The Roman Colosseum: Built with Blood Money
Updated: Apr 23
The iconic World Heritage site Roman Colosseum was built between the years 70 and 80 CE. It was the largest amphitheater in the ancient world, and its ruins are visited today by millions of tourists every year. The date of its construction tells a lot about its history. We know it was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the Roman people in about 70-72 CE. We also know it was opened by his son Titus in 80 CE, who had become emperor in 79 CE after his father’s death. The colosseum was built on the grounds of the excessive palace Emperor Nero had built for himself before his suicide in 68 CE. Nero had bankrupted the nation after the great fire of Rome in 64 CE, where instead of putting the treasury funds into rebuilding the city, much of it was diverted to his new luxurious palace. So, this colosseum was a way for Vespasian to poke Nero in the eye and restore the land to the people. But it was a great and costly building project. Where did they get the funds to pay the workers? They could not simply run up debt like our governments do today. They had to have coin in hand--gold, or silver.
Recently an inscription was found on the colosseum still traceable under a later dedicatory inscription that tells us where the funds came from. The original inscription in stone in the colosseum read:
IMP. CAES. VESPASIANUS. AUG.
EX MANIBUS FIERE IUSSIT
This Latin translates as Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus, New Amphitheatre, built from the spoils of war. It also appears the inscription was modified to add the letter T. between the Imp. and Caes. to indicate Titus, because the original inscription was carved after Vespasian’s death but before Titus had it dedicated.
The question then becomes—which spoils from which war would have paid for this monument? The several-year-long First Jewish Revolt in Judea had just climaxed with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 CE. Josephus and other Roman authors record that large amounts of gold and silver were hauled away from the Temple treasury and sent back to Rome. Nearly a million Jews, mostly civilians, died in that war. The triumph was celebrated in Rome not only with the building of the Colosseum, but with an arch dedicated to the general who delivered the victory—Vespasian’s son Titus. We will have a look at that arch in the next blog.