So Long as the Colosseum Stands, Rome Also Stands

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  • Topic: Roman Empire, Titus, Domitian
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So long as the Colosseum stands, Rome also stands;
when the Colosseum will fall, Rome also will fall; when Rome will fall, the world also will fall" (The Venerable Bede)

The Colosseum is the most striking evidence of the grandeur of ancient Rome-its most massive, impressive and awe-inspiring feat of engineering. Originally known as the Amphitheatrum Flavium, it was the first major all-stone amphitheater in Rome.2 Since the eighth century, it has been known simply as the Colosseum, apparently because of the colossal statue of the hated Emperor Nero (ruled 54 to 68 C.E.) that had once stood nearb~3 The statue was placed there by the Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117 to 138), who had removed it from the court of Nero's Golden House.

Nero's connection with the Colosseum, however, is mostly negative. It wa~ erected ~p a site where the despised emperor had built a lake that was drained after his death.4 But the clay bottom was hardly fit for a foundation of a structure like the Colosseum, so a concrete ring was sunk into the former lake bottom for support.

The building was constructed during the reigns of three Flavian emperors: The first three tiers of seats were built under Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79). Titus (ruled 79 to 81) added two more tiers. The work was completed under Titus's brother Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) •6 Emperors Nerva (ruled 96 to 98) and Trajan (ruled 98 to 117) made further changes and additions,7 and the building was restored by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the middle of the second century~8 When completed the Colosseum was 165 feet high, a third of a mile around and had some 80 entrances. According to the Calendar of 354, it had a seating capacity of 87,000 though modern scholars generally regard this figure as exaggerated and reduce it to about 5o,ooo.~ Spectators could find their seats without difficulty and all of them had a clear view. A canopy protected them from sun and rain. No wonder that the architects of the Harvard Stadium based their design on the Colosseum.

The amphitheater was severely damaged by a fire caused by lightning in 217.10 It was damaged by another fire, also caused by lightning, in the middle of the third century1' and by earthquakes in the fifth century.12 Thereafter it was subject to plunder until the 18th century. Indeed, whole palaces, such as the Cancelleria (the papal chancellery, an enclave in Vatican City completed in the 16th century) and the Palazzo Farnese (a magnificent palace in Rome completed in the 16th century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese), as well as much of St. Peter's Cathedral in Vatican City were built from its spoils. As late as the year 407, when Rome had been ruled by Christian emperors for almost a century, gladiatorial fights were still being staged there, and as late as 523 wild animals were being slaughtered in the arena. -Now the Colosseum is used as an o~door theater, where as recently as July 20, 2000, the National Theater of Greece put on a new production of Sophocles's.

When Vespasian became emperor in 69 C.E., the empire was in deplorable financial condition because of Nero's extravagance and the fire that devastated Rome in 64. The civil war that had raged during the year preceding Vespasian's accession only added to the economic problems. Unlike Nero, Vespasian was frugal to a fault. Moreover, in contrast to his predecessors, Vespasian did not try to conceal his relatively undistinguished origin. To insure his own popularity (as well as that of his sons, who he was determined should succeed him), Vespasian undertook restorations and repairs that were sorely needed all over Rome. He endowed schools and established a regular annual salary of a hundred thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers ofihetoric, paid for from the public treasury.

According to the second-century writer Suetonjus, Vespasian had learned that the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E.) had cherished a plan for constructing an amphitheater in the heart...
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