Picture courtesy of scienceblogs.com
Probably one of the most familiar sites in art history is the Roman Colosseum. For anyone who’s been to the Italian city, the former amphitheatre is embedded in memory and almost indistinguishable from Rome, itself. It is a ruin, but still stands as a monument of all Rome’s history.
All of its history isn’t beauty, of course. There were grim associations with the earlier christian martyrs from ancient gladiatorial games and outright killings, (whether President Ahmadinejad has denied that happened or not). Its presence though is one of grand visions and architectural wonders.
The Colosseum’s original Latin name was Amphitheatrum Flavium, often anglicized as Flavian Amphitheater. The building was constructed by emperors of the Flavian dynasty, hence its original name, after the reign of Emperor Nero. This name is still used in modern English, but generally the structure is better known as the Colosseum. In antiquity, Romans may have referred to the Colosseum by the unofficial name Amphitheatrum Caesareum; this name could have been strictly poetic. This name was not exclusive to the Colosseum; Vespasian and Titus, builders of the Colosseum, also constructed an amphitheater of the same name in Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli).
The name Colosseum has long been believed to be derived from a colossal statue of Nero nearby. (the statue of Nero itself being named after one of the original ancient wonders, the Colossus of Rhodes. This statue was later remodeled by Nero‘s successors into the likeness of Helios (Sol) or Apollo, the sun god, by adding the appropriate solar crown. Nero’s head was also replaced several times with the heads of succeeding emperors. Despite its pagan links, the statue remained standing well into the medieval era and was credited with magical powers. It came to be seen as an iconic symbol of the permanence of Rome.
In the 8th century, a famous epigram attributed to the Venerable Bede celebrated the symbolic significance of the statue in a prophecy that is variously quoted: Quamdiu stat Colisæus, stat et Roma; quando cadet colisæus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus (“as long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world”). This is often mistranslated to refer to the Colosseum rather than the Colossus (as in, for instance, Byron‘s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage). However, at the time that the Pseudo-Bede wrote, the masculine noun coliseus was applied to the statue rather than to what was still known as the Flavian amphitheatre.
The Colossus did eventually fall, possibly being pulled down to reuse its bronze. By the year 1000 the name “Colosseum” had been coined to refer to the amphitheatre. The statue itself was largely forgotten and only its base survives, situated between the Colosseum and the nearby Temple of Venus and Roma.
There are many ruins in Rome, and the area of the Colosseum is full of classic structures. The ancient capitol made many wonderful advances, such as the representative government that we derive so much from. If you get a chance to visit, you’ll probably feel as overwhelmed by the presence of history so much around you as most of us have.
The Romans built something that has lasted and reminds us of so much that would otherwise have just faded away.