The most lasting memorial to the Emperor Nero is the Colosseum, even if that was not the intention. In fact, the new Flavian dynasty which took control of Rome in AD 69 erected this vast pleasure palace for the people precisely in order to obliterate Nero's memory. It was a calculated decision to build a public amphitheatre on the site of the artificial lake that had been one of the most infamous features of Nero's palace, the Golden House: what had been private imperial property was here seen to be given back to the citizens of Rome. But even this was not enough to dislodge Nero from the city and its 'sites of memory'. By the Middle Ages, the amphitheatre was being called the Colosseum. Not just because it was very big, though its sheer size must be one factor in explaining why the nickname has stuck. It was named after the Colossus, the 120-foot bronze statue commissioned by (and perhaps originally representing) Nero that was part of the display of the Golden House and continued to stand near the amphitheatre at least into the fourth century. Nero and the Colosseum have in modern times come to belong so closely together that most film-makers manage to persuade their audiences that Nero slaughtered Christians there, even though the amphitheatre was not yet built and there is no clear evidence that any Christians ever met their death in its arena.
LRB 2 September 2004 | PDF Download