An awesome, spine-tingling sight, the Colosseum is the most thrilling of Rome’s ancient monuments. It was here that gladiators met in mortal combat and condemned prisoners fought off wild beasts in front of baying, bloodthirsty crowds. Two thousand years on and it’s one of Italy’s top tourist attractions, drawing more than six million visitors a year.
Located just east of the Roman Forum, the massive stone amphitheater known as the Colosseum was commissioned around A.D. 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty as a gift to the Roman people. In A.D. 80, Vespasian’s son Titus opened the Colosseum–officially known as the Flavian Amphitheater–with 1117 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights. After four centuries of active use, the magnificent arena fell into neglect, and up until the 18th century it was used as a source of building materials. Though two-thirds of the original Colosseum has been destroyed over time, the amphitheater remains a popular tourist destination, as well as an iconic symbol of Rome and its long, tumultuous history.
The emperor Vespasian (r AD 69–79) originally commissioned the amphitheatre in AD 72 in the grounds of Nero’s vast Domus Aurea complex. He never lived to see it finished, though, and it was completed by his son and successor Titus (r 79–81) in AD 80. To mark its inauguration, Titus held games that lasted 117 days and nights, during which some 5000 animals were slaughtered. Trajan (r 98–117) later topped this, holding a marathon 100-day killing spree involving 9000 gladiators and 10,000 animals. The 50,000-seat arena was Rome’s first, and greatest, permanent amphitheatre.
Origins of the Colosseum
Even after the decadent Roman emperor Nero took his own life in A.D. 68, his misrule and excesses fueled a series of civil wars. No fewer than four emperors took the throne in the tumultuous year after Nero’s death; the fourth, Vespasian, would end up ruling for 10 years (A.D. 69-79). The Flavian emperors, as Vespasian and his sons Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96) were known, attempted to tone down the excesses of the Roman court, restore Senate authority and promote public welfare.
Around 70-72, Vespasian returned to the Roman people the lush land near the center of the city, where Nero had built an enormous palace for himself after a great fire ripped through Rome in A.D. 64. On the site of that Golden Palace, he decreed, would be built a new amphitheater where the public could enjoy gladiatorial combats and other forms of entertainment.
After nearly a decade of construction–a relatively quick time period for a project of such a grand scale–Titus officially dedicated the Colosseum in A.D. 80 with a festival including 117 days of games. A well-loved ruler, Titus had earned his people’s devotion with his handling of recovery efforts after the infamous eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, which destroyed the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The final stages of construction of the Colosseum were completed under the reign of Titus’ brother and successor, Domitian.
In 404 CE, with the changing times and tastes, the games of the Colosseum were finally abolished by Emperor Honorius, although condemned criminals were still made to fight wild animals for a further century. The building itself would face a chequered future, although it fared better than many other imperial buildings during the decline of the Empire.
Damaged by earthquake in 422 CE it was repaired by the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III. Repairs were also made in 467, 472 and 508 CE.
The venue continued to be used for wrestling matches and animal hunts up to the 6th century CE but the building began to show signs of neglect and grass was left to grow in the arena.
In the 12th century CE it became a fortress of the Frangipani and Annibaldi families.
The great earthquake of 1231 CE caused the collapse of the southwest facade and the Colosseum became a vast source of building material – stones and columns were removed, iron clamps holding blocks together were stolen and statues were melted for lime. Indeed, Pope Alexander VI actually leased the Colosseum as a quarry. Despite this crumbling away though, the venue was still used for the occasional religious procession and play during the 15th century CE.
From the Renaissance period both artists and architects like Michelangelo and later tourists on their Grand Tour took a renewed interest in Roman architecture and ruins. As a consequence, in 1744 CE Pope Benedict XIV prohibited any further removal of masonry from the Colosseum and consecrated it in memory of the Christian martyrs who had lost their lives there.
This, however, did not stop locals using it as an animal stables and its neglect is reflected in the curious work of Richard Deakin who in 1844 CE catalogued over 420 plant varieties thriving in the ruin, some rare and even locally unique — perhaps originating from the food given to the exotic animals all those centuries before.
