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 everyday 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 were quickly forgotten.
The History of the Colosseum
When was the Colosseum built?
The emperor Vespasian started constructing the Colosseum in 70 AD, alongside other expansive building projects in Rome, to honor the new Flavian Dynasty and celebrate the spoils of his conquest in Jerusalem with his son Titus and to erase the previous history of the notorious emperor Nero. Sadly, Vespasian never saw the stadium completed. The Colosseum opened the year after his death under the reign of Titus. After 80 AD, the year of the inaugural games, the building underwent modifications and improvements over its years of use.
Defaming Emperor Nero
The amphitheater was purposely built in the heart of the extensive palace known as the Golden House of Nero. Nero’s palace was exceptionally lavish even for an emperor, and much of the land it occupied he suspiciously acquired from the citizens of Rome in 64 AD, after a great fire that burned much of the city to the ground. You’ve probably heard the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Vespasian’s ploy was to erase Nero’s memory by destroying his palace and erect public buildings and communal spaces in its place. The Colosseum was to be the focal point of his projects.
Flavian Amphitheatre or Colosseum?
Vespasian called his new stadium the Flavian Amphitheater after this family’s dynasty. That’s how it would have been known to the ancient Roman spectators who attended the games. Ironically, today we call it the Colosseum because of emperor Nero. The first instances we have of it being referenced as the Colosseum dates to the 7th century BC in the Venerable Bede. A long time after the Colosseum’s glory days of the gladiators. The new name was given to the stadium after a 98-foot (30 meters) tall bronze statue of Nero that stood next to the Colosseum, known as the Colossus of Nero. Despite his attempt to destroy Nero’s memory, Vespasian failed.
Titus Inaugural Games
Titus opened the Roman Colosseum in 80 AD with dazzling spectacles that lasted 100 days. He set a precedent for the emperors that was hard to beat. Very few literary sources survive that document the events of the Colosseum, but Martial, a poet, attended the opening games and wrote about them in his Book of Poems. He documents, quite horrifically, over 9000 animals dying in Titus’s opening ceremonies. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we don’t have any estimates for the death count of gladiators. Martial even explains that there was a sea in the stadium upon which naval battles were staged. Whether or not the Colosseum was flooded with water and used to house battles between boats, but it will always remain one of the most significant talking points in the Colosseum’s history!
Games in the Roman Colosseum
Gladiatorial combat had long been popular in Rome before the Colosseum existed, but the Colosseum’s rise quickly made the capital the center of thriving trade. Vast amounts of animals and gladiators were required for these bloody spectacles. There was a general order to the barbaric events that took place in the arena; wild animal hunts in the morning, executions at lunch, and gladiator fights in the afternoon. Evidence suggests that gladiatorial combat was generally one on one, but there were deviations and imaginative new scenarios introduced on special occasions. On some occasions, famous mythical stories of the gods were re-enacted with live actors, resulting in death.
Death of the Colosseum
The Colosseum’s downfall is commonly attributed to three main factors: the rise of Christianity (whose leaders strongly opposed the Colosseum), costly wars, and economic stress during the 4th and 5th centuries. The last known record of gladiators fighting in the Colosseum is 435 AD, whereas the continuation of animal hunts lasted roughly another century. The religious shift in Rome from the traditional pagan ways to Christianity played a huge part in the Colosseum’s decline. A building that was once attributed to sacrifice, honor, and the gods became unholy and evil.
The Afterlife of the Colosseum
The Colosseum has stood the test of time; about ⅓ of the original structure remains. It wasn’t until the 18th century that preservation of the Colosseum began. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was a neglected ruin, inhabited by the poor and on the decline. Even though the Colosseum endured many earthquakes in its time, very little of its disappearance is due to natural causes. The Colosseum was used as a quarry by the popes, which resulted in large amounts of marble being reappropriated to papal building projects, including St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Benedict XIV put an end to the pillaging of the Colosseum in 1749, and renovations started soon after. Today the Colosseum is protected and is the world’s most visited archaeological site.
