The Colosseum: The Mutability of a Monument

The summer of 2000 was a formative period in my life. I had just finished my freshman year as an Archaeology and Classical Studies double major at the University of Evansville and traveled to Rome on my first study abroad trip. I remember riding a bus in Rome and seeing the mass of the Arch of Constantine through the front window as we approached it; as the bus turned, the hulk of the Colosseum became visible alongside. It was a most impressive sight. That same summer, Gladiator premiered in the cinema; I was there on opening day and saw Russell Crowe fighting on the sands of a reconstructed Colosseum, further sparking the imagination of this young Romanophile.

My professors at Evansville, Steven Tuck and Patrick Thomas, both master teachers who have been decorated with national teaching awards, facilitated my curiosity through interdisciplinary studies. Their lessons and approaches still have an impact on my work and methodology today.

Perhaps due to my interest in ancient coinage, what always interested me most about the Colosseum was not just its spectacles, but the ideological complexity of the amphitheater as a monument to the new dynasty that seized power at the conclusion of the civil war (68-69 CE) that followed Nero’s death in 68 CE. In graduate school, I began to explore these ideological associations in detail by independently studying ancient coins that depict the Colosseum, on which I published a series of articles. This research later led me to recognize the strong connections that the amphitheater had with emperor worship, which added another layer to the dynastic significance of the Colosseum. Such cult activities in the amphitheater portrayed these new emperors as natural successors of the Deified Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) and the Deified Claudius (41-54 CE) and as pious stewards of their memories, a topic on which I published another article.

My sustained interest in the political ideology of the Colosseum led me to feel somewhat unfulfilled by the existing books on the Colosseum that instead surveyed the long history of the monument, from its inauguration to its dilapidation, and its associated games. Thus, the idea for a book that focused squarely on the complex ideological significance of the Colosseum under the Flavian emperors was born.

In my book on the Colosseum, one will discover how the Flavian emperors (Vespasian, 69-79 CE; Titus, 79-81 CE, and Domitian, 81-96 CE) eroded Nero’s mark on Rome by dismantling and repurposing his sprawling palace, the Golden House, and sought to present themselves as restorers of Rome. This is accomplished through a thorough interdisciplinary examination of the immediate historical context and different strands of evidence: literary, epigraphic, architectural, iconographical, and archaeological. The Colosseum stood at the center of a number of new constructions built in what was the core of Nero’s Golden House: the Temple of the Deified Claudius, the Temple of Peace, the Colossus of Sol (the refashioned Colossus of Nero), the Baths of Titus, the Meta Sudans fountain, the Arch of Titus, four gladiator schools, and number of support buildings for the spectacles in the Colosseum. This imperial building program sought to legitimize the Flavians as successors of the “good” emperors of the past and as distinguished in warfare through their triumph in the Jewish Revolt.

A Monument to Dynasty and Death: The Story of Rome’s Colosseum and the Emperors Who Built It digs into the multilayered messages conveyed by the monument and its relationship to Flavian literature, art, and other new buildings in the area. It thus provides the first sustained look at what the building meant at the time of its creation under the Flavian emperors, a significance that faded after the collapse of that dynasty, as those emperors became a distant memory. The Colosseum remained the primary venue for amphitheater games in the city of Rome until the games disappeared in late antiquity. In the Middle Ages, Christians perceived the Colosseum to be the locus of the deaths of Christian martyrs, a notion that has no historical support but which fortunately empowered eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popes to preserve the monument from further dilapidation. The Colosseum’s meaning has shifted over the decades, centuries, and millennia.

This famous monument still has much to teach us today. Students often decry the “cruelty” of the Romans for pitting slaves against one another in mortal combat or for the gruesome executions of condemned criminals on the sands of the arena. Indeed, modern people often judge the past and view modern civilization as morally superior. Roman culture institutionalized violence, as citizens were deemed superior to non-citizen slaves and foreigners. We would do well to remember that our era is witness to ongoing genocides and that governments across the globe have seen the empowerment of divisive political voices that vilify and dehumanize immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and other minority populations. This rhetoric becomes part of the culture; its normalization excuses maltreatment and violence that majority populations would never accept for themselves. The Colosseum and its history can be a mirror held up to the present if we allow ourselves to think and reflect.

Nathan T. Elkins is an associate professor of art history and the director of Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement at Baylor University. He is the author of A Monument to Dynasty and Death: The Story of Rome’s Colosseum and the Emperors Who Built It, Monuments in Miniature: Architecture on Roman Coinage and The Image of Political Power in the Reign of Nerva, AD 96–98.