Connecting the Dots: Deciphering the Colosseum Inscription

Sidebar to: Financing the Colosseum

The drawings shown here explain how scholar Geza Alföldy, a specialist in reconstructing “ghost” inscriptions, was able to deduce the wording on the Colosseum’s original dedication. Today, the stone slab bears a fifth-century C.E. inscription carved into the rock that describes a series of repairs to the structure (drawing A, above; the darker tint indicates the surviving portion of the inscription). But Alföldy and others had noted the presence of holes in the stone along three pairs of parallel lines (drawing B).

The holes once held pegs onto which metal letters were fastened. Through meticulous work Alföldy arrived at the phrases that had once adorned the rock; these are shown superimposed on the inscription visible today (drawing C).

Not only did Alföldy determine the original inscription, but he deduced that two emperors, Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79 C.E.) and his son Titus (ruled 79 to 81 C.E.), had a hand in its wording: The first line of Vespasian’s dedication read “IMP CAES VESPASIANUS AVG” (Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus) (drawing D); Titus, who added two levels to the Colosseum, only needed to add a “T.” (for Titus) to make the phrase his own.

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