The Design of the Colosseum
The Colosseum was the biggest of all the Roman amphitheaters (there were over 200 in the empire) and one of the most outstanding achievements of Roman engineering. Building a stadium on this scale would have required the best architects in the empire, lots of money, and an incredible amount of building material. Sadly, we know little about the workers involved in the Colosseum’s construction, but we do have a fairly good idea of the key design features, making such a vast stadium a great success.
Believe it or not, the Romans made concrete that is stronger than most modern mixes. The secret ingredient in Roman concrete is a volcanic stone called Toofa. In addition to this, Roman concrete gets stronger over time. A 100,000-ton building requires solid foundations. Before construction began on the Colosseum, a 43-foot (13 meters) deep concrete foundation was laid to accommodate the building’s mass. Concrete is a light and waterproof building material, and for that reason, it played an essential role in the construction of the Colosseum.
Lots of Stone
The success of the Colosseum partly depended on the nearby quarries of Tivoli. 100,000 cubic meters of travertine was used in the Colosseum’s construction, which was quarried in Tivoli and transported 19 miles (30 kilometers) to the Colosseum by horse and cart. This grueling process required thousands of slaves. The stone was used mainly on the lower levels of the Colosseum due to its weight. The structure’s upper levels used mostly wood and brickwork (often with a marble facade) to ensure the stadium didn’t crumble under the weight.
The Roman Arch
The Colosseum is a celebration of arches; there are 240 total, 80 on three levels. The arch was idolized in Roman architecture. What makes the arch so unique is that the design directs pressure downwards and outwards, is extremely light, can be used to build giant structures, and leaves space inside. Of the 80 arches on the ground floor, 76 of them were used for the equestrians, merchants, peasants, and women to enter and exit the arena. The remaining four had special uses. The Porta Triumphalis was the exit from the arena for the winners, and on a more grim note, there was Porta Libitina, the exit for the dead. The other two are believed to have been used by emperors and senators to get to their ringside seats.
The Hypogeum was a modification to the original Colosseum made under the emperor Domitian’s rule (the son of Vespasian, brother of Titus, and the last of the Flavian Dynasty). What is the Hypogeum? The name was given to the complex underground structure, which was used to contain gladiators and animals before the fights. The Hypogeum was crucial to the theatrical effects of the stadium. Around 64 trap doors were installed in the wooden arena floor, which projected fighters and animals from the dungeons into the arena to meet their fate. The intricate system of pulleys and winches required lots of manpower. Modern estimates suggest that up to 400 people would be required behind the scenes to facilitate the games.
Games at the Colosseum lasted for hours, under the hot Roman sun. The Velarium was an ingenious bit of Roman engineering which provided shade for the spectators. It was made of sails and operated by 150 sailors from the naval fleet of Naples. When fully extended, the awning could shelter most seats while allowing the center stage to be illuminated by the sun.
The Seating Plan
The seating plan at the Colosseum was hierarchical. Slaves and the women sat at the top, plebeians (poor Roman male citizens) just below, and merchants and equestrians were closer to the arena. The closest seats were reserved for senators, emperors, and the vestal virgins. The higher the person’s position in society, the fewer stairs they had to climb and the better your view was. This was significant, as it showed classes of Roman society together and in their appropriate order.
Visiting the Colosseum
Being one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the Roman Colosseum attracts millions of visitors a year. Lines to buy tickets at the Colosseum can exceed two hours in peak months. It is recommended to arrange a guided tour of the Colosseum in advance. Companies like Carpe Diem Rome’s Colosseum tours guarantee to skip the line access and ensure travelers get the most out of their experience to this true wonder of the world.
When we visited the Colosseum, we waited in line. If we have the chance to visit the Colosseum again, we will book a tour. Not only was it extremely hot, but even finding the correct line was confusing. Having a guide tell you about what you are seeing allows you to get more from your visit, and in our opinion, is better than reading sign after sign. No matter what you choose, you will be glad you decided to visit the Roman Colosseum. We sure are!