When was the Colosseum built?
Some myths (aka factoids) about the Roman world are so ingrained that I have begun to despair of ever unseating them. Pride of place -- beyond even the dormouse consumption, or the vomiting between dinner courses -- must go to the idea that the Colosseum was always there, pretty much as long as Rome was Rome.
In fact, that's what even some of our brightest and best seem to assume. In a nice article skewering the 2012 Olympics hype a few weeks ago, Simon Jenkins referred to the recent cabinet visit to the Olympic site. "The Olympics are now being so oversold" he wrote, "as to risk self-parody. Not since Nero hauled his court to the Colosseum has anything been sillier than David Cameron holding a Cabinet meeting yesterday at Stratford to discuss rebellion in a distant province of his empire, Scotland."
And then, just this morning, on "Thought for the Day" the excellent Michael Banner of Trinity Coll, Cambridge, talked of the Romans during the lifetime of Jesus watching the gladiatorial games in the Colosseum.
Both were as eloquent as usual. The trouble is that the Colosseum was not built in the reign of Nero (54-68), still less in the lifetime of Jesus (his earthly lifetime that is). It wasn't even an apple in any designer's eye. And there is no possibility whatsoever that Nero could have hauled his court off there, Cameron-style.
No, the Colosseum was not started until the reign of Vespasian (69-79 AD), and it wasnt actually inaugurated until 80 AD, under his son Titus. It was built by this brand new Flavian dynasty, using the profits that they had accrued from brutally quashing the Jewish revolt, and carrying off to Rome the Jewish treasures (and captives).
It might look like a bit of Neronian megalomania, but actually it was built by the Flavians as a way of countering the excesses of Nero. That is to say they built it on the site of the great lake that was one of the centrepoints of Nero's vast palace and pleasure gardens known as the "Golden House". This palace had been one of the PR disasters of the reign; people complained that it took up the whole city, pushing out the rest of the population to house just one man in style. "Romans flee to Veii," one piece of graffiti ran, '"the whole city's becoming just one house."
In truth, the Flavians went on living in part of Nero's palace, but they made a vast bid for public approval by draining his lake and erecting a vast arena on the spot: the message was that the Flavians were making over to public use what Nero had monopolised for his own private (aquatic) pleasures.
So no Nero in the Colosseum, and none of those citizens of the time of Jesus. Thet were watching their gladiators in much smaller, often temporary locations.
. . . oh, another thing about the Colosseum. I think I'm right to say that we can't identify for certain, from any reasonably reliable contemporary evidence, a single Christian martyr put to death there. Sure, some were, but a lot more were invented later.. and we cant actually be sure who was who, and which was which. We can actually list more confidently those martyred in Carthage or Lyons.
So remember all this next time you watch a movie featuring Nero presiding over a lions v Christians show in the Colosseum.