|Financing the Colosseum
Where did the money come from to build this magnificent Roman structure? An extremely unusual inscription—one without any extant letters—points to the spoils from the Jerusalem Temple.
By Louis H. Feldman
“So long as the Colosseum stands, Rome also stands; when the Colosseum will fall, Rome also will fall; when Rome will fall, the world also will fall” (The Venerable Bede).
The Colosseum is the most striking evidence of the grandeur of ancient Rome—its most massive, impressive and awe-inspiring feat of engineering. Originally known as the Amphitheatrum Flavium, it was the first major all-stone amphitheater in Rome. Since the eighth century, it has been known simply as the Colosseum, apparently because of the colossal statue of the hated Emperor Nero (ruled 54 to 68 C.E.) that had once stood nearby. The statue was placed there by the Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117 to 138), who had removed it from the court of Nero’s Golden House.
Nero’s connection with the Colosseum, however, is mostly negative. It was erected on a site where the despised emperor had built a lake that was drained after his death. But the clay bottom was hardly fit for a foundation of a structure like the Colosseum, so a concrete ring was sunk into the former lake bottom for support.
The building was constructed during the reigns of three Flavian emperors: The first three tiers of seats were built under Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79). Titus (ruled 79 to 81) added two more tiers. The work was completed under Titus’s brother Domitian (ruled 81 to 96). Emperors Nerva (ruled 96 to 98) and Trajan (ruled 98 to 117) made further changes and additions, and the building was restored by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the middle of the second century.
When completed the Colosseum was 165 feet high, a third of a mile around and had some 80 entrances. According to the Calendar of 354, it had a seating capacity of 87,000 though modern scholars generally regard this figure as exaggerated and reduce it to about 50,000. Spectators could find their seats without difficulty and all of them had a clear view. A canopy protected them from sun and rain. No wonder that the architects of the Harvard Stadium based their design on the Colosseum.
The amphitheater was severely damaged by a fire caused by lightning in 217. It was damaged by another fire, also caused by lightning, in the middle of the third century and by earthquakes in the fifth century. Thereafter it was subject to plunder until the 18th century. Indeed, whole palaces, such as the Cancelleria (the papal chancellery, an enclave in Vatican City completed in the 16th century) and the Palazzo Farnese (a magnificent palace in Rome completed in the 16th century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese), as well as much of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City, were built from its spoils.
As late as the year 407, when Rome had been ruled by Christian emperors for almost a century, gladiatorial fights were still being staged there, and as late as 523 wild animals were being slaughtered in the arena.
Now the Colosseum is used as an outdoor theater, where as recently as July 20, 2000, the National Theater of Greece put on a new production of Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex.
When Vespasian became emperor in 69 C.E., the empire was in deplorable financial condition because of Nero’s extravagance and the fire that devastated Rome in 64. The civil war that had raged during the year preceding Vespasian’s accession only added to the economic problems. Unlike Nero, Vespasian was frugal to a fault. Moreover, in contrast to his predecessors, Vespasian did not try to conceal his relatively undistinguished origin. To insure his own popularity (as well as that of his sons, who he was determined should succeed him), Vespasian undertook restorations and repairs that were sorely needed all over Rome. He endowed schools and established a regular annual salary of a hundred thousand sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric, paid for from the public treasury.
According to the second-century writer Suetonius, Vespasian had learned that the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E.) had cherished a plan for constructing an amphitheater in the heart of Rome. Presumably there Augustus would be able to present on a grand scale the gladiatorial shows that he took particular pride in offering to the Roman people.
The arena with its three tiers was apparently used in Vespasian’s reign. A more formal dedication occurred in the year 80. This inauguration lasted 100 days, during which 9,000 animals were killed, 5,000 of them on a single day. The exterior is depicted on several coins of Titus’s reign. Spectacles in the Colosseum included gladiatorial bouts, animals hunts, mock sea-battles, re-creations of myths (as in that of Pasiphae, where, according to Martial, a bull actually mounted a woman), and even exhibitions of artificial forests.
