BMCR 2020.05.31

A monument to dynasty and death: the story of Rome’s Colosseum and the emperors who built it

Nathan T. Elkins, A monument to dynasty and death: the story of Rome's Colosseum and the emperors who built it. Witness to ancient history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. 184 p.. ISBN 9781421432557 $19.95 (pb).

Rome’s Colosseum and the spectacles which unfolded on its arena floor have captured the public’s imagination since 80 CE when Titus inaugurated the monument with 100 consecutive days of games. That moment in time provides a focal point for Nathan Elkins’ account of the structure, the events it sheltered, and the goals of the imperial patrons responsible for both. Though library bookshelves are well-stocked already with books on the Colosseum aimed at a general audience, Elkins adds to this corpus a concise, factual volume that situates the structure and its spectacles within the political and ideological contexts of Flavian Rome.

After a short Introduction describing the Colosseum’s inaugural games, the first chapter moves back in time to recount the tumultuous political events of the 60s CE. Beginning with Nero’s fall from power and the subsequent collapse of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, it covers the decade through the ‘year of four emperors’ in 69 CE. The second half of Chapter One transitions to introduce readers to Vespasian and his work rebuilding monuments in the city of Rome. Concluding this section is a description of Nero’s Domus Aurea, in which familiar primary source texts by Suetonius and Martial are usefully contextualized. Given that Titus and Domitian were critical actors in the saga of the Colosseum, it is surprising that their characters and the key events of their reigns are not explored in greater depth alongside Vespasian’s.

Chapter Two takes readers through the essentials of the amphitheater’s physical structure. The account is organized by feature, with sections dedicated to the façade and plan; awning; seating; imperial box and pulvinar; arena floor and hypogeum; drains, fountains, and toilets; and decoration. The descriptive language is precise throughout and considerable care is taken to introduce technical terminology to readers. Despite these strengths, the chapter’s organizational structure minimizes appreciation for the development of the structure over time. Given that the amphitheater differed significantly under each Flavian emperor – from a building site, to a venue for spectacles, and finally to a monument requiring extensive modifications – the decision to present the Colosseum as a monolithic Flavian entity reflects the broad approach of Elkins’ general audience text.

Opening the third chapter are snapshots of Flavian building projects located near the Colosseum, including the Temple of Deified Claudius, Temple of Peace, Baths of Titus, Meta Sudans, Arch of Titus, the Ludi and other support buildings for the Colosseum. Omitted without an explanation are the substantial contributions of Vespasian and Domitian to the imperial domus on the Palatine.[1] The included monuments are lightly sketched in one or two paragraphs then identified as components of a “Flavian Building Program” (pg.64ff.). Elkins argues that the building program sought to forge connections between the Flavian emperors and two ‘good’ Julio-Claudian emperors, Augustus and Claudian, while eliminating traces of Nero in the Colosseum valley. Given that substantial sections of the Domus Aurea (including its infamous Colossus of Nero) seem to have remained in use throughout the Flavian era, the anti-Neronian narrative Elkins presents may reflect the bias of Martial (Spect. 2), Tacitus (Ann. 15.42) and other elites more than it does the architectural evidence.[2] A significant weakness in this chapter is the absence of reception theory in Elkins’ discussion of a building program; ideally, a text written for undergraduates would both present up-to-date information and utilize contemporary methodology. Here, Elkins lists correlations between Flavian and Julio-Claudian building activities with clarity, but how audiences would perceive these links and the degree to which they were intended by Flavian imperial patrons are left unexplored. A general audience would probably benefit from fuller explanations as to how the catalogued architectural associations – e.g., Vespasian’s restoration of the Augustan Theater of Marcellus and Domitian’s erection of a permanent stadium in the Campus Martius where Augustus had built a temporary wooden one nearly a century earlier – served to conjure themes of dynasty and legitimacy. The final pages of Chapter Three situate the games which took place in the Colosseum as religious events.

Chapter Four is devoted to the spectacles that took place within the Colosseum and is one of Elkins’ strongest contributions. It is succinct and accurate, but most of all, Elkins’ careful, considered prose avoids sensationalizing the deadly events and the concomitant voyeuristic pleasure entailed for readers. Sub-sections of the chapter focus upon the pompa, beast hunts, executions staged as mythological enactments, gladiatorial combat, naval battles, and the vexed question of flooding the Colosseum. (Elkins argues that the strength of the literary evidence establishes that the arena could be flooded, at least until its substructures were constructed under Domitian.) Bringing it all together is a discussion of the political and dynastic implications of such spectacles which weaves in primary source texts and numismatic evidence to demonstrate how these events could express Roman social order and communicate imperial virtues such as generosity and mercy, as well as convey concepts such as an emperor’s power over nature. Those who teach the Colosseum in undergraduate courses will find this chapter a valuable classroom resource.

