Who Built the Colosseum and When?
Construction of the Colosseum was initiated by the emperor Vespasian around 72 AD. His son Titus reigned over its completion and the official opening ceremonies about eight years later in 80 AD. In a show of Rome's wealth and extravagance, during the opening ceremonies, 100 days of games were held.
It was built near the site of Nero's Domus Aurea "Golden House". This is significant in that his successor, Vespasian, wanted to erase the memory of Nero's extravagant reign from the minds of the Roman population.
How Did the Colosseum Get Its Name?
It got its popular name, the Colosseum, because of its nearby proximity to the Colossus of Nero (Colossus Neronis), a giant statue of Nero which was between 99 and 121 feet tall (different ancient sources give varying heights for the statue).
It is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater. Vespasian, Titus and Domitian (son of Vespasian and brother of Titus, who further modified the Colosseum after succeeding his brother Titus as emperor) are known as the Flavian dynasty, and the amphitheater was named for its association with their family name (Flavius).
Why was the Colosseum Built and for What Purpose?
Just like a modern-day sports or concert venue, the Colosseum was an arena in which a large crowd would watch the entertainment happening in front of them. Of course, unlike sports or music, the entertainment provided back then was a little more extreme and bloody.
Gladiatorial contests were a particular favorite of the crowds, more information on which can be found on our Gladiators page, and were a frequent event at the Colosseum.
Wild Animal Contests
Also popular were spectacles involving wild animals. Although the Roman Empire itself was vast, few of the common people would have actually travelled very far away from their home and work. Strange looking animals from distant lands were fascinating to the masses. In a time before television or photography, people had to make do with verbal descriptions and artist drawings of such creatures, so to see them for real with their own eyes was extremely enticing and drew large crowds.
Unfortunately for the animals, they were not there just to be looked at and admired. While a modern-day zoo may have conservation and animal welfare as a key element of its function, these animals would typically be used as prey in a venatio, which was an animal hunt that took place in the arena. The hunts were often conducted amongst elaborate sets to enhance the realism and provide an even greater spectacle for those present.
The most popular animals were those transported from the continent of Africa, as these were typically the largest, the most ferocious and/or simply the strangest looking! Lions, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippos and ostriches were particularly fascinating to the inhabitants of Rome, as they were unlike anything to be found in Europe.
The animals were not always the ones to be killed, as another popular spectacle to take place in the arena was the execution of prisoners. Damnatio ad bestias involved the condemned person(s) being forced out in the arena, typically naked and unarmed, against an animal such as a lion or panther, and literally be mauled and torn to pieces. Obviously, this didn't take too long, and was a bit of a sideshow put on during an interval between gladiator bouts. Sometimes there were acrobats and magician performances during intervals too for a bit of light relief!
Ancient sources state that during the inaugural games in 80AD, the Colosseum was flooded to accommodate a display of specially trained swimming bulls and horses. There are also accounts of mock naval battles taking place. The difficulty with this is trying to understand how, if the stories are true, the Romans managed to keep all the water in place rather than it just seeping away through the floor or out the sides of the arena.
Some historians speculate that these events may have actually taken place nearby rather than within the Colosseum itself. Others think the accounts are true, and that there may have been a wide, floodable channel in place down the center of the arena at one point in time that could have been filled with water.
Most historians now think that the hypogeum, the large network of tunnels and rooms underneath the floor of the Colosseum that housed the waiting gladiators, animals and set designs, was not part of the original construction and was created later by the Emperor Domitian, and it was this area that was filled with water.
How Big is the Roman Colosseum?
The huge theater was originally built encompassing four floors. The first three had arched entrances, while the fourth floor utilized rectangular doorways. The floors each measured between 32-42 feet (10.5-13.9 meters) in height. The total height of the construction was approximately 144 feet (48 meters). The arena surface measured 237 x 135 feet (79 x 45 meters), and consisted of wood and sand.
The word "arena" is derived from the Latin arena, which means "sand". Nets along the sides provided the audience with some protection from flying debris.
Capacity and Audience
The Colosseum had a total spectator capacity of 45,000 - 55,000 throughout its existence. There were no less than 76 numbered entrances and four additional entrances reserved for the Emperor, other VIP's and the gladiators. The Colosseum was designed for easy crowd dispersal; the entire audience could exit the building in five minutes. The interior was divided into three parts: the arena, the podium, and the cavea (seating section). Now, more than two-thirds of the original inside of the building has been removed and the rows of the seats in the cavea are missing. It is very similar to other amphitheaters in the ancient Roman world, except this one is much bigger.
The audience, upon entering, climbed sloping ramps to their seats, according to gender and social class. Obviously, the higher one's social status, the better their seating arrangement would be. For example, women (excepting spouses and members of the imperial family) and the poor, stood or sat on wooden benches in the fourth tier. During inclement or very hot weather conditions an enormous, colored awning (velarium) could be stretched overhead to protect the crowd.
What is the Colosseum Built From and How Was it Constructed?