The dedication of the Colosseum in 80 doubtless raised the morale of the populace after the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius, the famine and epidemic that followed and the great fire in Rome in 79 and 80. And what a nice touch to build it on the very ground where the despised Nero had enjoyed himself on his lake.
But where did Vespasian and Titus get the money to erect the structure?
The answer might be found in an inscription that was described for the first time in 1813 by one Carlo Fea. Visitors to the Colosseum, entering by the present main entrance on the west, can still see a large marble block inscribed with four lines of Latin lying on the ground on the right-hand side of the passageway. It has been considerably restored, but two easily identified pieces of it are ancient. In its present position, on the ground, we cannot see the underside of the stone, but it contains a festoon of leaves and animals decorated in a grandiose fashion. The stone must have originally served as an architrave that covered a passageway. The inscription could be seen as one approached and the decoration could be seen as one passed underneath.
The inscription was restored between 1814 and 1822 and again, more accurately, in 1986. It refers to the repair of the building during the reigns of Theodosius II and Valentinian III in 443 or 444.
Salv[is dd.]nn. (= dominis nostris duobus) Theodosio et Placido V[alentiniano Augg.(= Augustis duobus)] / Rufi.[us] Caecina Felix Lampadius v(ir) c(larissimus) [et inl(ustris) praef(ectus) urbi] / har.[e]nam amphiteatri a novo una cum po[dio et pulpito (?) et portis] / p[ost]icis sed et reparatis spectaculi gradibus [ex sumptu suo restituit(?)].
“With our two lords, Theodosius and Placidus Valentianus Augusti, being well, Rufius Caecina Felix Lampadius, a most distinguished and illustrious prefect of the city, restored anew at his own expense the arena of the amphitheater together with the podium [the wall around the arena] and platform and rear doors, but also the tiers [of seats] repaired for viewing.”
However, scholars, starting with Fea, noticed that between the letters of this inscription there are a number of little holes, at most one centimeter deep and often only a few millimeters deep. There must once have been a previous inscription of metal letters that had been fastened to the marble by pegs, they concluded.
In 1986, two scholars published a diagram showing the distribution of the holes. The holes form three sets of parallel lines, not all equally long—27 holes in the first line, 22 in the second line, and 18 in the third, for a total of 67. Though visible, they are, for the most part, not well preserved, because the surface of both original fragments was apparently smoothed and deepened at the time the later inscription was engraved, perhaps to make the holes less obvious.
In 1995, Professor Géza Alföldy of the University of Heidelberg published a decipherment of the earlier inscription based on these holes. This is not the first time that original inscriptions have been detected beneath existing inscriptions and reconstructed on the basis of small holes that once attached the letters. Professor Alföldy himself has restored some of these phantom inscriptions, including an inscription on the aqueduct of Segovia in Spain. He has also confirmed an earlier reconstruction of the Vatican Obelisk inscription in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, where, as here, the original inscription (of 30 B.C.E.) consisted of metal letters (probably gilded bronze) that were replaced in 14 C.E. by an inscription that was chiselled into the stone. He is thus an expert in so-called “ghost epigraphy.”
To this observer, the result of Professor Alföldy’s reconstruction is insightful, albeit conjectural. As he himself recognizes, only about half of the holes have survived and a single hole or two could hold a variety of letters.
If all this makes it very difficult, another factor makes it much easier. Roman building inscriptions are extremely formulaic. Were it not for this fact, the task of re-creating this inscription would probably be impossible. Roman building inscriptions generally begin with the name of the ruler who constructed the building, followed by the name of the kind of building and the source of financing, to which various other details may be added.
From the drawing of the holes it is easy to see that there were originally three lines of text and that the inscription must have been quite short—approximately 50 to 70 letters.