The 19th century CE did, though, begin to see the fortunes of the once great amphitheatre improve. The Papal authorities sought to restore parts of the building, notably the east and western ends, with the latter being supported by a massive buttress.
Finally, in 1871 CE the Italian archaeologist Pietro Rosa removed all of the post-Roman additions to reveal, despite its degradation, a still magnificent monument, a poignant and enduring testimony to both the skills and the vices of the Roman world.
The Colosseum Over the Centuries
The Colosseum saw some four centuries of active use, until the struggles of the Western Roman Empire and the gradual change in public tastes put an end to gladiatorial combats and other large public entertainments by the 6th century A.D. Even by that time, the arena had suffered damaged due to natural phenomena such as lightning and earthquakes.
In the centuries to come, the Colosseum was abandoned completely, and used as a quarry for numerous building projects, including the cathedrals of St. Peter and St. John Lateran, the Palazzo Venezia and defense fortifications along the Tiber River.
Beginning in the 18th century, however, various popes sought to conserve the arena as a sacred Christian site, though it is in fact uncertain whether early Christian martyrs met their fate in the Colosseum, as has been speculated.
By the 20th century, a combination of weather, natural disasters, neglect and vandalism had destroyed nearly two-thirds of the original Colosseum, including all of the arena’s marble seats and its decorative elements. Restoration efforts began in the 1990s, and have proceeded over the years, as the Colosseum continues to be a leading attraction for tourists from all over the world.
The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheatre is a large ellipsoid arena built in the first century CE under the Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian (69-79 CE), Titus (79-81 CE) and Domitian (81-96 CE). The arena was used to host spectacular public entertainment events such as gladiator fights, wild animal hunts and public executions from 80 CE to 404 CE.
For some five centuries it was used to stage lavish, crowd-pleasing spectacles to mark important anniversaries or military victories. Gladiatorial combat was eventually outlawed in the 5th century but wild animal shows continued until the mid-6th century.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum was largely abandoned. It was used as a fortress by the powerful Frangipani family in the 12th century and later plundered of its precious building materials. Travertine and marble stripped from the Colosseum were used to decorate a number of Rome’s notable buildings, including Palazzo Venezia, Palazzo Barberini and Palazzo Cancelleria.
More recently, pollution and vibrations caused by traffic and the metro have taken a toll. To help counter this, it was recently given a major clean-up, the first in its 2000-year history, as part of a €25-million restoration project sponsored by the luxury shoemaker Tod’s.
The Colosseum: A Grand Amphitheater
Measuring some 620 by 513 feet (190 by 155 meters), the Colosseum was the largest amphitheater in the Roman world.
Unlike many earlier amphitheaters, which had been dug into hillsides to provide adequate support, the Colosseum was a freestanding structure made of stone and concrete.
The distinctive exterior had three stories of arched entrances–a total of around 80–supported by semi-circular columns. Each story contained columns of a different order (or style): at the bottom were columns of the relatively simple Doric order, followed by Ionic and topped by the ornate Corinthian order.
Located just near the main entrance to the Colosseum was the Arch of Constantine, built in A.D. 315 in honor of Constantine I’s victory over Maxentius at Pons Milvius.
Purpose and Dimensions
The construction of the Colosseum was begun in 72 CE in the reign of Vespasian on the site that was once the lake and gardens of Emperor Nero’s Golden House. This was drained and as a precaution against potential earthquake damage concrete foundations six metres deep were put down. The building was part of a wider construction programme begun by Emperor Vespasian in order to restore Rome to its former glory prior to the turmoil of the recent civil war.
As Vespasian claimed on his coins with the inscription Roma resurgens, the new buildings —the Temple of Peace, Sanctuary of Claudius and the Colosseum— would show the world that ‘resurgent’ Rome was still very much the centre of the ancient world.
The Flavian Amphitheatre (or Amphiteatrum Flavium as it was known to the Romans) opened for business in 80 CE in the reign of Titus, Vespasian’s eldest son, with a one hundred day gladiator spectacular and was finally completed in the reign of the other son, Domitian. The finished building was like nothing seen before and situated between the wide valley joining the Esquiline, Palatine and Caelian hills, it dominated the city. The biggest building of its kind, it had the following features:
- a height of 45 metres high (150 feet).
- a width of 189 x 156 metres.
