One of the new 7 wonders of the world, the Roman Colosseum is one of the most well-known structures still remaining from the ancient world. Erected almost two thousand years ago to entertain the Roman elite and common citizens, the gladiator contests were renowned for their violence. The arena provided the setting for the deaths of a multitude of men and beasts and though fame was achieved by a few, the majority died unknown and quickly forgotten.
Emperor Vespasian started construction of the Roman Colosseum in 70 A.D. to honor the new Flavian Dynasty and to erase the previous history of Nero. The amphitheater’s location was purposely chosen to replace the Golden House of Nero, to give back to the public what Nero had previously taken. The term Colosseum can be traced back to a large statue of Nero (known as the Colossus) located close to the Golden House and commissioned by Nero himself.
The amphitheater was still under construction at the time of Emperor Vespasian’s death in 79 A.D., though his son Titus dutifully continued work through its completion. The public was granted access in 80 A.D. and its dedication was celebrated for 100 days straight, participants included gladiators by the hundreds and nearly 10,000 animals. Sadly, Titus died the next year but his younger brother Domitian continued his family’s legacy with the completion of decorative details and an underground passage system.
For the next 450 years, the Colosseum thrived. Damaged by fire in 217 A.D., repairs were necessitated and not fully completed until around 240 A.D. A significant earthquake in 443 A.D. yielded further damage but again, the amphitheater was expertly repaired as soon as possible.
With the advent of the emerging and increasingly popular new Christian religion (whose leaders were publicly opposed to the violent games) as well as economic stress, the third century saw the disappearance of gladiator events in everyday life. The Colosseum was last utilized for gladiators in 435, animal hunts continued to be allowed for approximately another century. The stonework of the Colosseum began to be looted by the Romans shortly after and even Pope Alexander VI profited from this dismantling by acquiring 1/3 earned by its use as a quarry. Stones were later forbidden to be taken from the Roman Colosseum by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749 when he dedicated the structure to deceased martyrs of the Catholic Church by creating a cross within its center.
The Colosseum is composed of travertine blocks imported from Tivoli, Italy. Its seating capacity was considered substantial for its time, with 45,000 seats and another 5,000 places for standing spectators. Entrance to the games was accessible to all with 80 arches available, though some were forbidden for public use and these were often reserved for the higher ranking members of Roman society.
A velarium (an awning resembling a very large sail) covered the majority of the Colosseum and was employed as protection against the uncomfortable elements of heat and rain. A multitude of Roman naval sailors operated the velarium, controlling the ropes, netting, and canvas. When fully extended, the awning could shelter almost all of the seating while allowing the center arena to be exposed.
Due to extensive 19th century renovations, what remains of the Roman Colosseum is not as ancient as commonly thought. Approximately 1/3 of the original structure still exists, while 2/3 has forever disappeared, largely on the southern end of the Colosseum. Unfortunately, a great deal of the building did not survive through the years including the original travertine facade, decorative statues, and its once ornate interior.
The Roman Colosseum, A New World Wonder
The Roman Colosseum has earned its place among the 7 new wonders of the world, evoking the power and sophistication of a bygone empire. A symbol of architectural innovation, it towers above the city’s residents. The Roman Empire may have fallen, but the mighty Colosseum stands proudly still.