Another thing that helps a little is that the later inscription securely establishes the relationship between the two fragments with holes, one very small fragment and the other much larger. In other words, the reconstruction of this later inscription, which is comparatively easy, tells us how much space there was between the two original marble fragments.
The two holes in the smaller fragment, one above the other, belong to the beginning of the first line. Their arrangement suggests an I, the beginning of the word Imperator—just what we would expect in a short building dedication. That exhausts the letters from the small fragment. Then there is a space between the fragments. The space has room for just the two letters MP, which complete the customary abbreviation for Imperator, emperor.
On the large fragment, Alföldy has restored a T on the basis of a hole near the bottom of the stem and another at the right hand of the crossbar. The hole for the left end of the crossbar of the T has not survived; it presumably appeared on the missing part of the stone between the two fragments. The T could be the abbreviation for Titus, under whom the building was dedicated in 80. It was customary for the emperor to take the name of his predecessor, in this case Vespasian, as part of his name. On the basis of succeeding holes, Alföldy restores the remainder of this line as CAES (the abbreviation for Caesar) and VESPASI. The last four letters of Vespasianus, the Latin for Vespasian, were on the part of the stone to the right, which has not survived. Similarly, Alföldy adds to this line the abbreviation for the remainder of Vespasian’s titulary: AVG, for Augustus.
The second line apparently contained a long word because there appears to be no word divider in the line. Dedicatory inscriptions often contain little triangles that serve as word dividers. Based on his study of the holes, Alföldy sees no hole for the peg of a word divider. (Note the word divider in the first line between “CAES” and “VESPASI.”) Thus, the 18 holes of the second line must belong to the letters of a single word. Here Alföldy has reconstructed AMPHITHEATRV[M]; only the M is missing. Alföldy suggests that on the right was probably the word NOVUM, thus designating the building: “New Amphitheater.”
In the third and final line, one would expect a closing formula—a reference to parts of the building, to the recipients of the building (i.e., the Roman people) or to the cost or the source of the financing for the building.
The small fragment tells us where each line of the inscription began, but we don’t have that part of the small fragment where the third line begins. We do, however, know how far to the left of the larger fragment the third line began, based on the small fragment. Alföldy concludes that only a couple of letters are missing from the beginning of the third line. If Professor Alföldy is right in conjecturing that this line contained information as to the source of the funding for the building, a word such as de or ex might well have been the preposition leading to the source of the funding. Alföldy suggests “EX,” “from.”
The next word is the key to the meaning of the inscription. Alföldy reconstructs MANVBI(I)S—booty! The hole for the base of the left stem of the M is missing—it must have been off the edge of the left side of the large fragment—but the holes for the other four points of the M are there. Then come three holes for the A. Then another three holes, two for the top and bottom of the left stem of the N and one for the point at the right bottom of this letter. This is followed by three holes for the V. Only one hole has survived for the B. Then there are two holes for the I. Two holes, one above the other, held pegs for the last letter of the word, S; one hole was for the upper curve and one for the lower curve of the letter. This spells MANVBIS, but the proper spelling is “manubiis”; Alföldy suggests that the I would have extended higher than the other letters, to signify, as is common in Latin inscriptions, a double I. Thus the word properly spelled: MANVBIIS. Apparently, the phrase ex manubiis was standard in dedications of monuments, if we may judge from the second-century antiquarian, Aulus Gellius (15.25.1), who remarks that “all along the roof of the colonnades of Trajan’s forum there are placed gilded statues of horses and representations of military standards, and underneath is written Ex manubiis.”
Manubiis means booty. The phrase EX MANVBIIS would indicate the source of the funding for the structure.
This would probably be followed by the well-known formula fieri iussit, “[he] ordered to be made.”
As reconstructed by Professor Alföldy, the inscription reads:
I[MP(ERATOR)] T(ITVS) CAES(AR) VESPASI[ANVS AVG(VSTVS)] / AMPHITHEATRV[M NOVVM?] /
[EX] MANVBI(I)S (vacat) [FIERI IVSSIT (?)]