Cultural reactions to the Colosseum and its inaugural games are the subject of Chapter Five, which looks in particular at Martial’s Book of Spectacles and depictions of the amphitheater on Flavian coins. Both textual and numismatic evidence are treated as examples of panegyric; adding a definition of that term as well as an explanation of how such a function can influence content would strengthen the chapter for undergraduate readers. Elkins’ discussion of Martial follows the scholarship of Kathleen Coleman closely, a fact Elkins readily and frequently acknowledges both in this chapter and elsewhere.[3] This section does not repeat quotations from Martial that appear earlier in the book, and more numerous cross-references would help readers recall where the passages first appeared. Also, it is worth noting that this choice limits the utility of this chapter as an extract for classroom use. When Elkins turns to analyze Flavian coinage, his expertise in numismatics, particularly concerning coin types with architectural imagery, is conveyed by the easy assurance and depth that he brings to the topic. Here, issues of intention and audience are explicitly treated, and Elkins advances convincing reasons to consider Flavian coins as panegyric rather than propaganda. Throughout this section he argues that coins were visual praise for the emperor designed by high-ranking officials, rather than “top-down propaganda” (p. 121). Either way, numismatic choices connect Flavian rulers to Augustus and Claudius: some quite directly by copying Claudian coin types, others more subtly by evoking Augustus through the inclusion of the restored Meta Sudans or by signaling Claudius because the amphitheater is shown viewed from the Temple of Deified Claudius. Elkins states that these allusions cast the Flavian emperors as legitimate rulers who were following positive Augustan role models. Other coins explicitly connect the Colosseum with the Flavian military victory in Judea, advertise the construction of the amphitheater and its first spectacles, or remind Romans of the emperor’s divine status and his power over nature – all themes touched upon in earlier chapters.

One of the strongest politicizing messages of the Colosseum concerns the military prowess of the Flavian emperors and their victory in Judea, yet that theme remains an undercurrent in Elkins’ text. The amphitheater was built ex manubiis (p. 4); its main entrance mirrored the design of a triumphal arch (p. 27); its dedicatory inscription proclaimed that it was “built from the spoils of war” (p. 143, n.11); coin types visually linked its construction with the Flavian military victory in Judea (p. 122); and neighboring Flavian structures such as the Templum Pacis and Arch of Titus echoed the theme of military victory explicitly (p. 81). While all this information can be found in Elkins’ text, this theme is not developed as fully as the links to Augustus and Claudius are, even though the directness with which the amphitheater embodied Flavian military means that ancient visitors would have perceived that message far more readily than any Julio-Claudian association.

Concluding the book is an Epilogue on the post-Flavian history of the Colosseum. It contains a brief, even-handed account of Christian attitudes toward the amphitheater as well as an argument for the study of the past as a gateway to understanding the present. Timely and well-put, here Elkins undoubtedly echoes arguments that many academics have had to make on their own college and university campuses.

49 black-and-white images accompany the text. The photographs are uniformly clear and well-selected. Many of them were taken by the author himself and correlate directly to the text they support. The maps are helpful additions, though the small font labels on some can be challenging to read (e.g., figs. 1.2 and 1.6). The drawings, commissioned for the book, are a mixed bag: some are evocative sketches (fig. 2.17), some lack technical finesse (fig. 2.5), others are too laconic to serve the text well (fig. 3.1). End matter consists of a bibliographic essay highlighting further English-language reading, 15 pages of endnotes, and an index. A bibliography would have assisted readers in tracking the sources mentioned in the notes, especially undergraduates using the text for a research project.

Writing for a general audience can be a challenging task, and one of Elkins’ greatest strengths as an author is his accessible presentation of information throughout the volume. Elkins’ prose exhibits laudable clarity and brevity, and his sober tone is especially well-suited to subdue the gruesome aspects of the Colosseum’s spectacles. Though some portions of the text are appreciably stronger than others – sections addressing numismatics and the survey of arena events stand out – Elkins’ focus on the political and ideological importance of the Flavian amphitheater and the events it housed offers a valuable addition to the growing body of general audience resources on Rome’s Colosseum.


[1] For a current perspective and further bibliography: U. Wulf-Rheidt, “The Palace of the Roman Emperors on the Palatine in Rome,” in The Emperor’s House, eds. M. Featherstone, J.-M. Spieser, G. Tanman and U. Wulf-Rheidt (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015) 3-18.

[2] Exploring the complicated intersection of Nero’s Domus Aurea, Flavian ideology, and the elite bias preserved in Roman sources: K. Welch, The Roman Amphitheater (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) esp. 147-62; H.-J. Beste and H. von Hesberg, “Buildings of an Emperor – How Nero Transformed Rome,” in A Companion to the Neronian Age, eds. E. Buckley and M. Dinter, 314-31 (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) esp. 324-25 and 327; and A. Gallia, “Remaking Rome,” in A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome, ed. A. Zissos, 148-65 (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2016) esp. 149 and 154-55.

[3] K. M. Coleman, Martial: Liber Spectaculorum (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Reviewed by M. Nobili, BMCR 2007.10.48.