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.
March 28, 2009