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Encountering the evidence: Colosseum and entertainment venues

Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls and Dr Luke Houghton discuss the poetry and coin evidence when researching the structure and function of the Colosseum.
So, of course, we can visit the Colosseum today, and it makes a huge mark on the city and on the coins that Roman emperors issue, but what sort of mark does it leave in literature? How do poets talk about it? The poet Martial, writing in the late first century A.D, under the new Flavian dynasty talks about how, with the building of the Colosseum, the delights that once belonged to a master now once more belonged to the people. This is an intensely political statement. Where the Colosseum now stood had been occupied by the Golden House of Nero, his infamous Domus Aurea.
Contemporary accounts of the Golden House talk about corridors running for miles and a vast grounds, including a lake and forests filled with wild animals, which was intended for the emperor’s enjoyment alone. The Emperor Nero is supposed to have said when it was finished, ‘Now, at last, I can live like a human being’. What Martial is saying is that, with the building of the Colosseum, this city of Rome has now been restored to the Romans. It’s no longer the sole possession of only one person who has forced out the people and the normal activities of the city from their rightful place. But, in fact, it now contains a venue which is devoted to the people’s pleasure.
It’s a venue which is both popular and populist. It reflects well on the new Flavian dynasty under Vespasian and his son Titus.
And over here is another coin, maybe a medallion, this one, rather later. It’s an early third century emperor called Severus Alexander. So not a coin, but a commemorative medallion issue struck to hand out to supporters and friends. And on this, too, like on the coins, the emperor is keen to show his link to the tradition of imperial entertainment in the city, because on the obverse is the emperor himself, but on the reverse is a picture of a building you might recognise. That, of course, is the Colosseum. And you can see a lot of detail on here that is helpful to those of us that want to try and reconstruct or understand this building.
So you can see the superimposed tiers of arches. You maybe get the sense in each of those arches, on the outside of the building, there’s a statue that is now lost, of course. The moneyer shows you a little view into the arena, where you might see some very worn away figures, but I think you can just see that, in the arena, there’s a couple of figures fighting or parading. You can see the posts at the top of the circular arena, elliptical arena, that would have held the vela or, the canvas awnings that protected the spectators from the sun.
And then flanking the Colosseum, you can see some of the structures that surrounded it, including, over on this side of the coin here, the Colossus itself, the great statue, originally of Nero, later refashioned to look like the sun god Helios. And this colossal statue gave the Colosseum its name. Its real name is the Flavian Amphitheatre, named after the emperors that built it. But its common name, the Colosseum, derived from that statue, now totally lost. This gives us a lovely picture of the Colosseum as it might have appeared when Severus was giving some games.
And he wanted lots of people to know about those, not just the 50,000 or so who would have been in attendance on the day, but people throughout the Roman Empire. So this medallion is a nice way of commemorating those games.

In our final ‘Encountering the evidence’ video, I rejoin Dr Luke Houghton in Reading’s Ure Museum to discuss what poetry can tell us about the Colosseum and some of the other entertainment buildings in Rome that we’ve seen this week. We also make our last visit to the Heberden Coin Room at the Ashmolean Museum.

In the next Step, you’ll discuss two very different poems. Martial’ poem, as Luke tells us, gives us the Flavian dynasty’s official line on how they are giving Rome back to the people by building the Colosseum, while another poem by Ovid (to join the one that you saw in Step 5.13 gives a different angle – how the city’s entertainment venues make a great place to meet women.

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