Italy and Vespasiennes in France. His son Titus criticized the urinal tax and as a reply he supposedly got a coin inserted under his nose by his father asking him if he thought it smelled? Titus replied in the negative and Vespasian replied in turn that the coin had come from the urinals. Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell) is a saying associated with his rule. Vespasian was mindful of his spending, but no expenses seems to have been spared for the games. Building the Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome represented a monumental undertaking, along with a second amphitheatre slightly smaller in size with the same name in Pozzuoli. When Vespasian had secured both his position of power, his succession, and had managed to collect enough tax revenue (as well as the spoils of war from Jerusalem) he immortalized his dynasty’s reputation with the Colosseum, as Martial obsequiously called a world wonder:
”Let barbarous Memphis speak no more of the wonder of her pyramids,nor Assyrian toil boast of Babylon; nor let the soft Ionians be extolled for Trivia’s temple; let the altar of many horns say naught of Delos; nor let the Carians exalt to the skies with extravagant praises the Mausoleum poised in empty air. All labor yields to Caesar’s Amphitheater. Fame shall tell of one work in lieu of all. “
Vespasian would die before the inauguration of the Colosseum however and his son and heir Titus was left to oversee one hundred days of unbroken games in the capital, which was probably on an unprecedented scale. Titus short reign (79-81 CE) was halted by a sudden illness soon followed by death. His fell ill already during the closing ceremonies for the inauguration. According to Cassius Dio Titus was quite generous during these games towards the spectators and had wooden balls thrown into the stands bearing the name of a particular item. It could be food, clothing, silver or gold items, horses, other livestock or slaves. Anyone who received a wooden ball could go to the responsible officer and collect their prize. This practice continued during his successor Domitian’s reign. Titus was reportedly along with Caligula, Hadrian, Lucius Verus and a few others one of the few Emperors to actually appear in the arena as gladiators.
Footage from the Colosseum taken in 2015. Additional footage and animations from a NOVA PBS documentary titled ’Roman Death Trap’ and its extended version ’Secrets of the Colosseum’ (Scenes from these documentaries were actually filmed during my visit).
The full documentary offers a possible reconstruction of the trap door elevators in the arena floor, probably used during animal hunts and the particularly hair-raising executions using wild animals. Song in the film is ’Carnival’ by Hands Of Doom.
Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016