The Colosseum

The Colosseum in Rome arouses more emotion than any other structure from this ancient culture. Like most visitors to Rome, it was out first stop. I visited here twenty-five years ago (that makes me either pretty old now or very young back on that first visit). On that first visit I was moved to tears at all that this structure stood for. It was a bit more difficult getting in touch with that feeling upon this visit; it was extremely crowded and expensive to visit. But after the initial crowd and sticker shock I was once again caught up in the feeling of the place. It is truly colossal.

A few facts about the place. Known as a the Flavian Amphitheater, it was begun around AD 70 by Emperor Vespasian and finished by his son Emperor Titus in AD 80. The Flavian name refers to the dynasty family name that began with Vespasian. Estimates vary, but between 5,000 and 11,000 animals were killed in the arena during the first 100 days of celebration. It was designed to seat between 50,000 and 70,000 people. A series of hallways and 80 arched openings at the ground level around the stadium allowed for the entire crowd of spectators to exit the building in 10-15 minutes. It takes me longer than that just to find the bathroom at Dodger stadium! It is oval shaped, and is over 600 feet long and 500 feet wide. Its outer walls stand over 160 feet tall. The metal pins that hold the stone blocks of the Coliseum together alone weighed more than 300 tons. Shipbuilders from Naples were brought in to construct the velarium, a huge awning that shaded the entire arena from the sun and rain, much like the dome on the Houston Astrodome.

Many events were held in the Colosseum. Gladiators duked it out to the death and for the glory of being champions. Animals were battled and killed by these same gladiators. Often these animals were first used for public executions where criminals and later in the 2nd century AD Christians were fed to the lions and tigers and bears (oh my). The arena area was sealed off and filled with water in order to create mock sea battles. Land battles were also reenacted with elaborate sets that often included the construction of hills, forests and even lakes on the arena floor. These sets also doubled as backdrops for hunting shows. In addition, classical theater dramas were performed. In the event of a performance that had a death scene, a stunt double convict was brought in and executed to add realism and justice to the show. It was a gnarly place.

Around AD 95 Emperor Domitian decided to construct an elaborate network of hallways and elevators under the arena floor. This put an end to sea battles but provided some incredible drama for the other programs. At one event these underground elevators simultaneously raised more than 100 lions up. Their initial roaring was so loud that the usually rowdy noisy crowd was immediately silenced in fear.

In AD 438 gladiator fighting was abolished. Even though Rome’s official fall was in AD 476, the last official Colosseum performance, an animal hunt, was held under Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, in AD 523. After that it was used as storage, a fortress, and even a Christian church. Periodically groups would rummage through the ruins and salvage stone and marble to build palaces and other buildings. Today the Colosseum is pretty ruinous but what remains is symbolic of what was once the glory and disgrace of Rome.

One last little note. When I write about “The Colosseum” I am referring to the officially named Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome. There were dozens of coliseum amphitheaters throughout the empire. Also, the original spelling for the title was “Colosseum” and was a reference to the 100-foot tall gilt bronze Colossus of Nero that stood outside the amphitheater. The spelling “coliseum” was a medieval misrepresentation and now usually refers to any amphitheater…just in case you were wondering about these things!

The Colosseum

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