Photos of the base of the Colossus of Nero, and Mussolini’s alterations to the Colosseum area

While looking for material about the Meta Sudans, I stumbled across something which very few people know.

Most people will know that the Colosseum is named after a colossal statue of Nero that used to stand nearby.  Originally cast in bronze and stood outside the Domus Aurea, it was changed into a statue of the Sun by the Flavians, and moved slightly to stand near their new amphitheatre.

The bronze status is long gone.  But how many people know that the base on which it stood still existed well into the 20th century?  I certainly did not!  Indeed there are photographs of it.  It was demolished by Mussolini, in the course of constructing the Via del foro imperiali.

A modern Italian website identifies its location in red:

Location of the base of the Colossus in red.
Location of the base of the Colossus in red.

Let’s have a look at some of those photographs.

First, an aerial photograph from the Beniculturali website, taken about 1895:

Aerial view of the valley of the Amphitheatre with the base of the Colossus of Nero, the Meta Sudans and the Arch of Constantine in a picture from about 1895.
Aerial view of the valley of the Amphitheatre with the base of the Colossus of Nero, the Meta Sudans and the Arch of Constantine in a picture from about 1895.

In the middle of the left hand side of the Colosseum is a dark rectangular base.  This is where the Colossus stood.  Note that the modern Via del foro imperiali is not on this photograph – it had yet to be built.

Next, a slightly fuzzy ground level photograph from the Wellcome Library, from about 1929:

M0000104 Base of the Colossus of Nero, Coliseum, Rome, Italy Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Base of the Colossus of Nero, Coliseum, Rome, Italy Photograph 1929 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Wellcome Library M0000104. Base of the Colossus of Nero, Coliseum, Rome, Italy. 1929

The hill behind the base is the Velian Hill, and it isn’t there today: Mussolini bulldozed it.  If we stood in the same location today, we would have the Colosseum at our back, and a view straight down the Via del Foro Imperiali to the Victor Emmanuel monument in front of us.

Next a couple of photos of the base from different angles, from a montage found online here in a set of flash cards:

two_photos

A look at the area indicates just what alterations Mussolini made.  This photograph shows that the Colosseum actually stood in a hollow of the hills, approached from the Circus Maximus:

colosseum_before_via_del_foro_imperiali

The whole area was rather different:

aerial_of_whole_area

Mussolini certainly changed all that.

Some may wish to know what the Colossus itself looked like.  We have a medallion of Gordian III, which we already used for the Meta Sudans, which shows the Colossus standing behind it (via here):

Medallion of Gordian III, ca. 240, depicting the Colosseum and Meta Sudans
Medallion of Gordian III, ca. 240, depicting the Colosseum and Meta Sudans

Better than this is a depiction in a gem:

colossus_gem
Amethyst gem (1-2nd c. AD) in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Antikensammlung inv. FG 2665: Bergmann 1993, 11, pl. 2.3. Via Albertson, p.106-7.

There is a useful 2001 article by Albertson on the Colossus which is available on JSTOR.[1]  He calculates that the Colossus was about 100 feet tall (31.524 m).  The statue had a radiate crown, was nude, with the right hip jutting to the side, and the right arm supported by a rudder, while the  left leans on a pillar.   A globe supports the rudder.

The National Geographic reconstruction of the statue and base looks fairly accurate, therefore (although the background should be the Velian Hill, as we have seen):

National Geographic reconstruction of the Colossus of Nero
National Geographic reconstruction of the Colossus of Nero
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  1. [1]Fred C. Albertson, ‘Zenodorus’s “Colossus of Nero”‘, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 46 (2001), pp. 95-118.  Online here.

15 thoughts on “Photos of the base of the Colossus of Nero, and Mussolini’s alterations to the Colosseum area

  1. I’m glad you told us that’s a rudder, because I kept wondering why Nero the Sun brought an umbrella….

    The reconstruction painting certainly does a good job of making Nero look like a member of the Caesar family.

  2. LOL! That’s what I learned from Albertson, anyway! It DOES look like an umbrella!

    The suggestion is that the head was not changed, but just had rays added. So the beard is Neronian.

  3. Thanks for all this info! I was looking for information about the god the statue became to represent after the Flavian modification. Is it Sol? Is it Apollo? Is Sol and Apollo the same?
    A documentary mentioned it was Apollo but I read it was Sol.

  4. The 1895 aerial photo is fantastic!! The base and the meta sudans in the same photo… Before Mussolini!!! LOVE this stuff!! (Photo from a hot-air balloon??)

  5. Thank you for writing this article..my daughter is writing a blog / Homeschool report on this. May we quote you and the comments left here pls?

  6. Thank you for this article detailing the base of the statue. With regards to the background of the National Geographic rendering, the statue was originally located within an Atrium at an entry to the Nero’s Domus Aurea (his Imperial Villa version 2.0). The relocation supposedly required 24 elephants (what a ridiculous image), and occurred during Hadrians rule (therefore after Vespasian made the addition of the radiate crown). This is a possible explanation for the background not being the Velian Hill, and would still align with how the Colossus is presented.

    As I understand, its previous position was technically on the hill, as it was moved for the construction of the Temple of Venus and Roma. Various sources describe its location as being within a forecourt or vestibule (Suetonius, depending on translation) or an atrium. Regardless it was at an entry to his palace, likely somewhere on the Velian Hill.

    Interesting to note, after its move to the Colosseum, Commodus, during his Megalomania, replaced the head of the Colossus with his one resembling himself, while giving it a club and placing a lion (also of bronze) at his feet. This was in an effort to emulate Hercules, who it is thought Commodus fancied himself a reincarnation of. These changes were reverted after his death, but at one point, the base in this article was also home to a bronze lion.

    Commodus also supposedly inscribed the base with the phrase ‘Champion of secutores; only left-handed fighter to conquer twelve times one thousand men.’ (again sources differ, but that is per Dio, Epitome LXXIII.22.3). Commodus was left-handed and very proud of the fact.

  7. Thank you for this article detailing the base of the statue. With regards to the background of the National Geographic rendering, the statue was originally located within an Atrium at an entry to the Nero’s Domus Aurea (his Imperial Villa version 2.0). The relocation supposedly required 24 elephants (what a ridiculous image), and occurred during Hadrians rule (therefore after Vespasian made the addition of the radiate crown). This is a possible explanation for the background not being the Velian Hill, and would still align with the way it is presented.

    As I understand, its previous position was technically on the hill, as it was moved for the construction of the Temple of Venus and Roma. Various sources describe its location as being within a forecourt or vestibule (Suetonius, depending on translation) or an atrium. Regardless it was at an entry to his palace, likely somewhere on the Velian Hill.

    Interesting to note, after its move to the Colosseum, Commodus, during his Megalomania, replaced the head of the Colossus with his one resembling himself, while giving it a club and placing a lion (also of bronze) at his feet. This was in an effort to emulate Hercules, who it is thought Commodus fancied himself a reincarnation of. These changes were reverted after his death, but at one point, the base in this article was also home to a bronze lion.

    Commodus also supposedly inscribed the base with the phrase ‘Champion of secutores; only left-handed fighter to conquer twelve times one thousand men.’ (again sources differ, but that is per Dio, Epitome LXXIII.22.3). Commodus was left-handed and very proud of the fact.

  8. Strange it went through twice. Regardless the point still stands that despite the last line of the article, the National Geographic article is likely at an okay background, if the time period is prior to the moving to the Colosseum.

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