The Colosseum in Rome

The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater in Rome is a monumental amphitheater built in the 1st century AD and one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world.

 

History – the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater

The name Colosseum was born in the Middle Ages, however Romans used to call the structure Amphitheatrum Flavium, from the name of the Flavian dynasty, to which the three emperors under the building was built belonged: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian.

The site of the amphitheater was an artificial lake part of the Domus Aurea, the huge residence built by the emperor Nero near the Roman Forum.

Construction work began in 72 AD. under Vespasian, and it was completed in 82 under Domitian; Funding came largely from war booty, including the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. The origins of the medieval name Colosseum are uncertain, it could derive from the “colossal” size of the building or from the presence of a giant bronze statue of Nero that stood nearby.

The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater ever built, capable of accommodating up to 50,000 spectators (some scholars estimate an even greater number of about 70,000).

To keep such large audience under control, the seats and sectors were identified with a reference number that was also reported on a sort of “ticket” that spectators had to obtain so that they could know in advance where find exactly the place assigned to them, not very differently from what happens in modern stadiums and theaters; traces of the red paint used to mark this seat numbering are still visible.

The important personalities of Rome had seats reserved for them, identified with their name or with the public office they held instead of a number, including the special box dedicated to the emperor and his guests.

The best positions were in the lower rows of the auditorium, while those in the upper part were intended for the plebs. The complex “ticketing” system was also necessary because the shows were always free and therefore very popular, so directing the nobles and personalities to the areas reserved for them and not mixing different social classes was considered essential at the time.

View of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

View of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.   (foto © Shutterstock.com)

Colosseum, Rome

Inside the ancient Colosseum in summer, Italy. The Colosseum is the main tourist attraction in Rome.  (foto © Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock.com)

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

The Colosseum, Amphitheater Flavium, in Rome     (foto © shutterstock.com) 

From the golden age to the decline of the Colosseum

The most popular attractions that took place in the Flavian Amphitheater included fights between gladiators, simulated battles (including naval battles, the naumachiae), executions and fights with animals, as well as less bloody events such as theatrical performances, circus performances and sports competitions.

Various types of shows alternated on the same day, thus requiring a complex system of service spaces, corridors and mobile platforms (raised mainly by force of arms with the aid of counterweights) housed in the basement, the remains of which we see today in the center of the amphitheater due to the loss of the wooden floor covered with sand that once formed the arena. An underground passage then connected the underground level of the Colosseum with the nearby seat of the gladiators, known as Ludus Magnus.

As far as we know, the last known shows took place in the Colosseum in 523, although it is possible that the structure was used sporadically for some time yet.

The end of the amphitheater as a place for public entertainment was the consequence of a series of factors: the decline and “fall” of the Western Roman Empire during the 5th century, the consequent collapse of the number of inhabitants of Rome from ‘over a million from the first century to a few tens of thousands – which made the amphitheater oversized and not very convenient to use – and the disapproval that the Christian clergy and the new “barbaric” rulers showed towards the bloody spectacles that had made their fortune of the Flavian Amphitheater, that led to the end of gladiator games in all the territories of the former empire.

From the 6th until the 18th century, the building was used as a quarry from which to prey on building material and decorative elements. At the same time, the ruined amphitheater was adapted for various functions, partially converted into homes, and sometimes still used as an improvised performance venue; but it was mostly seen as a sort of monumental scenic backdrop for religious celebrations and picturesque views of the city of Rome.

After being vandalized for 1,200 years, in 1749 an edict of Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the ancient amphitheater, thus prohibiting its further dispossession and starting the restoration process of the building.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, shortly after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, the Colosseum was forcibly deconsecrated and converted into a public monument owned by the state.

The architecture of the Flavian Amphitheater

 

The perimeter of the building was, and still is, marked by three orders of 80 large arched openings each and by a crowning attic punctuated by 40 smaller rectangular windows. From bottom to top, the three series of openings are framed by Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian columns respectively, the fourth with simple pilasters. At the center of the amphitheater is an oval-shaped arena, whose major and minor axes measure 86 and 54 meters respectively, with an area roughly equivalent to that of 12 tennis courts.

The above ground structure of the Colosseum is composed of a series of travertine pillars connected by cross vaults made of opus caementicium, the Roman ancestor of modern concrete. The visible part of the building rests on a massive foundation ring, about 30 meters thick and 13 meters high, made of concrete, bricks and various types of rock, including travertine, basalt and tuff. The robustness of this structure explains why – despite its age, having been built on the bed of a lake and various earthquakes – the amphitheater is still in fairly good condition, at least from a structural point of view.

Not very differently from today’s stadiums, the public entered the tiers through a circulation system composed of perimeter distribution galleries, stairs and passages. To protect the public from bad weather and the heat of the sun, the auditorium of the amphitheater could be partially covered with an annular curtain, called velarium, fixed to a series of wooden beams located on the top floor of the building.

Sunset at the Colosseum in Rome

Sunset at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy.   (foto © Shutterstock.com)

Basilika con Aquileia, Udine

The Colosseum in the morning sun of Rome.  (foto ©  Shutterstock.com)

Colosseum and Arch of Constantine Rome, Italy

Panorama of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine at sunrise in Rome. Architecture and symbol of Rome. Rome Colosseum is one of the main attractions of Rome and Italy.    (foto © Shutterstock.com)

Colosseum Rome

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