The name “Colosseum” has a surprising background, despite being world famous. It wasn’t originally called the Colosseum at all. Here’s the story.

After the death of Emperor Nero in AD 69 there began a new dynasty of emperors, beginning with the emperor Vespasian.

Nero had died with name in tatters – he was regarded as a decadent psychopath. To keep the citizens of Rome happy, his successor Vespasian presented himself as a “strong and stable” contrast – a sensible and wise middle-aged man. He also instigated a policy of panem et circenses: “bread and circuses”. The idea was to keep the Roman citizens’ stomachs full, and keep them entertained, in order to stop them from criticizing the Emperor and the Senate.

The most spectacular part of this legacy, which still survives today, is what we call ‘the Colosseum’. This amphitheater, orginally constrducted with a pond in the middle instead of an arena floor, was built to entertain the citizens of Rome with re-enactments of sea battles, and was called:

Amphitheatrum Flavium

This translates to the “Flavian Amphitheater”. Emperor Vespasian’s family name was Flavius. He started the building work, but it was completed under his heir Titus, and the Emperor Domitian made further alterations. All three emperors were all from the same family: the Flavian dynasty.

So why do we call it the Colosseum? The answer lies in the giant statue that once stood next to it. Nearly as tall as the vast Colosseum itself, the ‘Colossus’ was a gigantic sculpture of an unnamed emperor, and local people used to use it as a meeting point; eventually, probably because it was more convenient to say than Amphitheatrum Flavium, the name ‘Colosseum’ stuck.