The Jewish Colosseum: Revising the Memory of Rome’s Flavian Amphitheater

Sarah E. Bond
4 min readApr 27, 2019

Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, the Roman Colosseum is oftentimes directly associated with the death of Christians; however, as Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard point to in The Colosseum, there is no authentic evidence from the first century to support the notion that Christians were ever martyred within it:

The fact is that there are no genuine records of any Christians being put to death in the Colosseum. It was only later…that Christian writers invested heavily in the Colosseum as a shrine of the martyrs.

As Beard and Hopkins explore, the earliest martyrdom texts referencing the Colosseum as a space for Christian martyrs are from the 5th century CE. Gladiatorial fights ended in 434–435 CE and later a small church was then built within the Colosseum in the 6th century. What epigraphic and literary sources contemporary with the building of the Colosseum do show is not a connection to Christianity, but rather an association with a different religious sect: the Jewish people.

“Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo,” Vedute di Roma(Views of Rome), 1776
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (also indicates the stations of the cross)

Around 1995, the famed German epigrapher Géza Alföldy noticed earlier holes from bronze lettering behind a later 5th century CE inscription on an architrave (CIL VI, 40454a) for the Colosseum. The earlier lettering holes dated to 79–80 CE. The inscription notes that the building project was the will of the Flavian emperor Vespasian (though it would be dedicated by his son, Titus), but also that the amphitheater was itself a monument to his subjugation of the Jewish people in the First Jewish War (66–73 CE):

I[mp(erator)] Caes(ar) Vespasi[anus Aug(ustus)]

[ex] manubi(i)s [fieri iussit?]

Imperator Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered
a new amphitheater to be made from the spoils of war.

Photo of the architrave of the Colosseum (79–80 CE, CIL VI 40454a) via the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg (EDH) under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Vespasian’s choice of the Latin word ‘ manubia’ (war spoils) for the earlier architrave inscription is here telling and would have…

Sarah E. Bond

Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. Ancient History, Digital Humanities, and Public History For All. Thoughts are my own, y'all.