The amphitheater itself is built of travertine (a form of limestone) outside, and of tufa (also a variety of limestone) and brick in the interior. The main pedestals were built of marble blocks weighing 5 metric tons (11,000 pounds). Initially, the huge marble blocks were held together by metal-pins. However, the pins were soon carried off by thieves, and had to be replaced by mortar. The total amount of marble needed for the construction was approximately 100,000 cubic meters. It was carried by 200 ox-pulled carts, which supplied a sufficient flow of needed materials.
The Colosseum needed a variety of buildings within it and nearby in order to function as a provider of large-scale entertainment to the masses.
The Ludus Magnus was the largest gladiator school in Rome, built by the emperor Domitian in the late first century AD, and featured an underground passage that connected it straight to the Colosseum! The school had a large outdoor training area, which itself drew large crowds of eager spectators who came to watch the gladiators train.
Also nearby were armories which made and stored weapons used by the gladiators, workshops for the machinery and set construction, medical facilities to treat wounded gladiators, and the Spoliarium, where bodies of dead gladiators were stripped of their armor and disposed of.
And of course, just like today, there were many enterprising individuals who saw the enormous number of people flocking to the games as a large potential customer base. Refreshment sellers, bookmakers and many others would have positioned themselves as close as they could to the Colosseum, either in a permanent structure or mobile cart, in order to try and sell their wares to the crowds streaming in to the Colosseum (and then out again afterward).
The Colosseum After the Fall of the Roman Empire
Damage and Destruction
After the decline and fall of the Roman empire, many of its once magnificent buildings began to fall into disrepair over the subsequent years. Whether they were worn down by nature or dismantled by men in order to use the materials to build something else, many Roman buildings soon disappeared.
In this regard, we should be thankful that much of the Colosseum in Rome still exists for us to visit and marvel at. However, it too faced damage from both people and natural causes.
An earthquake in 1349 AD caused much of the outer walls on the south side to collapse. Rather than repairing the Colosseum, much of the stone was removed and used in other buildings in Rome.
People in the medieval ages did not just wait for nature to break apart the building though. The interior was frequently plundered for the vast quantity of stone within, as it was far easier to take it from here than transport heavy stone freshly dug from a far away quarry. The marble façade was stripped and used in the process of creating quicklime, and as mentioned earlier, the large bronze pins and clamps that held stonework together were removed and melted down.
Other Uses and Preservation
We tend to imagine the Colosseum in use for gladiator fights, and then see it today as one of Italy's premier tourist attractions, but what about the 1,500 years or so in between these two functions? Did it just sit there empty, occasionally being chipped away at by Rome's inhabitants for building materials?
The answer is no, fortunately, as otherwise the whole thing would probably have been destroyed piece by piece long ago if it had remained sitting there unused and abandoned.
The fall of the Roman Empire did not just happen overnight and be removed from the memories of those who inhabited the city of Rome. People still lived their lives, and still enjoyed forms of entertainment that their ancestors had. In this regard, games and animal hunts were still held at the Colosseum well into the 6th century AD.
During the medieval period, the arena was actually converted into a cemetery when a small chapel was built into the side of the Colosseum structure. Numerous houses and workshops made use of the vaulted spaces in the arcades under the seating, as people found that the spaces provided perfectly adequate space within which to live and work.
These spaces were rented out up until around 1200 AD, when the powerful Frangipani family from Rome took over the Colosseum and used it as a fortified castle.
After this, the structure moved more towards occupation and administration by the Christian Church. A religious order occupied part of the Colosseum from the mid-14th century, all the way through to the early 1800s. In fact, coming under the control of the Church was probably the factor which meant that we can still enjoy the structure today.
The debate about whether Christians were really thrown to the lions and executed in the Colosseum still goes on today, but in 1749 Pope Benedict XIV (14th for those who haven't studied the Roman numerals page yet!) consecrated the building to the Passion of Christ, declaring it sanctified by the blood of the Christian martyrs who died within. As a result, it was forbidden to take away or use any of the stone or other materials from the Colosseum, thereby preserving it for future generations.
The Roman Colosseum Today
For a building that is close to being 2,000 years old, the Colosseum is in surprisingly good shape. As we have seen in this article, both nature and man have done damage to the structure over the two millennia since its construction, but thankfully the majority of it is still standing for us to enjoy today.
The Colosseum is now one of Rome's most popular tourist attractions, and in 2007 was voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World from a shortlist of over 200 monuments from all across the world. It is also a site of religious significance, and the Pope leads a procession to the Colosseum on Good Friday each year.
Where is the Colosseum Located?
The Colosseum is located on the east bank of the River Tiber in Rome, Italy. It is best reached either on foot, or by taking the Metro and getting off at the Colosseo station, which is a 2-4 minute walk away from the Colosseum itself. It is located only about three quarters of a kilometer from the remains of the other large capacity arena in the city, the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo), where ancient Romans gathered to enjoy the fast-paced sport of chariot racing.
The magnificent structure of the Colosseum can be admired from the outside, but if you're there, it is well worth the time and money to enter and see inside this spectacular historical arena!
Did you know...
A secret passage was recently uncovered under the Colosseum, elaborately decorated with mosaics and plaster carvings, that was supposedly built to let Emperor Commodus run away from angry mobs!