Vespasian Exhibition in the Colosseum

1 January 2010

Head of a statue of Vespasian from Narona (Museum of Vid)

Until January 10, there’s an interesting exhibition in the Colosseum, dedicated to – well, they say it’s about Vespasian (r.69-79). I have some doubts about that, but there are indeed many objects illustrating the reign of the man who seized power after a civil war, was a capable ruler, restored the Empire, founded the Flavian dynasty, and died with the not-so-famous-but-impressive last words that “an emperor ought to die standing” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 24.1). The reigns of his sons Titus and Domitian are also covered.

Many of the objects, like the statue that was excavated in Narona, I had never seen before – Croatia is still on my wish list. The Haterii relief, which shows several buildings from the Flavian era, is in a part of the Vatican Museum that is always closed when I’m there, so I was glad to finally see it. There were some objects from the Temple of Peace, which has been excavated in the last decade and which I had never seen before. I finally saw the Lex Irnitana, for which I once travelled to Seville (it turned out to be in Madrid and was not accessible).

All in all, it was interesting collection of objects. Yet, there were curious omissions. Conspicous by absence were the Cancelleria reliefs. Yet, they are pretty large and may have been too big to move. Less understandable is that there is nothing about the British campaigns, in which Vespasian obtained ornamenta triumphalia and laid the foundation of his fortune. The Jewish War is also neglected, although I noticed one photo.

In other words, the first sixty years of Vespasian’s life remain uncovered; instead, the exhibition is about Vespasian’s final decade and the reigns of his sons. This exhibition, interesting though it is, is not about Vespasian, but about the Flavian era. I wonder of the organizers have realized that they crossed a line: scholars should speak the truth, and although I realize that you may try to give it some kind of spin, the basic story must be reliable. That is no longer the case.