“The Emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered the new amphitheater to be made from the (proceeds from the sale of the) booty.”
Each letter of the inscription would have been created separately. Sometimes they were formed from a mold that included the peg, but at other times they were sawed from a bronze plate; the pegs were later wrought and attached. Letters produced in this way were by no means identical. Often the letters were created by several different craftsmen, introducing additional variations.
One other peculiarity: Note that the T and the C at the beginning of the first line appear crowded together. Alföldy suggests that this was because the T was not there originally. The inscription, except for the T, was placed there by Vespasian before the more formal dedication of the building in 80 C.E. Even during Vespasian’s reign games were held there, although the structure was not quite finished. A chronicler writing in the fourth century states that the building was actually dedicated by Vespasian, although it was supplemented by Titus. When Titus succeeded Vespasian in 79 C.E. and added the two top tiers that essentially completed the building, he naturally wanted to include his own name in the dedicatory inscription, which he did by squeezing in the T for Titus.
According to Alföldy, when Titus arranged to have the letter T inserted, the C, the A and the E (of CAES) were moved and fastened in the following fashion: The peg that in the first version had held the C was in the second version employed for the T. Above and to the right a new peg was inserted in order to hold the T better. To strengthen the additional punctuation mark (a period), a new peg was inserted after the T. As for the letters CAE, the original A was held by three pegs. In the second version the two left pegs were used for the C. The third peg served to fasten the A. In the upper curve of the C and in the point of the A, a new peg was inserted to hold these letters better. The E in both versions was fastened with one and the same peg. Thus a change was made only in the position of the letters, which in the second version must have been moved somewhat further to the right.
It may at first seem surprising that such a short inscription served as the dedication for such a magnificent building. Alföldy suggests that there was no more room on the architrave above the particular entrance or gateway where this inscription was placed. This suggestion is supported by the fact that the inscription was found at one of the side gates of the Colosseum in the interior of the building. This inscription was probably a very much abbreviated version of a larger inscription on the podium that contained the full nomenclature of the ruler, Imp(erator) Titus Caesar Divi Vespasiani f(ilius) Vespasianus Augustus; it would also have included his full titles of office with the number of times he held that office, as well as the most important individual parts of the building, such as the arena, the podium, the levels and the gates; finally it would have stated that the building was begun by Vespasian and was financed from the manubiae (the nominative; manubiis, as in ex manubiis, is ablative). It would presumably close with a mention of the grandiose spectacles with which the building was dedicated and which are mentioned by later writers.
While Professor Alföldy’s reconstruction is admittedly conjectural, it has been endorsed by two of the most outstanding scholars in the field of Roman history and epigraphy, Fergus Miller of Oxford University and Werner Eck of the University of Cologne. Eck, whose expertise is precisely in the field of reconstructing inscriptions such as ours that have been removed in order to be replaced by others, writes that Alföldy’s reconstruction is truly convincing, and Millar speaks of it as “spectacular” and asserts that no hesitation need be felt over it.
Moreover, Alföldy’s reconstruction is also consistent with what we might expect, considering the history and the customs of the time. We focus on what is clearly the most significant word in the restored inscription, manubiis, which indicates that the work was paid for from the manubiae, that is the sale of booty. Successful Roman generals of the late Republican era, including Marius, Lucullus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, often legally acquired enormous fortunes from the booty they took in their military campaigns. In a document listing his achievements, Augustus states that in his fifth consulship (29 B.C.E.), he gave out of his spoils of war a thousand sesterces to each soldier settled in colonies and that on his own private land he built a temple to Mars and the Augustan Forum; in the temples in the Capitol, he consecrated gifts from the spoils of war that cost him about 100 million sesterces. Augustus’s successor Tiberius used the money that he received from the sale of his spoils (de manubiis) to restore the Temple of Concord and of Castor and Pollux.
