Rome exhibition focuses on emperor’s public works

ROME — Ancient Rome’s solution to an economic crisis was simple: Tax toilets. Plunder a rebellious province. And with the proceeds, build a massive arena where gladiators and bloodsports could keep people entertained.

An exhibition that opened today tells the story of the Flavian dynasty, marking 2,000 years from the birth of its founder, Emperor Vespasian, who launched a major public works program carried on by his sons, Titus and Domitian.

“It’s quite relevant, considering the current economic situation,” said Filippo Coarelli, the archaeologist who curated the exhibition.

The show is housed in the Colosseum, the most ambitious and best-preserved of Vespasian’s building projects.

“He was a builder that changed the face of Rome,” Coarelli said.

Born in A.D. 9 near Rieti, north of Rome, Flavius Vespasianus was a general leading legions against the Jewish revolt in Judea when the tyrannical Emperor Nero killed himself during an uprising in A.D. 68.

Civil war ensued, with three successive rulers within one year. Vespasian left the siege of Jerusalem to his son, Titus, and eliminated the last of his opponents.

The civil war and Nero’s lavish spending had left a huge hole in the empire’s budget, while Rome was still recovering from the fire that ravaged it in A.D. 64.

Vespasian, the son of a tax collector, cut spending and created new tributes, including a toll on the public toilets, known as vespasians, that he had disseminated in the city. Criticized for the move, the emperor supposedly responded in Latin: “pecunia non olet” — money doesn’t smell.

More funds came from Titus’ conquest of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, when the city and its temple were overrun and torched. A parade of the spoils is depicted on the triumphal arch dedicated to Titus by his brother, Domitian.

The Colosseum exhibition focuses on the public works program and includes the remains of a giant marble map once affixed to Vespasian’s Temple of Peace to guide visitors through statues, inscriptions and fragments of wonders built by the dynasty.

The Flavian Amphitheater, only later dubbed the Colosseum, was the jewel in the crown. With a capacity of 75,000 it was inaugurated by Titus in A.D. 80, a year after Vespasian’s death, with games that lasted 100 days.

The arena was built over Nero’s private lake — a sign Vespasian “wanted to give back to the people the areas expropriated by his predecessor,” Coarelli said.

But the Colosseum was also a symbol of a “populist” government, the curator said. The imperial system was criticized at the time by the satiric poet Juvenal, who lamented the people of Rome had given up their freedom for “bread and circuses.”

The exhibit is called “Divus Vespasianus,” or the Divine Vespasian in Latin, because like other popular emperors Vespasian was made a god after his death. The show runs through Jan. 10 and admission is $16.

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