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Travelling for culture: the Grand Tour
Travelling for culture: the Grand Tour

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1.3 The Colosseum on a Roman coin

Martial’s poetry is one useful piece of evidence for how the Colosseum might have been regarded in antiquity – but of course, it is just one man’s viewpoint, and any study of the ancient world must remember to treat all sources carefully, rather than taking them at face value. The poems offer an unambiguously positive and impressive vision of the amphitheatre, but we must remember that Martial might have been exaggerating the impact of the building and its inaugural games in order to seek the new emperor’s favour. To gain a more complete understanding, we need to look to other pieces of evidence, such as the coin in Figure 2. This coin is dated to 80 CE, so, like the poem, it is associated with the opening of the amphitheatre. On its obverse side (the image on the left), it depicts the emperor Titus in a toga, surrounded by weapons and armour. The inscription round the edge (with greatly abbreviated words) lists his various titles, including emperor, chief priest, and ‘father of the fatherland’.

This image shows both sides of a small copper coin. On the left, one side of the coin is depicted, showing a male figure wearing a toga, seated and facing his left. He is surrounded by a variety of objects which appear to be shields and other weapons. Letters around the edge of the coin spell out an inscription in Latin. On the right of the image, the other side of the coin is depicted. It appears to show a large circular building, as if viewed from a slightly elevated position. On the outside of the building, there appear to be four storeys, each consisting of a row of archways. The inside of the building can be seen, also represented by several different levels, and containing many small dots which may represent people.
Figure 2 Copper alloy coin of Titus, 80–81 CE, British Museum, London 1844,0425.712.

Activity 2

What does the other side of the coin (the reverse) show? How might we use this coin as evidence for our understanding of the amphitheatre and its cultural significance in the ancient world?

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Discussion

The reverse of the coin shows the Colosseum, and though there is clearly limited space for a detailed depiction of the structure on such a small object, you might have noticed the effects of showing the amphitheatre from an elevated angle. Not only can the distinctive exterior of the building be seen but so can its interior, with a mass of tiny dots indicating the crowds at the games, and thus underlining its importance as a venue for mass gatherings and shared entertainment. Singling out the Colosseum as a subject for depiction on a coin shows how important it was for Titus to be associated with it. Not only that but the very nature of coins as objects that would be spread around the empire, passed hand to hand far beyond Rome itself, makes them valuable tools for propaganda.

The coin, then, offers a different perspective on the Colosseum, and shows how it was used to symbolise Roman imperial strength and magnificence right from the beginning.