When I was last at the Flavian Amphitheatre, I overheard a guide talking about how there were grand plans in the works to restore the floor to some of its former glory. The Flavian Amphitheatre was named after its patron, Titus Flavius Vespasianus – better known to us as the emperor Vespasian – and his family the Flavians, but you’d know it better as the Colosseum. It’s not called that because it’s bloody big, but because it was built near to a gigantic statue of the former emperor Nero that the future emperor Hadrian had moved closer to it. These proposed new works would allow demonstrations of how the floor, the theatre and all its theatrical magic, would have worked, and for new performances to take place in the historic amphitheatre.
Of course any talk like that is subject to change, delay, corruption and cancellation so you think nothing of it. However now it appears the Italian government is stumping up the cash (nearly €20m, or about £18m) to make that a reality.
Currently the old floor is mostly missing, revealing the networks of tunnels and chambers that were beneath the stage itself, essentially the ‘backstage’ area, known as the ‘hypogeum’. This is where stage-hands controlling trap doors would have worked their magic, animals would have been caged and gladiators would have paced nervously.
So will everyone be happy about this? Of course not! Any restoration project of a monument of the significance of the Colosseum will cause issues. There should be little doubt that making more money is likely one of the driving factors and often profits get in the way of good practice. Also any major structural works are liable to cause problems in other areas of the structure. If, for example, they are hoping to be able to use the area for gathering of 50,000 people or more then that is 50,000 people’s worth of wear and tear, per event, to be accounted for. It’s a messy problem with no simple solution.
But gripping onto the Colosseum as a relic, a museum piece to be seen and not touched, hidden behind glass and treated with kid gloves – that was never its intended purpose and I have to ask myself the question: what would the original planner, the person who started building the theatre think?
Vespasian was a fucking peasant by comparison to the Julio-Claudian line that had come before him. He was technically an ‘equestrian’ by Roman class – sort of an upper-middle class guy. Whilst Nero was busy trying to turn Rome into a new Greek cultural wonderland, Vespasian was busy quelling the Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem and before he’d had time to wrap up Nero had taken his own life and three other wannabes were claiming to be emperor – Galba, Otho and Vitellius. Rome had another civil war on her hands and it would have been a long and bloody one if not for one simple fact. Vespasian was fuckin’ ‘ard, mate! I plan to write a series about key figures in Roman history so I’ll hit you with more detail later, but Vespasian’s ascent to Emperor was almost inevitable the moment he decided to go for it.
During his reign Nero had built this obnoxious, yet technologically marvellous, palace known as the Domus Aurea – the Golden House. This, he thought, was exactly what the people needed after a fire had ravaged huge parts of Rome in 64CE. Allegedly blinged beyond the ken of even the most arrogant gangster rapper, it apparently had a steam powered spinning statue of Nero himself. Imagine if a disaster struck your country and your government decided the best way to cheer you up was to build gold statues of themselves. That’s what happened.
Needless to say Vespasian was a man of more practicality and less sentimental stupidity than Nero, he knew the people would need buildings. Panem et circenses – bread and circuses – were, after all, what kept the Roman populace happy. Smack bang near the middle of this Domus Aurea, where Nero had had a lake built, Vespasian had it drained and used that site to begin construction of what has since remained one of the pinnacles of Roman architecture and a symbol of Romanness – Romanitas – itself. Romans did not just build buildings to be marvelled at, they also had to be used.
Future Emperors would tear down, repurpose or bury other parts of the Domus Aurea, but the Colosseum remains, emblematic.
I don’t think Vespasian would mind it being given a lick of paint, a rivet or strut here or there, or some re-facing and re-cladding, if he knew the people were still deriving pleasure from a building he commissioned nearly two-thousand years ago.
Vespasian was about practicality, and Romans were about longevity and legacy. So long as it is done right, and no medium or long-term harm comes to the building they, I don’t believe, would have any objection to reviving the Flavian Amphitheatre for the purposes of shows and entertainment. Just…no animal shows, okay? It’s not okay to pit people against lions anymore. Not PC, you know?