In a further effort to entrench his position as emperor, Vespasian launched a propaganda campaign distancing himself from his all-singing all-dancing predecessor Nero and establishing himself as a rational, conservative Roman. But Vespasian also knew that the best way to appeal to the masses was by speaking to them in a language that they knew: panem et circenses, as Pliny the Younger once put it, or “bread and circuses”.
Vespasian decided to construct an enormous amphitheater. And the site upon which he decided to build it was deeply symbolic. After the Great Fire had swept through the city in 64 AD, Nero built an enormous pleasure palace on what used to be vast swathes of public land. Nero’s domus aurea, or “Golden House” (which archaeologists are only now beginning to uncover) stretched anywhere from 100 to 300 acres. Inside the palace were revolving, jewel-encrusted ceilings, frescoed walls and huge amounts of gold leaf, while on the grounds outside were groves of trees, pasturing livestock and even a giant artificial lake.
However, the piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance of Nero’s Golden House was a giant bronze statue, some 35 meters high, which depicted Nero as either Apollo or the sun god Sol. In Latin, the statue was called the Colossus Neronis, and it is from this that we derive the word Colosseum. Indeed, the Romans would not have known the Colosseum by its modern name, but would have instead gone by the Amphitheatrum Flavium or the “Flavian Amphitheater”.
Work began on the Flavian Amphitheater in 72 AD. The structure would be enormous; designed for a capacity of between 50,000 to 80,000. Manpower for building it wasn’t a problem, however: it’s certain that many of the 100,000 Jewish slaves brought back to Rome after the war would have been put to work building it. What was a problem until recently (at least for historians) was how Vespasian funded this enormous project? Fortunately, we now have the answer, and it lies in a huge recently deciphered inscription that you can still see on the left wall when you enter the Colosseum:
IMP. T. CAES. VESPASIANVS AUG. AMPHITEATRVM NOVVM EX MANVBIS FIERI IUSSIT
“The Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered this new amphitheater to be erected using the spoils of war”.
The structure of the Colosseum was finally completed in 80 AD under Vespasian’s son, Titus. Titus hosted a series of inaugural games that lasted for over 100 days and included events such as gladiatorial fights, reenactments of historical and mythological battles, the execution of countless criminals and the slaughter of more than 9,000 animals. The violence at these games was extraordinary (as it would be in games throughout the rest of the Colosseum’s pagan life). But considering the fact that the Colosseum had been built off the back of extreme violenceâthe slaughter of millions of men women, and children in Judeaâsuch violent games were a darkly fitting way of marking its inauguration.