Closer to our case, in 63 B.C.E. the Roman general Pompey intervened in a civil war in Judea in which he besieged and finally captured the Jerusalem Temple. Although he did not take any of the Temple treasure, he presented his companions in arms with what Josephus calls “splendid rewards.”
The custom seems to have continued during the reigns of the Flavian emperors with whom we are concerned here, as evidenced by the extensive discussion Aulus Gellius devotes to the meaning of the word manubiae.
The financial pressure on Vespasian must have been tremendous, if we may trust the testimony of Suetonius, who states that Vespasian found the treasury and the privy purse in such a desperate state that he declared at the beginning of his reign that forty billion sesterces (certainly billions of dollars in modern purchasing power) were needed to set the state upright financially. This enormous deficit is the largest sum of money ever mentioned in antiquity. He was consequently driven by necessity to raise money from military spoils (manubiae, precisely the word used in the Colosseum inscription, as reconstructed by Professor Alföldy) and other plunder (rapinae).
The next question is from what war Vespasian and Titus would have obtained their manubiae. They were of course successive generals of the Roman forces sent to Palestine to suppress the Great Jewish Revolt (66–70 C.E.), which effectively ended with the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple.
Prior to being named general in Judea, however, Vespasian had commanded a legion in Germany and had fought some 30 battles in Britain. But there is no indication that there was much valuable booty to be acquired in either of these places. After leaving the command in Judea to Titus, Vespasian as emperor dispatched Petillius Cerealis to put down a revolt in Germany. Vespasian also sent his younger son Domitian to squelch a revolt in Gaul; and he sent Rubrius Gallus to punish the Sarmatians, who had invaded Moesia (modern Serbia and Bulgaria). But these were not achievements of Vespasian himself, and in any case there is no indication that there was in any of these countries much booty to be taken. As for Titus, there is no indication that he had served as a general prior to his service in Judea.
By contrast, we know that the Romans acquired tremendous treasures in their conquest of Judea, especially in Jerusalem, and above all from the Temple, which Herod had renovated at extraordinary expense and which was still being reconstructed almost on the very eve of its destruction in 70 C.E. The Letter of Aristeas states that the Temple “was built with a lavishness and sumptuousness beyond all precedent. From the construction of the doorway and its fastenings to the door-posts and the solid nature of the lintel, it was obvious that no expense had been spared.”
The Talmud states that “he who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never in his life seen a beautiful building.” In his description of the exterior of the Temple, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus remarks that it lacked nothing that could astound either one’s soul or one’s eyes. “Being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold,” he adds, “the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from solar rays.”
Moreover, the Temple had been the recipient of countless gifts. Thus, we are told that King Monobazus of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia had handles made of gold for all the vessels used on the Day of Atonement and that his mother, Helena, set a golden candlestick over the door of the sanctuary. Among Roman leaders who gave valuable gifts to the Temple were Sosius, , Marcus Agrippa and Augustus.
We hear specifically of treasures that were delivered over to the victorious Romans by priests, including lampstands, tables, bowls and platters, all of solid gold and very massive, as well as many other treasures and sacred ornaments. In particular, Josephus asserts that the altar and lampstand, both made of gold, weighed no less than two talents (approximately 66 pounds). When the Temple was razed the Romans burnt the treasury chambers, “in which lay infinite [apeiron, ‘boundless’] sums of money, infinite [again the word used is apeiroi] piles of raiment, and other valuables; for this, in short, was the general repository of Jewish wealth, to which the rich had consigned the contents of their dismantled houses.” The Romans presumably saved for themselves at least some of these valuables.
Many people donated houses and fields to the Temple, which were then sold and the proceeds deposited in the Temple treasury. Moreover, the Temple served as a bank for widows and orphans, who entrusted their deposits to it.
