Roman Art during the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD). The Colosseum

After the end of the Augustan dynasty, with the death of Nero about the year 69 AD, another royal dynasty inaugurated the second period of the Roman Empire.  Vespasian was the first emperor of the Flavian family and was succeeded by Titus and Domitian.

The Flavian emperors ordered large constructions on the spaces previously occupied by buildings planned by Nero, especially on his Domus Aurea.  In general all buildings ordered by Nero, by this time abandoned and almost in ruins, were transformed by the Flavian emperors into constructions for public use.

Reconstruction of the Colosseum, with the Colossus of Nero to the right.
The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater. Its construction began under Vespasian in 70 AD and was completed in 80 AD under his successor Titus, with further modifications during the reign of Domitian (81–96).

In the place occupied by the gardens and the Colossus of Nero, Vespasian and Titus built the Flavian Amphitheater or Colosseo, which is still the most gigantic ruin preserved in Rome.  The amphitheater, with its elliptical shape, is a genuinely Roman-type building.  However, the shape of the Colosseum comes from the Greek theater.  Indeed an amphitheater is just the union of two coupled theaters.  A grandstand surrounds the building and leads to each one of its floors.  The Flavian Amphitheater, the greatest of all the Roman world, had four floors and the highest was internally enclosed by a colonnade.  Almost all the Colosseum was built of carved stone, its vaults were of concrete mortar, and the lower part had a monumental portico. A clever combination of stairs allowed the near forty thousand spectators to exit the building in just a few minutes.  Externally, the Flavian Amphitheatre had an elegant overlay of the three architectural orders: Doric the lower floor, Ionic the second, and Corinthian the top two, which interrupted the monotony of the exterior facades.  Also, the lower three floors had open arcades which reduced the impression of heaviness of the huge mass of the construction.

The Colosseum arena, showing the hypogeum, its elaborate underground structure.
The facade of the Colosseum showing its overlay of the three architectural orders.
Diagram showing a cross section and the internal layout of the Colosseum.

 

The Arch of Titus with the Colosseum in the background.

In front of the Colosseum (or Colosseo as Romans call it) and at the entrance of the ancient Roman Forum was a triumphal arch built as a testimony of Emperor Titus’ campaigns in Asia.  The Arch of Titus was erected to commemorate the capture and destruction of rebellious Jerusalem in 70 AD, and has served as the general prime model for the design of many of the triumphal arches erected after the XVI century, like the 1836 Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Externally, the arch has little decoration, just some reliefs in the frieze and the two top corners over the entrance, but on its inside walls there are two historical reliefs of great artistic and technical quality.  In one of them is the triumphant chariot procession with the Emperor’s carriage which is preceded by two figures: one with helmet, holding the horse’s bridle, apparently the personification of Rome, and another of a semi-naked genius who must be the same representation of the Roman Senatus or Populus also found in the frieze of the Ara Pacis.  In the second relief was represented other part of the triumphal procession: a group of servants who carry the utensils from the temple of Jerusalem taken as war trophies: the table for the bread, glasses and trumpets for the Jewish worship, and finally the famous seven-branched candelabrum or Menorah.

The Arch of Titus built in 82 AD., is located on the Via Sacra, just to the south-east of the Roman Forum.
“The Emperor Titus riding his chariot”, internal relief of the Arch of Titus.
The victorious Romans exhibit trophies from the capture of Jerusalem, internal relief of the Arch of Titus.

The most important feature of these two reliefs is the skillful combination of full bulk figures in the foreground with those simply “drawn” on the almost flat relief of the background; between both there is an “air” layer that produces an extraordinary illusion of perspective.  This clever use of perspective wasn’t fully developed until Roman art, particularly during the Flavian period.  The polychrome that existed on the Arch of Titus’ reliefs must have contributed to this effect of illusionism and perspective.

The Flavian emperors also built thermal baths known as the Baths of Titus.  In honor of the emperor Domitian a large equestrian statue* was also erected in the Forum.

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*Equestrian statue: A statue of a rider mounted on a horse. A full-size equestrian statue is a difficult and expensive object for any culture to produce, and figures have typically been portraits of rulers or, more recently, military commanders.

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