Hail, Caesar

By Popham, Peter | The Independent (London, England), March 27, 2009 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Hail, Caesar


Popham, Peter, The Independent (London, England)


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Hail, Caesar
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?