Where did the Flavian Dynasty get the resources needed to build the Colosseum? The sorry condition in which Nero had left Rome and epigraphical evidence suggests it had to have come from the looting of Jerusalem and its Jewish Temple. This event is celebrated on the Arch of Titus, just uphill from the Colosseum. The crucial but difficult question is how to judge the Romans for their imperialistic actions. Considering their possible motives takes a small first step toward the beginning of an answer.

Show Notes

I asked in the previous episode how the Romans paid for the Colosseum, but I did not answer the question. Let me try to do that today.

Construction on the Colosseum began in 70 AD, but these were not easy times for Rome. Nero had been Emperor from 54 to 68, and he was given to luxurious habits detrimental to the Imperial Capital. Whether he caused it or not, the Great Fire of 64 devastated much of downtown Rome, and Nero took the opportunity to build a vast urban villa for himself, variously estimated at between 100 and 300 acres. Governors under Nero finally turned against him for his flood of follies: civil war broke out, and Nero’s reign ended with his own suicide. Then four different men served as emperor in a single year: two were assassinated, and one committed suicide, but the fourth established a dynasty that restored a measure of stability. This was Vespasian, whose Flavian Dynasty also included his sons Titus and Domitian, whose villa we visited in Castelgandolfo.

As Vespasian was arriving in Rome as the winner of the civil war, his son Titus was in the final stages of putting down a rebellion of Jews in the Roman province of Judaea. His victory gave him the opportunity to plunder Judaea of its considerable wealth; perhaps Roman imperial policy even required that he treat insurgents harshly, as a lesson to others. The Temple of Jerusalem was there, and it served as a sort of treasury filled with rich donations coming in from Jews from all over the Empire. The main historian of these Jewish Wars, Flavius Josephus, describes the riches contained in the temple as “infinite,” and he adds that the Romans enslaved 97,000 of the insurgents. These too represented great wealth if sold, ransomed, or put to work. Since profligate spending and civil war had exhausted Rome, the booty from Judaea must have looked especially attractive.

Though not absolutely proven, it is widely and reasonably thought that the vast expense of the Colosseum was paid for by the conquest and looting of Judea. It is hard to see where else such resources could have come from, and it was not unusual for Romans to pay for building projects by the spoils of war and even to announce proudly that they had done so.

Another sort of evidence helps support this conclusion and offers a window on the life of scholars called epigraphers, who specialize in the study of ancient inscriptions. One of the most highly regarded of these, a Hungarian Professor Alföldy, took a good look at a marble block lying near one of the entrances to the Colosseum. It had an intelligible inscription carved into it, but it also had small holes that suggested it had held bronze letters that spelled out a previous message. As he had done also in other similar circumstances, Alföldy set for himself the task of studying the placement of these holes in order to figure out what the earlier inscription had said. His conclusion was that it conveyed this declaration, “The Emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered the new amphitheater to be made from the booty.” I am in no position to judge the soundness of this conclusion, but Alföldy’s study has been widely accepted by other experts as an open declaration that the Colosseum was built from spoils taken from Judaea.

It appears, then, that the building of the Colosseum was funded by the defeat and enslavement of a large Jewish community. Just uphill from the Colosseum stands the Arch of Titus, which recalls this looting of Jerusalem in dramatic terms, for one of its purposes is to celebrate Titus for his victory. To do so, relief carvings on the interior of the arch show wreathed soldiers carrying booty out of the Temple of Jerusalem, including one of Judaism’s most recognizable icons, the menorah. To put it in general terms, the Arch is an unabashed representation of Roman imperial pride and encourages open rejoicing over the military victories that enriched the city at the expense of the defeated.

Arch of Titus

The Arch of Titus, which honors the Emperor for putting down the Jewish Revolt in 70 AD and for thereby enriching Rome (my photo)

The Arch was erected soon after Titus’s death, and it also affirms that he became a god. If you look up as you pass under it, you will see an eagle carrying divus Titus up to join the other gods. The Ancient Romans saw no incongruity between Titus’s harsh treatment of the defeated and the act of honoring him as a god. The Ancient Roman route to heaven could hardly have been more different from that of the Christians, who would come to rule the Empire three centuries later and would set the moral tone in Europe for over a thousand years.

Spoils from the Temple of Jerusalem as represented on the interior of the Arch of Titus

In this strange year so fertile in ideas about which old monuments should be torn down, a few voices have called for the demolition of the Arch of Titus for the manifest joy it takes in the subjugation of a people that has often been abused over the centuries. Since I think it is crucial for us to be more patient in trying to understand and judge the past before we rage against it, and patient even in wondering how it might judge us, I won’t be joining any movement to reduce the Arch of Titus to rubble, a movement that, logically speaking, might be obliged to take aim at the Colosseum as well. After all, the Colosseum is a product of imperialism and slave labor, and Professor Alföldy’s inscription shows that the Romans were proud of enriching themselves with the wealth they seized from others. Mustn’t we destroy all signs of triumphant imperialism?

Perhaps, but a little more thought should come first, so we will return more than once to questions regarding the mutilation of statues and other works of art; both Ancient and Christian Romans engaged in the practice, sometimes for religious reasons, other times for political ones. In fact, modern Romans are even today cancelling some of the signs of Mussolini’s twenty years of Fascist rule in Italy. But whatever judgments we eventually make, it seems to me to be a good thing to use visits to the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus to spark our thinking about the policies and effects of the vast Roman Empire, which ruled for centuries over parts of three continents. How did they do it, what standards should we use to judge their violent actions, and would it have been a better world without their empire?

Let me conclude with a first thought on these vast subjects, not a final one—one that concerns the motives and policy behind the actions that paid for the Colosseum. It is natural to suspect that the Romans’ policy toward Judaea was driven by racial and religious prejudice, but the preliminary evidence suggests that they did in Judaea just what they did elsewhere, such as at Carthage and Corinth. They were equal opportunity imperialists, and their policy was to crush revolts wherever they occurred. In fact, there were Jews all over the Empire, including in Rome itself, and the then-great city of Alexandria seems to have been over 25% Jewish. Those who did not revolt were not targeted, and at least some of the Jewish generals who surrendered during the revolt were spared, as the case of Flavius Josephus confirms. He went on to become an advisor and perhaps even a friend of the Emperor Titus. I do not write to defend Rome’s actions but to understand the reasons underlying her harsh policies: individuals and groups treat one another badly for a variety of reasons and under very different circumstances. As it seems to me, at least, the ancient Romans were exceedingly intolerant of rebellion, but this need not mean they were intolerant of racial or religious differences.

Leave A Comment