Today we glance at why the Flavian Emperors may have built the Colosseum and how they put themselves in a position to do so. What did such vast public works projects have to do with the rise and fall of Roman Emperors?

Show Notes

Several of our pods focus on the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, and it will support them if we pause a moment on the Flavian Dynasty that built it and the circumstances under which it did so.

Before there was the Colosseum, there was the infamous Nero, who murdered his mother, his first wife, and, it seems, his second wife as well. And if he did not play the fiddle while Rome burned, he took advantage of the fire’s devastation to seize a vast swath of urban real estate for himself. Unsurprisingly, he was eventually forced to commit suicide, as there was no legal way to get rid of an emperor, no matter how bad he might be, and Nero had never led an army and did little to protect his tyranny by military force. Because he had killed off most of his male relatives to keep them from challenging his authority while he was alive, there were none to succeed him after he was dead. For this and other reasons, a civil war ensued upon his suicide, and three men became Emperor in quick succession. Each failed to secure his authority, and each paid for his failure with his life. Then came Vespasian, who managed to rule for ten years and die a natural death. He also succeeded in establishing his sons Titus and Domitian as his successors. Vespasian was thus the first Roman Emperor to secure himself in power without any family-based claim to rule, and his example made it ever more clear that military power was the vital key to imperial authority. Might can never make right, but it can fill in when the latter is unrecognized or in short supply.

Still, Vespasian and Sons did not rely exclusively on raw force: they also courted the Roman People and Senate, most obviously by their building program, which began with the Temple of Peace and included the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus, the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, and much more. Evidence of many of their projects remains visible to this day, which makes them available as a theme that brings a degree of order to Rome’s chaotic collection of ancient ruins.

All commentators on the Colosseum note that it was prudent of Vespasian to build it and to place it in the middle of Nero’s Golden House. By tearing down the Golden House—which had been designed and decorated by the greatest architects and artists of the day—he showed his rejection of Nero’s tyranny, and by building the Colosseum, he devoted to public pleasure an area that had been reserved for a single man.

This is an excellent start, but it is simplistic, for it implies that governments secure themselves in power by spending big for splashy public works projects. As Tacitus notes in brief, and Machiavelli emphasizes at length, however, seeming generosity is often evidence of a political weakness. Unexpected future expenses should always be expected, and when they arise, an empty treasury spells disaster. If prior spending leaves a government without the resources to pay its troops or, alternatively, forces it tax or rob its people, whatever popular favor it may have won will prove to have come at a dangerously high price.

As if right on cue, the example of the third and last Flavian helps to illustrate this point. Domitian was the biggest spender of the three Flavians, and here is how Suetonius describes the effect of his policies, which could be called generous only in the very short run:

“Reduced to financial hardship by the cost of his buildings, games, and shows, . . . [Domitian] tried to lighten his military expenses by reducing the number of his troops; but perceiving that in this way he became vulnerable to the attacks of the barbarians, . . .  he turned instead to every sort of robbery. The property of both the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. . . . Estates of those in no way connected with him were confiscated, if just one person declared that he had once heard the deceased say that he wanted the Emperor to be his heir.”

So the result of Domitian’s lavish spending on big building projects and entertainment for the people was that he was tempted into preying upon his own people, and this led him to become hated. This was one of the reasons he was assassinated.

Nero too, in fact, had been popular for a while, in part because he was exceedingly generous, but the many gifts he gave did not help him in the end.

Rather than citing Vespasian’s political acumen in winning over the Roman People by building them the Colosseum, perhaps we should note first that he distributed donatives to his soldiers—that is, gifts of money—for his soldiers did more to bring him to power and keep him there than the people did. The first emperor after Nero, a certain Galba, had refused to offer a donative to his troops, and seven of the strongest legions then turned against him. Having thought himself the ruler of the world, he was soon thereafter assassinated in the Roman Forum. If it was important for an emperor to please the Roman people by public works, he needed the support of the army even more. This was especially true for a new emperor, who has no family ties to royalty and no status in the Roman aristocracy.

