Hail, Caesar: Rome Marks Birth of Emperor Who Built the Colosseum

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His
name is immortalised in modern Italian as the word for a public
urinal, but tomorrow that humiliation will be forgotten as Rome
sets about throwing a massive party for the Emperor Vespasian’s
2,000th birthday. Naturally enough, the celebratory bash –
which takes the form of a 10-month exhibition – is focused
on the building for which he is most famous, the Colosseum.

By far the
largest amphitheatre the ancient Romans built, it is capable of
holding at least 50,000 and perhaps as many as 70,000 screaming
plebs. When it was inaugurated, in the reign of Vespasian’s son
and heir Titus, 5,000 wild animals were put to the sword over 100
days for the amusement of the punters, and despite the halt called
by Constantine, the emperor who converted to Christianity, bloody
gladiatorial combat remained standard fare until it was banned early
in the fifth century.

As the crowning
monument of a civilisation, the Colosseum has always had its detractors.
Some scholars of the ancient world regard it as hideous, without
architectural merit. On its own terms, however, the mega-structure
known originally as the Flavian Amphitheatre, after Vespasian’s
family name, Flavius, was a great advance on what it replaced. It
was located close to the heart of the grounds of Domus Aurea, the
"House of Gold" built for the Emperor Nero, the great
monument to his vanity and greed. Vespasian expropriated those grounds
and, in place of Nero’s self-indulgence, provided the greatest forum
ever built for the self-indulgence of the multitude: aesthetically
crude perhaps, lacking in delicacy and taste, but stunningly bold.
And an appropriate monument to an extraordinary man.

Look at the
surviving marble busts of Vespasian and the centuries fall away.
You can see his descendants in any Roman street. He was burly and
thick-set with a bald, bull-like head, steely eyes and a tense,
frowning mouth, teeth clenched in determination. One of his contemporaries
remarked that he looked as if he was sitting on the lavatory, and
having a hard time of it. Above all it is a common face. There was
nothing aristocratic about this emperor. He was Roman social mobility
incarnate.

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March
28, 2009

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