According to Exodus 30:11–16, every male Jew over the age of 20 had to contribute a half shekel to the Temple each year. If, as there is good reason to believe, the number of Jews was somewhere between four and eight million, and if, as apparently was the case, the great majority of Jews faithfully contributed this amount, the total collected must have been enormous. Cicero mentions that in four cities of Asia Minor (a province that was admittedly wealthy but probably not the wealthiest) 220 pounds of gold intended for the Temple were seized by the Roman governor Flaccus in 59 B.C.E.
According to Josephus, in the year 54 B.C.E., Crassus carried off the 2,000 talents that Pompey had left untouched in Jerusalem and was prepared to strip the sanctuary of all its gold, which totaled 8,000 talents. This would have been the equivalent today of perhaps tens of millions of dollars.
During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, Josephus relates, gold was so abundant in the city that one could purchase for 12 Attic drachmas what had previously cost 25. Some Jews actually swallowed gold coins to prevent their discovery by the Jewish revolutionaries and then, escaping to the Romans, discharged their bowels. When a rumor ran through the Roman camp that the deserters had come full of gold, an Arab and Syrian rabble cut open no fewer than 2,000 deserters in one night to search their intestines.
When the Romans entered the Temple court, “so glutted with plunder were the troops, one and all, that throughout Syria the standard of gold was depreciated to half its former value.”
Moreover, according to Josephus, 97,000 Jews were taken prisoner during the war with the Romans (this may be the source of the tradition, otherwise unattested, that Jews actually built the Colosseum); of those over 17 years of age many were sent to work in Egypt, while those under 17 were sold. The amount thus raised must have been considerable, especially since we may assume that Jews paid large sums of money to ransom their fellow Jews, inasmuch as ransoming of captives is regarded by the rabbis of the Talmud as of paramount importance, so that even money that has been set aside for charitable purposes or for building a synagogue may be used to ransom captives.
A Dead Sea Scroll discovered in 1952 in Qumran Cave 3, engraved on two copper sheets (the so-called Copper Scroll), lists treasures of many tons of silver and gold, as well as other valuables, amounting to approximately 4,500 talents (possibly as much as 100,000 kilograms) or perhaps the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars. Is this imaginary, or is there some basis to this account? John Allegro and, most recently, Al Wolters have argued that a fictional account would not have been laboriously inscribed on such an expensive material nor composed in such a dry bookkeeping style. Wolters, together with the majority of recent scholars, concludes that the treasure is authentic, dates from before 68 C.E., and belonged to either the Qumran community or the Jerusalem Temple. He thinks that the latter is more likely, since the enormous size of the treasure could have come only from the vast wealth of the Temple. Of course, there is no guarantee that even if such a treasure existed it was found by the Romans and transported to Rome.
After Jerusalem was finally conquered, Titus gave orders to his officers to read out the names of all those who had performed any brilliant feat during the war. When their names were called, Titus “placed crowns of gold upon their heads, presented them with golden neck-chains, little golden spears and standards made of silver … He further assigned to them out of the spoils [laphura, the technical term for spoils taken in war] silver and gold and raiments and other plunder in abundance.”
We read, furthermore, that he then descended with his army to the seaport of Caesarea, where he deposited the bulk of his spoils, presumably for transport to Italy. Moreover, upon returning from a visit to Antioch after the capture of Jerusalem, Josephus writes: “Of the vast wealth of the city no small portion was still being discovered among the ruins. Much of this the Romans dug up, but the greater part they became possessed of through the information of the prisoners, gold and silver and other most precious articles, which the owners in view of the uncertain fortunes of war had stored underground.”
Josephus says that it is impossible to describe the diversity of riches that were displayed in the triumphal procession in Rome after Jerusalem was destroyed—silver and gold in masses flowing like a river. “The spoils in general,” he says, “were borne in promiscuous heaps; but conspicuous above all stood out those captured in the temple at Jerusalem.” The reliefs on the Arch of Titus apparently depict only a small portion of the spoil taken by the Romans. According to Josephus, Vespasian deposited the vessels of gold from the Temple in the Temple of Peace that he established in the Roman Forum, but almost nothing has remained of this building. Josephus adds that Vespasian deposited the Law (nomos), presumably a Torah scroll, of the Jews and the purple hangings of the sanctuary of the Temple in his palace.