- an oval arena measuring 87.5 m by 54.8 m.
- a roofed awning of canvas.
- capacity for 50,000 spectators.
The theatre was principally built from locally quarried limestone with internal linking lateral walls of brick, concrete and volcanic stone (tufa). Vaults were built of lighter pumice stone.
The sheer size of the theatre was the possible origin of the popular name of Colosseo, however, a more likely origin may have been as a reference to the colossal gilded bronze statue of Nero which was converted to resemble the sun-god and which stood outside the theatre until the 4th century CE.
The theatre was spectacular even from the outside with monumental open arcades on each of the first three floors presenting statue-filled arches.
The first floor carried Doric columns, the second Ionic and the third level Corinthian. The top floor had Corinthian pilasters and small rectangular windows.
There were no less than eighty entrances, seventy-six of these were numbered and tickets were sold for each. Two entrances were used for the gladiators, one of which was known as the Porta Libitina (the Roman goddess of death) and was the door through which the dead were removed from the arena. The other door was the Porta Sanivivaria through which victors and those allowed to survive the contests left the arena. The final two doors were reserved exclusively for the Emperor’s use.
Inside, the theatre must have been even more impressive when the three tiers of seats were filled with all sections of the populace.
Encircling the arena was a wide marble terrace (podium) protected by a wall within which were the prestigious ring-side seats or boxes from where the Emperor and other dignitaries would watch the events.
Beyond this area, marble seats were divided into zones: those for richer private citizens, middle-class citizens, slaves and foreigners and finally wooden seats and standing room in the flat-roofed colonnade on the top tier reserved for women and the poor. On top of this roof platform sailors were employed to manage the large awning (velarium) which protected the spectators from rain or provided shade on hot days. The different levels of seats were accessed via broad staircases with each landing and seat being numbered.
The total capacity for the Colosseum was approximately 45,000 seated and 5,000 standing spectators. One of the oldest depictions of the Colosseum appeared on the coins of Titus and shows three tiers, statues in the upper external arches and the large column fountain – the Meta Sudans – which stood nearby.
There were also ingenious underground lifting mechanisms which allowed for the sudden introduction of wild animals into the proceedings.
On some occasions, notably the opening series of shows, the arena was flooded in order to host mock naval battles.
Under the arena floor (and visible to the modern visitor) was a maze of small compartment rooms, corridors and animal pens.
The outer walls have three levels of arches, framed by Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns. These were originally covered in travertine, and marble statues filled the niches on the 2nd and 3rd storeys. The upper level, punctuated with windows and slender Corinthian pilasters, had supports for 240 masts that held the awning over the arena, shielding the spectators from sun and rain. The 80 entrance arches, known as vomitoria , allowed the spectators to enter and be seated in a matter of minutes.
The stadium originally had a wooden floor covered in sand – harena in Latin, hence the word ‘arena’ – to prevent combatants from slipping and to soak up spilt blood. From the floor, trapdoors led down to the hypogeum, a subterranean complex of corridors, cages and lifts beneath the arena floor.
Inside, the Colosseum had seating for more than 50,000 spectators, who may have been arranged according to social ranking but were most likely packed into the space like sardines in a can (judging by evidence from the seating at other Roman amphitheaters).
Awnings were unfurled from the top story in order to protect the audience from the hot Roman sun as they watched gladiatorial combats, hunts, wild animal fights and larger combats such as mock naval engagements (for which the arena was flooded with water) put on at great expense.
The vast majority of the combatants who fought in front of Colosseum audiences in Ancient Rome were men (though there were some female gladiators). Gladiators were generally slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners of war.
The cavea, for spectator seating, was divided into three tiers: magistrates and senior officials sat in the lowest tier, wealthy citizens in the middle and the plebs in the highest tier. Women (except for vestal virgins) were relegated to the cheapest sections at the top. And as in modern stadiums, tickets were numbered and spectators were assigned a precise seat in a specific sector – in 2015, restorers uncovered traces of red numerals on the arches, indicating how the sectors were numbered.
The podium, a broad terrace in front of the seats, was reserved for the emperor, senators and VIPs.
