Colosseum – History, Construction & Other Notable Facts

In the First Jewish-Roman War of 70 AD, the Romans did not only besiege Jerusalem and humiliate the Jews, but also plundered the luxuries of the Jewish Temple to finance the construction of the largest ancient amphitheater at the time. Sited east of the Roman Forum, the amphitheater derived its modern name, Colosseum, from the giant Colossus of Nero statue that was moved to the theatre’s premises around 117 AD.

Despite undergoing several neglects, damages and repairs over the centuries, the structure still stands and is one of Rome’s most visited tourist attractions.

Below, explores the history, features and origin story of the Colosseum, the Great Amphitheatre of ancient Rome. The article also includes a detailed description of how the Colosseum looked like at the time of its construction as well why the structure was built in the first place.

In the Roman times, the Colosseum was called Flavian Amphitheater. The word ‘amphitheater’ means ‘double stage’.

Construction; Funding, Materials, Labor

The Flavian Amphitheatre, so called because it was erected during the reign of the Flavian emperors, is located between the Caelian Esquiline and the Palatine Hills of Regio II Isis et Serapis in Rome, Italy.

Its construction began in 72 AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian and, by the time of his death in 79, it was built to the third story. His successor, Emperor Titus, completed the forth story in 80 AD. Further remodeling were done under Emperor Domitian who built the underground (hypogeum) tunnels and expanded the seating capacity by introducing a gallery at the top.

The workforce consisted of skilled Roman professionals and unskilled Roman citizenry or war slaves supposed to be mainly Jews; however, there is rarely any proof that Jewish prisoners of war were mobilized to form the unskilled labor that teamed up with expert Roman artisans.

It was constructed with varying materials, mainly including travertine limestone, volcanic rocks, brick-faced concrete, cement, mortar and wooden logs and boards with iron and wooden reinforcements.

At the 100-day long inauguration ceremony, thousands of wild and exotic animals (mostly from Africa) were slaughtered. Also, a commemorative coin, bearing an inscription of the amphitheater, was issued.

Early Usage

Throughout the centuries, the Colosseum hosted various events under different authorities, with early hosting for gladiator games and wild animals hunting called the “venatio” where the arena was stocked with mobile trees and structures, and beasts like panthers and bears were maneuvered in to fight among themselves or against gladiators.

People who faced death penalties were moved to the arena naked and unarmed to be killed by beasts especially during lunch breaks of main events. In some cases, the prisoners were tied to the stake and then burnt, or mauled to death by animals.

The Colosseum was a place of some very horrific spectacles, including the execution of Christians. It was a place used to host some gruesome spectacles. Image – The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883)

There were also the “navalia proelia” or sea battles or reenactments of famous battles. Regarding the sea battles, water was channeled into the arena to showcase horses and bulls trained to swim; one of such games was organized for the inaugural ceremonies in 80 AD.

Other ancient use was the Sylvae; artisans and architects installed real trees and bushes on the arena to serve as backdrops for dramas or for the execution of criminals by beasts.

In addition to hosting chariot racing and gladiatorial games, the Colosseum was were Romans sometimes executed prisoners, often around midday. Image – Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant (Hail, Cesar, those who will die salute you), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859

In 399 AD, Emperor Honorius banned gladiator fights, and by 435, there was rarely any mention of the event in the arena, and the wild beasts games were banned around 523, due to the high expenses involved.

Architectural Description

Extending a land area of over ​​24,500 square meters, the Colosseum is 189 meters long, 156 meters wide and, from the exterior view, it reaches about 48 meters high with a perimeter of 545 meters.

The original oval arena was about 4,800 square meters of lined wooden boards covered with sand, and a 5-meter wall erected around it.

On the exterior premises, there were other structures like the storeroom for weapons (Armamentarium), machinery warehouse (Summum Choragium), while the “Sanitarium” and “Spoliarium” were treatment and corpse dumping structures for gladiators, respectively. Gladiators rehearsed and trained in the “Ludus Magnus” while beast fighters had the “Ludus Matutinus”.

Capacity and Seating Arrangement of the Colosseum in Roman times

The emperor and magistrates sat in the lower seats that had fine marbles

The capacity could be estimated at about 55,000 or, according to the Codex-Calendar of 354, at around 87,000 spectators, who sat on marbled cavea of brick tiers.