None of our sources, unfortunately, mention the source of the financing for the Colosseum. In Josephus’s case, that may have been because of his eagerness to present Titus as generous and mild toward the Jews. Remember that Josephus was a Palestinian Jew living in Rome under the patronage of the emperor when he wrote his history of the Jewish War.
To be sure, Hegesippus, the fourth-century author of a free paraphrase of, significantly, Josephus’s Jewish War, refers to “the distinguished Josephus, who with his historian’s stylus, narrated events up to the burning of the Temple and the manubiae of Titus Caesar.” He uses the phrase manubias Titi Caesaris, “the booty of Titus Caesar,” as if it were a household expression.
Moreover, the Colosseum was not the only structure built from the money of the spoils. According to a sixth-century Christian historian, John Malalas, out of the spoils from Judea Vespasian built in Antioch, outside the city gate, what are known as the Cherubim, so called because he placed there the cherubim that Titus had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem. He also built in Antioch the theater of Daphne, inscribing on it “Ex praeda Iudaea,” that is, “from the Judean booty,” having destroyed a synagogue that was located at the site, in order to insult the Jews. Malalas also notes that Vespasian built in Caesarea, likewise from the spoils from Judea, a very large odeum, or concert hall, the size of a large theater on a site of what had formerly been a synagogue.
It is true that the various holes in the “ghost inscription” could represent many possible letters and that the reconstruction is therefore conjectural. But the restoration does fit with the formulaic expressions usual in this kind of inscription, and it does fit with the huge amount of booty taken by Titus in the Jewish War. Moreover, for Vespasian and Titus to use their manubiae to build the Colosseum was not only the best means to finance this enormous project but also a way to advertise their military achievements.
The philosopher Seneca is quoted by Augustine, alluding to the spread of Judaism in the ancient world, as saying, “Victi victoribus leges dederunt,” “The conquered have given laws to the victors.” If Professor Alföldy’s reconstruction of this inscription is valid, the Jews, although conquered, also were the source of the money with which the most magnificent building constructed by the Roman Empire, the Colosseum, was financed.
Connecting the Dots: Deciphering the Colosseum Inscription
Sidebar to: Financing the Colosseum
The drawings shown here explain how scholar Geza Alföldy, a specialist in reconstructing “ghost” inscriptions, was able to deduce the wording on the Colosseum’s original dedication. Today, the stone slab bears a fifth-century C.E. inscription carved into the rock that describes a series of repairs to the structure (drawing A, above; the darker tint indicates the surviving portion of the inscription). But Alföldy and others had noted the presence of holes in the stone along three pairs of parallel lines (drawing B).
The holes once held pegs onto which metal letters were fastened. Through meticulous work Alföldy arrived at the phrases that had once adorned the rock; these are shown superimposed on the inscription visible today (drawing C).
Not only did Alföldy determine the original inscription, but he deduced that two emperors, Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79 C.E.) and his son Titus (ruled 79 to 81 C.E.), had a hand in its wording: The first line of Vespasian’s dedication read “IMP CAES VESPASIANUS AVG” (Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus) (drawing D); Titus, who added two levels to the Colosseum, only needed to add a “T.” (for Titus) to make the phrase his own.
Titus had the C and the A from “CAES” moved to the right just enough to squeeze in the T and a small triangle that functioned as a modern period—making it serve as his initial (drawing E; the holes marked in green were added to make the “T.” fit; the holes marked in red were the original holes in “CAES”).
The result—a “new”dedication attributing the construction of the Colosseum to Titus but still explaining that it was done ex manubiis, with the proceeds from the spoils of war. In the accompanying article, author Louis Feldman suggests that the war from which those spoils came was the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66–70 C.E., when Titus destroyed the Jerusalem Temple.