The hypogeum served as the stadium’s backstage area. It was here that stage sets were prepared and combatants, both human and animal, would gather before show time. ‘Gladiators entered the hypogeum through an underground corridor which led directly in from the nearby Ludus Magnus (gladiator school).
A second gallery, the so-called Passaggio di Commodo (Passage of Commodus), was reserved for the emperor, allowing him to avoid the crowds as he entered the stadium. To hoist people, animals and scenery up to the arena, the hypogeum had a sophisticated network of 80 winch-operated lifts, all controlled by a single pulley system.
The arena was originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre (Anfiteatro di Flavio) in honour of Vespasian’s family name, and although it was Rome’s most fearsome arena, it wasn’t the biggest – the Circo Massimo could hold up to 250,000 people.
The name Colosseum, when introduced in the Middle Ages, wasn’t a reference to its size but to the Colosso di Nerone, a giant statue of Nero that stood nearby. Games staged at the Colosseum usually involved gladiators fighting wild animals or each other.
But contrary to Hollywood folklore, bouts rarely ended in death as the games’ sponsor was required to pay compensation to a gladiator’s owner if the gladiator died in action.
Games and Shows
Although historically tied to earlier Etruscan games which emphasised the rites of death, the shows in the Roman arenas were designed simply to entertain, however, they also demonstrated the wealth and generosity of the Emperor and provided an opportunity for ordinary people to actually see their ruler in person.
Emperors were usually present, even when they had no particular taste for the events such as Marcus Aurelius. Titus and Claudius were noted for shouting at the gladiators and other members of the crowd and Commodus himself performed in the arena hundreds of times.
One vestige of the earlier Etruscan tradition continued, however, with the presence of the attendant whose job was to finish off any fallen gladiator by a blow to the forehead. This attendant wore the mythical costume of either Charon (the Etruscan minister of Fate) or Hermes, the messenger god who accompanied the dead down to the underworld. The presence of the Vestal Virgins, the Pontifex Maximus and the divine Emperor also added a certain pseudo-religious element to the proceedings, at least in Rome.
However, blood sports and death were the real purpose of the spectacular shows and an entire profession arose to meet the massive entertainment requirements of the populace – for example under Claudius there were 93 games a year. Spectacles often lasted from dawn till nightfall and the gladiators usually kicked-off the show with a chariot procession accompanied by trumpets and even a hydraulic organ and then dismounted and circled the arena, each saluting the emperor with the famous line: Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant! (Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!).
Comic or fantasy duels often began the day’s combat events, these were usually fought between women, dwarfs or the disabled using wooden weapons. The following blood sports between various classes of gladiators included weapons such as swords, lances, tridents, and nets and could also involve female combatants.
Next came the animal hunts with the bestiarii — the professional beast killers. The animals had no chance in these contests and were most often killed at a distance using spears or arrows. There were dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, bears, elephants, leopards, hippopotamuses and bulls but there were also events with defenceless animals such as deer, ostriches, giraffes and even whales. Hundreds, sometimes even thousands of animals, were butchered in a single day’s event and often brutality was deliberate in order to achieve crudeliter — the correct amount of cruelty.
Under Domitian, dramas were also held in the Colosseum but with a bloodthirsty realism such as using real condemned prisoners for executions, a real Hercules was burned on a funeral pyre and in the role of Laureolus a prisoner was actually crucified. The Colosseum was also the scene of many executions during the lunch-time lull (when the majority of spectators went for lunch), particularly the killing of Christian martyrs. Seen as an unacceptable challenge to the authority of Pagan Rome and the divinity of the Emperor, Christians were thrown to lions, shot down with arrows, roasted alive and killed in a myriad of cruelly inventive ways.
The hypogeum, along with the top tier, can be visited on a guided tour. This must be booked in advance and costs €9 plus the normal Colosseum ticket.
How to get there
The Colosseum is easily reachable by using the metro (Line B – Colosseo stop). Colosseum opening time could vary during the year.
In order to avoid endless lines that can cost you several hours, it is advisable either to arrive early in the morning or to buy an entrance ticket in the Palatine Hill, since there are usually fewer people there and the cost of entrance is combined.
Another way to avoid lines is to buy the Roma Pass, a discount card that offers free entrance to the Colosseum without having to wait in line.
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