The seating arrangement of the Colosseum mimicked the social stratification of the Romans. The emperors and vestal virgins were seated in special boxes in the northern and southern ends respectively, while the senatorial class were reserved the podium on the same story with the senators, but had to go along with their own chairs. Knights were seated on the “maenianum primum” above the senators. The next tier up, called “maenianum secundum in legneis”, had the “Immum” (lower part) for the rich common citizens. Above the tier for the wealthy businessmen was the “Summum” (upper part) for the poor.

The seats of the emperor, priest and magistrates were made of fine marble, sometimes with their names inscribed on it. On the other hand, the top story, where foreigners, slaves and women were seated, had temporary wooden seats.

To ensure fast filling and evacuation, there were passageways called “vomitoria” through which spectators could access their seats and exit within a few minutes. These passageways linked the eighty numbered entrances, of which 76 were assigned to common spectators – one entrance on the north for the emperors and three for the elite class.

Renovations and Later Uses of the Colosseum

Ancient historian Dio Cassius asserted that a fire, which destroyed the wooden upper levels of the interior in 217 AD, was caused by lightning. According to the accounts, the damage was repaired about three times, between 240 and 320 AD. Again, the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III ordered repair works after an earthquake in 443.

In the middle ages, a small chapel was constructed into the Colosseum. The arena was used as a cemetery, and at some point, the spaces in the arcades were turned into housing and workshops. The Frangipani family turned the Colosseum into a castle by reinforcing it in the 1200s.

After an earthquake in 1349 weakened or collapsed the southern outer base, some stones and iron reinforcements from both the interior and exterior parts were quarried to construct palaces and other buildings.

Its neglect in the 16th century led to the development of several species of vegetation which, in 1871, was controlled as they continued to weaken the structure. Nevertheless, some 200 weed species were estimated to have remained until the 20th century.

From the 16th century, both attempts to reutilize the edifice for wool factory by Pope Sixtus V and bullfights by Cardinal Altieri failed, but Pope Benedict XIV in 1749 succeeded in stopping its use for quarry and declared it sanctified as a place of Christian martyrs.

Several damages and renovations followed up till the 19th century, typically the partial excavation of the arena between 1810 and 1874 which subsequently exposed its substructure in the 1930s.

At least from the 19th century, the edifice has been regarded as the site where many Christian saints were martyred during their persecution in Rome. The structure then came to be used to host catholic ceremonies such as the Scriptural Way of the Cross procession on Good Fridays.

Modern films, video games and music production firms have adapted the Colosseum’s model in their works such in the critically acclaimed Starz TV series “Spartacus”. Again, the edifice inspired the architectural design of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseuma and the Vancouver Public Library as well as the 1942 Palazzo Della Civilta Italiana.

In 2013, Diego Della Valle of Italy’s shoe making firm Tod Group partnered with the local government to finance a €25 million restoration project on the amphitheater, and by 2017, it was opened to the public for events and tours.

The Flavian Dynasty

The Flavian Dynasty came to power with Emperor Vespasian in 69 AD. The dynasty, which lasted until 96 AD, when it was succeeded by the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, had emperors Titus and Domitian in addition. The dynasty, although a short-lived one, chalked up a number of accomplishments, one of them being the Colosseum. Those gains were supported by the cultural and economic reforms rolled out by the dynasty. For example, Emperor Vespasian overhauled the tax system of the empire in order to boost the empire’s finances.

The Flavian dynasty came to an end in 96 AD, when Domitian, the son of Vespasian, was assassinated. Upon Domitian’s death, the emperor’s advisor Marcus Cocceius Nerva was crowned emperor, ushering in the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.

The Colosseum was definitely a propaganda tool used by the Flavian dynasty to take the people’s minds off the economic and social hardships that they faced at time. It was also a means for Vespasian to communicate to the people the power and generosity of his family – a sought of ode to the Flavian dynasty. Vespasian and his successor knew that they could use the Colosseum as kind of entertainment hub of Rome, where all kinds of depraved and violent events would be staged as a way to unite the empire.

Did you know?