Reviewing Vespasian’s rise to power raises a second subject related to the Colosseum, namely, the bloodiness of the Gladiatorial games staged in it. I can’t claim that the bloodiness of Vespasian’s path to imperial authority explains the violence of the Games, for there were gladiatorial games in Rome long before the Flavians took control of the city. Still, it is worth emphasizing that Vespasian became Emperor by winning a civil war, and the violence and callousness displayed in the war mirror the violence and callousness of the games. Here are a few particulars drawn from a complex story. My main source is Tacitus, especially toward the end of the Third Book of his Histories, and the beginning of the Fourth. I admire him especially because he combines both great feeling and penetrating insight.

Galba, a general stationed in Spain, led a rebellion against Nero, and his successes led the Senate and the Guard in Rome to declare the rebel to be Emperor. At the same time, the armies in Germany declared their support for a different general, however, a certain Vitellius. To strengthen himself against this threat, Galba adopted a successor. A man named Otho thought Galba should have picked him as successor, so he led the Praetorian Guards against Galba, who was consequently assassinated in the Roman Forum, the center of downtown Rome. His named successor took refuge in the Temple of Vesta, but he was dragged out and butchered on its front steps. The severed heads of Galba and his would-be successor were then fixed on poles and paraded through Rome, while the number of people who claimed to have participated in these bloody deeds grew in number by the hour, since they hoped thereby to win rewards from those who benefitted from them.

The Senate declared Otho, who had assassinated the Emperor, to be the new Emperor, but they must have been worried by the fact that Vitellius already had the support of the armies in Gaul, Spain, and Britain. The opposed armies of Vitellius and Otho clashed north of Rome, and Otho committed suicide when his troops were defeated. We now have two dead emperors in the year 69, and it is still only spring! Again ignoring the question of treason, the Senate declared Vitellius the legitimate Emperor.

Two months later, the troops of Syria, Egypt, Judaea, and the Danube declared Vespasian to be the Emperor. Some of these troops headed toward Italy and Rome, and those under a certain Antonius won a decisive victory over Vitellius’s army near Cremona in northern Italy. Back in Rome, Vitellius tried to abdicate but was prevented by his followers, and battle broke out between rival factions in the capital city. Among many other casualties, the great Temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill was burnt to the ground, which Tacitus called the most deplorable and horrible disaster that had ever befallen Rome. He explains his remark not only by summarizing the central role the temple had played over the last half-millennium but also by stressing that the Romans had destroyed the temple themselves and for no good reason.

Vespasian’s army had won near Cremona, but the forces of Vitellius were successful in Rome itself, and the Roman people called for the death of Sabinus, the brother of Vespasian. Their wish was granted, and the head of Sabinus was cut off and his body mutilated. Meanwhile, the armies loyal to Vespasian advanced on Rome, and the war was then fought out on the streets of the city. Tacitus is again repulsed, not only or even primarily because of the violence of the scene, but because the Roman people were watching the battle as if it was all for their amusement. He concludes his description of the scene by saying, QUOTE “Caring nothing for either party, the people enjoyed themselves in riotous dissipation and took pleasure in their country’s disaster.”

Soon after having called for the death of Sabinus because he had opposed Vitellius, the people now called for death of Vitellius. In fact, after he was taken prisoner, they would not even allow him to look downward in his despair: they forced him with their sword points to face their insults and watch his statues being torn down. He was then killed just where Sabinus had been, while the mob abused him further.

Nor did the death of Vespasian’s last remaining rival end the bloodshed, but the defeated supporters of Vitellius were hunted out and butchered. In what seems to me a sad but apt lesson about what happens in such moments, Tacitus remarks that at a certain point the soldiers’ anger turned to greed, which added an additional motive for killing, such that everyone with any property became a possible target for attack. And if they got a fraction of the take, people then had a sufficient motive to become informants, whether honest or otherwise. The result, and I again borrow Tacitus’s words, is that “the streets were choked with corpses, squares and temples ran with blood.”

It is unsurprising that ambitious generals stopped at nothing when they detected a possible path to power, but the ugly passions displayed by the Roman People during these civil wars take one’s breath away. They afford a foretaste of what we will see when we look more closely at the various events that would be held in the Colosseum, a gift to the Roman People that suited their character.

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