The Roman Empire
Titus, Colosseum Opening

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Coin Details

Origin/Country: ANCIENT - ROMAN EMPIRE (1st CENT BC - 5th CENT AD) ROMAN EMPIRE Titus, AD 79-81
Design Description: Titus Denarius Colosseum Inaugural Issue
Item Description: AR Denarius 'opening of Colosseum' rv elephant stg.
Full Grade: NGC Ch VF Strike: 5/5 Surface: 5/5
Owner: Kohaku

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Roman Empire
Competitive Sets: This coin is not competing in any sets.
Research: NGC Coin Price Guide

Owner Comments:

Ask anyone for an image that they associate with the Roman Empire, and they would likely think of the Colosseum. A truly colossal accomplishment, the Amphitheatrum Flavium accommodated an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 spectators. Its outer wall of travertine blocks stood 50 m high and measured 550 m in circumference. It even featured a retractable awning called the velarium, comprising an intricate web of canvas hung on 240 wooden masts, affording fans protection from the sun and rain. Such a massive project required commensurately massive financing, not to mention highly advanced civil planning and mechanical engineering.

The ancient Romans earned fame for their sophisticated engineering accomplishments. Some techniques they developed on their own, while others, like much of Rome’s culture, evolved from Greek origins. For instance, Roman engineers upgraded the weight-bearing ability of arches by limiting their circular arc < 180 degrees. Such innovations facilitated construction of world-record-breaking aqueducts, sewer systems, and transportation networks. Some ancient Roman roads and bridges are still used today. Equally impressive and long lasting were ancient Roman innovations related to mining (e.g., the use of hydraulics, employed up to at least the mid 19th century California Gold Rush), material science (e.g., the invention of concrete), and power generation (e.g., unprecedented advancements in water wheel technology).

Engineering fundamentals were especially ingrained in the Roman military. Beyond rapid deployment via construction of fortifications, bridges, and roads, this expertise allowed the ancient Romans to stay on the cutting edge of weaponry and siege equipment. Such engineering marvels played an integral role in advancing Rome’s glory, even if surprisingly little is known regarding the individuals responsible. Among the most prominent was an artilleryman named Vitruvius, who lived during the period when Rome transformed from Republic to Empire, and whose De architectura, dedicated to Augustus himself, represents the oldest such treatise. Another famous ancient Roman engineer was Agrippa, the trusted military ally of Augustus who credited him with turning Rome into a city of marble.

Not surprisingly, many of Rome’s Augusti exploited their Empire’s engineering expertise to achieve political and/or military gain. One such ruler was Vespasian, whose extensive use of siege engines facilitated conquests in Britannia (43 AD) and the first Jewish-Roman war (66-73 AD). The latter conflict, culminating in a horrific siege of Jerusalem and plunder of its famed Temple, provided for enormous riches and many tens of thousands of slaves. Leveraging this enormous war booty, Augustus Vespasian began construction on the largest amphitheater the world had even seen.

The site chosen for construction was at the center of the Eternal City. Once densely populated, the valley between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine Hills suffered extensive damage in the devastating 64 AD fire. Subsequently, Emperor Nero repurposed the area for his Domus Aurea (Golden House), a grandiose palace replete with extensive gold leaf detailing and mosaic-covered ceilings. For that ambitious project, Nero employed many talented architects and engineers, including Celer and Severus, early adopters of concrete construction. Among the pair’s many impressive achievements was a revolving ceiling beneath the large central dome. Even the landscaping pushed the limits of Roman engineering. The estate included a large artificial lake, thanks to a canal routed from the Aqua Claudia aqueduct. Arguably most egregious of all, Nero erected a huge statue of himself in guise of the Roman sun god Sol. Commissioned to a Greek craftsman named Zenodorus, the Colossus Neronis (the Colossus of Nero), stood at least 30 m, comparable to the modern statue in New York Harbor patterned after the Roman goddess Libertas.

Although Vespasian ruled for a decade, he did not see his amphitheater’s completion. The project might have been accelerated, if only the Emperor heeded the advice of an engineer who sought support for a promising new technology, the details of which are, unfortunately, uncertain. Instead of potentially heralding an industrial revolution, Vespasian refused to utilize a new invention that might put people out of work. As it turned out, the great amphitheater was completed during the reign of Vespasian’s eldest son, Titus. Such a lengthy building phase reflected the massive scope of the project. An estimated 100,000 cubic meters of travertine blocks were required, carried in from a quarry 30 km away. Rather than mortared, blocks were connected by several hundred tons of iron grips. There were eighty entrances that fed into numerous vomitoria (passageways leading to specific seating sections), designed such that even a capacity crowd could evacuate in minutes. It is important to note that the Amphitheatrum Flavium was part of a greater complex of supporting facilities built concurrently or added afterwards. These included the Ludus Magnus (a gladiator academy), the Ludus Matutinus (a fighting animal training center), the Armamentarium (an armory), the Summum Choragium (a machine storage facility), the Sanitarium (a hospital), and the Spoliarium (a gladiator recycling center, of sorts). Rome’s newest sports complex even retained the Colossus Neronis, remodeled with a sun-ray crown and renamed the Colossus Solis. (As a side note, the modern moniker of Colosseum may have originally referred to Zenodorus’ statue, rather than the amphitheater’s size). Also of particular note was a hypogeum, a vast underground structure built by Titus’ successor, his brother Domitian. Although the amphitheater could no longer be flooded to host navalia proelia (simulated naval battles), the hypogeum allowed for animals, gladiators, scenery, and other props to appear and disappear before the crowds’ very eyes, thanks to a complex array of tunnels and ancient elevators.

In 80 AD, Augustus Titus hosted the Amphitheatrum Flavium’s grand opening. Remarkably, attendance was free, although everyone had to stick to their tessera (a shard of pottery or bone inscribed with a spectator’s designated seat). Adding to the hype, Titus struck inaugural coins, including this denarius struck in Rome between January and June, 80 AD. The obverse features Titus’ laureate bust facing right, with the accompanying inscription IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, a reminder that he was chosen as his father’s heir. The limited-edition verso features the imposing figure of an armored elephant. From the pachyderm’s perspective, this coin quite possibly represented a posthumous issue. Reportedly, thousands of exotic animals met their demise in the Colosseum inaugural games, including an epic battle royal between four war elephants.

For the next several centuries, the Flavian Amphitheatre remained one of the world’s premier entertainment venues, although it underwent several remodels and repairs (particularly following a 217 AD fire and a 443 AD earthquake). After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Colosseum was repurposed many times, including use as a fortification in the late 12th century. In the year 1349, a massive earthquake caused collapse of the southern outer wall, and the resulting ruble was repurposed for other building projects across Rome. By modern times, much of the Colosseum’s stone and metal has been scavenged. Even so, the remaining structures attract millions of awe-struck visitors annually (although attendance is no longer free - modern Colosseum tesserae cost €12, and are available in electronic form). Perhaps most among all people, places, and things, ruins of the Amphitheatrum Flavium best embodies ancient Rome today.

Coin Details: ROMAN EMPIRE, Titus, AD 79-8, AR Denarius (18.5mm, 3.13 g, 5h), Rome mint, Struck 1 January-30 June AD 80, NGC Grade: CH VF, Strike: 5/5, Surface: 5/5, Obverse: Laureate head right, IMP TITVS CAES VESPASIAN AVG P M, Reverse: Elephant, wearing armor, walking left on exergual line, TRP IX IMP XV COS VIII PP, References: RIC II 115; RSC 303.

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