The Colosseum served as a symbol of Rome’s might and brilliance. It can also be seen as the symbol of the extent of despotism and barbarism that took place in the Empire. Below are a few more things you probably did not know about the Colosseum and the events it hosted:

  • The gladiator games were called “Munera”, and they were officially banned by Emperor Valentinian III in 438 AD.
  • Why couldn’t the gladiators take aim at the very important people, including the emperor, who sat in the lower seats close to the stage? This could not happen because a strong net was placed to protect the spectators from flying debris or weapons.
  • The Colosseum was built at the original site of the artificial lake of Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea, and, unlike most ancient amphitheaters, it was not built against a hill support, between valleys, or dug out mountains. .
  • Preparation for shows were done in the underground called “hypogeum” (Greek word for ‘underground’) from where a complex system of winches lifted people, beasts and props unto passageways of the arena.
  • Out of the eighty entrances, only XXIII and LIIII survived the collapse of the exterior or perimeter walls.
  • Roman emperor Commodus made many hundreds of appearances in the arena of the Colosseum. Obviously, the emperor did not face off against the most skilled gladiator in the arena; as a matter of fact, Commodus fought with slightly handicapped fighters and tamed exotic animals.
  • In the 1990s, a major restoration work was undertaken on the Colosseum. The cost of the restoration amounted to several millions of dollars.
  • Along with the likes of the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu and Petra, the Colosseum in Rome is regarded as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The Colosseum: FAQs

The Colosseum - History, Construction & Other Notable Facts

The Colosseum served as a symbol of Rome’s might and brilliance. It can also be seen as the symbol of the extent of despotism and barbarism that took place in the Empire.

The Colosseum was one of the most famous monuments from ancient Rome. Today, we tend to look upon the structure with great awe; however, in ancient Rome, the place was actually a place of death – a place where some unimaginable horrors were put on display for the entertainment of Rome.

When was the Colosseum built?

The Colosseum, also known as the Great Amphitheater, was constructed between 70 and 72 C.E. under the leadership of Emperor Vespasian. It was officially opened about ten years later. The opening ceremony was marked by hundred days of gladiatorial games under the leadership of then-Roman Emperor Titus.

How long did it take to build the Colosseum?

Construction of the Colosseum began in 72 AD. By 80 AD., the structure had been built. Therefore, it took the Flavian Dynasty roughly 8 years to build the Colosseum.

The Colosseum is almost 2000 years old. To put into perspective just how old the Colosseum is. The magnificent edifice is a whopping 1,500 years older than the Taj Mahal in India. It is over a 1000 years older that Westminster Abbey.

What did the Romans use the Colosseum for?

In the Roman times, the Colosseum was primarily used to host gladiatorial games. It was also used to stage important dramas and other theatrical shows. Public executions of prisoners also took place in the Colosseum. And in some cases, the Romans staged reenactments of famous battles.

How big is the Colosseum?

At the time of its construction, the Colosseum was undoubtedly the largest amphitheatre ever built. The Flavian Dynasty structure had a seating capacity of more than 55,000 spectators.

Why is the Colosseum broken?

As the Romans began to lose interest in those spectacles staged in the Colosseum so did the attention paid to maintaining the structure dwindle. In 217 C.E. a massive fire broke out in the building and destroyed a significant section of the wooden parts of the interior.

The structure was also rocked by a number of earthquakes over the centuries, with the severest happening in the middle ages. By the turn of the 20th century, the magnificent edifice had become a pale shadow of itself, as it had lost more than half of its original material.

At some point in time, the blocks that fell off the Colosseum during the earthquake of 1349 were used by the locals in the area to construct their houses.

The Colosseum, as it was common with ancient buildings, also suffered from a lot of pillaging, with many of the bronze clamps hacked off the walls. The scars from the damage are can still be seen today.

Beginning around the reign of Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-1758), reasonable efforts were made to protect the beautiful landmark. Benedict ordered the Colosseum be seen as a sacred site in honor of the several thousands of Christians that were killed in the arena during the Roman times. As a result, the pope and his successors devoted some bit of resources to the restoration of the building.

How many tourists visit the Colosseum yearly?

It has been estimated that the site receives several millions of tourists every year. In 2018 for example, the Colosseum was visited by close to 8 million tourists, making the site one of the most visited places in Italy.

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