the stories that the pieces of marble can tell are amazing. Read how scholars have deciphered the meanings of some inscriptions found in the Colosseum.
Iunius Valerius Bellicius
… the arena was once again repaired between 417 and 423 by the Praefectus Urbi Iunius Valerius Bellicius…
How do we know this? It is an interesting story.
When the arena was unearthed in the XIX century archaeologists found fragments of a long inscription (CIL, VI, 32085) commemorating the repairs made to the amphitheatre by emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III (Western Roman Emperor from 425 to 455). The inscription, carved on marble blocks, consisted of one line of text repeated twice all around the arena, so that the spectators could read it completely from any point of the terraces. We have only a few letters left of the inscription (see picture on the right).
This inscription, however, had been carved on top of an older one, that had been erased. The discovery of other fragments and a more careful reading of the erased letters allowed deciphering most of the first text.
André Chastagnol, French historian and epigraphist, found out that some words of the older text could be related to the age of co-rulers Honorius and Theodosius II (between 408 and 423). Since these emperors are defined invictissimi (never defeated) and this word was used elsewhere in 416-417 to celebrate Honorius’ victory against the Vandals, it is reasonable that the inscription dates back to those years.
There’s more: the fragments of the words “Vale-” and “-cius” have been attributed to the name of the Praefectus Urbi Iunius Valerius Bellicius, the only one of that age whose name matched with these letters. And we also have more information: two inscriptions mention the same Valerius as the one who repaired some of the Prefecture buildings.
The recent re composition of the word “area” suggests that the repairs regarded also the surrounding area, which is consistent with the archaeological findings of the XIX century.
Other details of the inscription are still being discussed, as basically there are too few fragments to decipher other words.
In any case this first inscription didn’t last for long. After a few years the blocks were removed and repositioned with the second text (CIL, VI, 32086-87) commemorating further repairs. ( We know that the blocks were actually removed because the letters of the new text are placed upside down on some of them.
As we know, the epigraphists dated this second inscription back to the age of Theodosius II and Valentinian III, i.e. between 425 and 455, when they were emperors respectively of the Eastern Empire and of the Western one, because they reconstructed the words of the conventional phrase “Pro felicitate dd. nn. Theodosii et Placidi Valentiniani perpetuorum invictissimorum principum” (=to the prosperity of our masters Theodosius and Placidus Valentinian, forever invincible emperors).
In the text is also mentioned one “Flavius Pa-“. One Flavius Paulus was Praefectus Urbi in 438, so if he is the one mentioned here – as Chastagnol proposes – he might have been the one who repaired the Colosseum after an earthquake reported in 429. But it could have been also another unknown person who later on repaired the amphitheatre after it was hit by another tremendous earthquake in 443, when many buildings in Rome were destroyed. This last hypothesis was until now prevalent, but the recent discoveries make it less probable.
In this latter case Flavius Pa- could have acted together with Praefectus Urbi Rufius Cecina Felix Lampadius, who is mentioned in another inscription.
Rufius Cecina Felix Lampadius
Between 425 and 450, probably after the 443 earthquake, Lampadius carried out more restoration works on the arena, the podium and on the terraces at his own expense, as he had inscribed on the marble. This is the text:
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(?)].
We already know the dd. nn. “Theodosii et Placidi Valentiniani” phrase. The scholars are debating the exact meaning of p[osti]cis: service doors? Fake doors for the bestiarii to escape the wild beasts?
Another puzzling question: in October 444, one year after the earthquake, Valentinian III celebrated his vicennalia (20 years of rule). How could they have repaired the amphitheatre in such a short time?
However, this particular Lampadius inscription is also important because it had been carved on a slab that had a former inscription made of bronze letters. These letters left holes in the marble and these holes were deciphered in 1995 by scholar Geza Alföldy, a specialist in reconstructing “ghost” inscriptions.
It was then found that the bronze inscription commemorated the original dedication of the amphitheatre by Vespasian, with the confirmation that the Colosseum was built with the spoils of war, i.e. the booty of the Palestinian war and the plundering of the Temple of Jerusalem. Here is the the old inscription (actually, two slightly different versions):
Messius Phoebus Severus
Another incomplete inscription commemorates the repairs carried out by patrician Messius Phoebus Severus in 470 (CIL VI 32,091).
An]themio p(er)p(etui)s Augg(ustis) Messius Phoe[bus Severus] / [v(ir) c(larissimus)] et inl(ustris) [p(raefectus)] u(rbi) patric(iu)s co[nsul ordin(arius) hare]nam(?) amphitheatri longi temp[oris 3] / [3 restitutam 3]TIE[3 fu]isset extinctum pro beatitudin[e saeculi
Here the epigraphists really have a hard time, as they find hints in the word “extinctum” to imagine that the restoration of the amphitheatre (and of the shows – despised by the christians) could have been a political stance of Phoebus, who was a pagan collaborator of Emperor Anthemius, who just in that year 470 had discovered a plot to kill him.
Decius Marius Venantius Basilius
The last restoration works mentioned are the ones paid by the Praefectus Urbi Decius Marius Venantius Basilius after an earthquake.
Decius Marius Venantius Basilius v(ir) c(larissimus) et inl(ustris) praef(ectus) urb(i) patricius consul ordinarius arenam et podium quae abominandi terrae motus ruina prostravit sum(p)tu proprio restituit
“Decius Marius Venantius Basilius very famous and well known prefect of the city, patrician, regular consul, repaired the arena and the podium which a dreaded movement of the earth had cast into ruin, at his own expense.”
The problem here is that there have been many senators with the same name who were consuls in different years, and there are no sources recording an earthquake in those years. So generally Venantius is identified with the consul of year 484, though there was another consul with that name in 508 during Theoderic (454 – 526) reign. However, archaeologists generally prefer to date this inscription to the second Basilius, since in Theoderic times there was an interest in maintaining ancient building, but there is no the usual mention of the king (and that seems strange); on the other hand Venantius Basilius paid from his pocket …
The main source for this page is Il Colosseo – AA. VV. – Care of Ada Gabucci, Electa, Milan 1999