Hail, Caesar

Article excerpt

Rome marks birth of emperor who built the Colosseum

His name is immortalised in modern Italian as the word for a public urinal, but tomorrow that humiliation will be forgotten as Rome sets about throwing a massive party for the Emperor Vespasians 2,000th birthday. Naturally enough, the celebratory bash which takes the form of a 10-month exhibition is focused on the building for which he is most famous, the Colosseum.

By far the largest amphitheatre the ancient Romans built, it is capable of holding at least 50,000 and perhaps as many as 70,000 screaming plebs. When it was inaugurated, in the reign of Vespasians son and heir Titus, 5,000 wild animals were put to the sword over 100 days for the amusement of the punters, and despite the halt called by Constantine, the emperor who converted to Christianity, bloody gladiatorial combat remained standard fare until it was banned early in the fifth century.

As the crowning monument of a civilisation, the Colosseum has always had its detractors. Some scholars of the ancient world regard it as hideous, without architectural merit. On its own terms, however, the mega-structure known originally as the Flavian Amphitheatre, after Vespasians family name, Flavius, was a great advance on what it replaced. It was located close to the heart of the grounds of Domus Aurea, the House of Gold built for the Emperor Nero, the great monument to his vanity and greed. Vespasian expropriated those grounds and, in place of Neros self-indulgence, provided the greatest forum ever built for the self-indulgence of the multitude: aesthetically crude perhaps, lacking in delicacy and taste, but stunningly bold. And an appropriate monument to an extraordinary man.

Look at the surviving marble busts of Vespasian and the centuries fall away. You can see his descendants in any Roman street. He was burly and thick-set with a bald, bull-like head, steely eyes and a tense, frowning mouth, teeth clenched in determination. One of his contemporaries remarked that he looked as if he was sitting on the lavatory, and having a hard time of it. Above all it is a common face. There was nothing aristocratic about this emperor. He was Roman social mobility incarnate.

His full name was Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus and after his death, like all deceased emperors, he was worshipped as a god. He started out his life in an altogether different key, born the grandson of a centurion and the son of a tax collector in the rustic district of Sabina, north of Rome. He had only a mediocre education; in later life they made fun of him for his poor grasp of Latin. But you can read Vespasians ticket to glory in his simple, powerful face: he became a first-rate soldier, and beloved of the men he commanded.

He was in his early thirties when he made his mark, participating in the second invasion of Britain, seizing the Isle of Wight for Rome, and developing tactics for overcoming the Britons formidable defensive earthworks. Back in the Eternal City in furlough, he was ill at ease among the corrupt ruling class. AD66 he went to Greece as a member of Neros entourage but made the serious error of falling asleep during one of the megalomaniac emperors singing recitals. He saved his skin by fleeing to a remote province.

The following year the faux pas was forgiven when Nero realised that he had need of this man. Rebellion had broken out among the Jews in Judaea and the Roman forces were having a frustrating time trying to oust them from their walled cities. Vespasians success in winkling out the walled-up Britons was remembered and he was sent to Judaea with orders to suppress the rebellion and bring the Jews to heel. He did exactly that, and although many Jewish towns were destroyed and thousands of people killed, he was remembered as a fair and honest administrator. The defeat of the Jewish rebellion was the making of Vespasian. He was the hero of his army, and the loot he amassed would later go into the building of the Colosseum. …