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Dominating what was once the center of Ancient Rome lies an oval amphitheatre that is the largest and most iconic monument in the Roman world. Simply whispering its name can cause a rush of different feelings, images, and emotion to come forth.
In several passages, we have mentioned this man-made megastructure, but we have never actual looked at it in depth. While on my Honeymoon, visiting this monument to Roman construction and engineering was a HUGE highlight.
Known by locals today as Il Colosseo, the Colosseum once was referenced by the locals in a more formal manner. Dubbed the Amphitheatrum Flavium (Flavian Amphitheatre), the amphitheater was named in honor of its creators from the Flavian Dynasty.
The construction was started by Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, and was finished by his son Titus in 80 AD. Further modifications were made during the reign of Domitian (81–96), another of Vespasian sons.
Holding an estimated 50,000 – 80,000 spectators, the Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles, venationes (animal hunts), executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Roman mythology. There was even a few naumachiae (mock sea battles) held there, as the arena would be flooded to make the somewhat scaled down ships sail about.
The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the Early Middle Ages. It was later reused for such purposes as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine.
In antiquity, Romans also referred to the Colosseum by the unofficial name Amphitheatrum Caesareum (with Caesareum an adjective pertaining to the title Caesar). Vespasian and Titus, builders of the Colosseum, also constructed an amphitheater of the same name in Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli).
The name Colosseum has long been believed to be derived from a colossal statue of Nero nearby (the statue of Nero was named after the Colossus of Rhodes). This statue was later remodeled by Nero‘s successors into the likeness of Helios (Sol) or Apollo, the sun god, by adding the appropriate solar crown.
In the 8th Century, a famous epigram attributed to the Venerable Bede celebrated the symbolic significance of the statue in a prophecy that is variously quoted:
Quamdiu stat Colisæus, stat et Roma; quando cadet Colisæus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus (As long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world).
This is often mistranslated to refer to the Colosseum rather than the Colossus (as in, for instance, Byron‘s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage). However, at the time that the Pseudo-Bede wrote, the masculine noun Colisæus was applied to the statue rather than to what was still known as the Flavian Amphitheatre.
The Colossus did eventually fall, possibly being pulled down to reuse its bronze. By the year 1000, the statue itself was largely forgotten and the name Colosseum had been coined to refer to the amphitheatre.
Unlike earlier Greek theatres that were built into hillsides, the Colosseum is an entirely free-standing structure. It derives its basic exterior and interior architecture from that of 2 Roman theatres back-to-back.
Its elliptical plan is 615 ft (640 Roman feet) long, and 510 ft (528 Roman feet) wide, with a base area of 6 acres. The height of the outer wall is 157 ft (165 Roman feet).
The perimeter originally measured 1,788 ft (1,835 Roman feet). The central arena is an oval 287 ft long and 180 ft wide, surrounded by a wall 15 ft high, above which rose tiers of seating.
However, it has suffered extensive damage over the centuries, with large segments having collapsed following earthquakes. The remainder of the present-day exterior of the Colosseum is in fact the original interior wall.
The surviving part of the outer wall’s monumental façade comprises 3 stories of superposed order capped by a podium on which stands a tall attic, both of which are pierced by windows interspersed at regular intervals. The arcades are framed by half-columns of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, while the attic is decorated with Corinthian pilasters.
Each of the arches in the 2nd and 3rd floor arcades enclosed statues. These were most likely honoring divinities and other figures from Classical mythology.
This consisted of a canvas-covered, net-like structure made of ropes, with a hole in the center. It covered two-thirds of the arena, and sloped down towards the center to catch the wind and provide a breeze for the audience.
Per the Codex-Calendar of 354, the Colosseum could accommodate 87,000 people. Modern estimates put the figure at around 50,000.
They were seated in a tiered arrangement that reflected the rigidly stratified nature of Roman society. Special boxes were provided at the north and south ends respectively for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins, providing the best views of the arena.
Flanking them at the same level was a broad platform or podium for the Senatorial Class, who were allowed to bring their own chairs. The names of some 5th Century Senators can still be seen carved into the stonework, presumably reserving areas for their use.
The tier above the Senators (the maenianum primum) was occupied by the Equites (Knights or non-senatorial Noble Class). The next level up (the maenianum secundum) was originally reserved for ordinary Plēbēs (Roman Citizens) and was divided into 2 sections.
The lower part (the immum) was for wealthy citizens, while the upper part (the summum) was for poor citizens. Specific sectors were provided for other social groups: for instance, boys with their tutors, Soldiers on leave, foreign dignitaries, scribes, heralds, priests and so on.
Stone (and later marble) seating was provided for the Citizens and Nobles, who presumably would have brought their own cushions with them. Inscriptions identified the areas reserved for specific groups.
Another level (the maenianum secundum in legneis) was added at the very top of the building during the reign of Domitian. This comprised a gallery for the common poor, slaves and women.
It would have been either standing room only, or would have had very steep wooden benches. Some groups were banned altogether from the Colosseum, notably gravediggers, actors, and former gladiators.
Each tier was divided into sections (maeniana) by curved passages and low walls (praecinctiones or baltei), and were subdivided into cunei (wedges) by the steps and aisles from the vomitoria. Each gradus (row) of seats was numbered, permitting each individual seat to be exactly designated by its gradus, cuneus, and number.
The Colosseum’s huge crowd capacity made it essential that the venue could be filled or evacuated quickly. Its architects adopted solutions to deal with problems so well that many modern stadiums have been very similarly constructed to the Colosseum.
The amphitheatre was ringed by 80 entrances at ground level, 76 of which were used by ordinary spectators. Each entrance and exit was numbered, as was each staircase, just like arenas today.
The northern main entrance was reserved for the Roman Emperor and his aides, while the elite most likely used the other 3 axial entrances. All 4 axial entrances were richly decorated with painted stucco reliefs, of which fragments survive.
Many of the original outer entrances have disappeared with the collapse of the perimeter wall. Still standing today, however, are entrances XXIII (23) to LIV (54).
Spectators were given tickets in the form of numbered pottery shards, which directed them to the appropriate section and row (just like today, expect our tickets our paper). They accessed their seats via vomitoria, passageways that opened into a tier of seats from below or behind.
These quickly dispersed people into their seats and, upon conclusion of the event or in an emergency evacuation, could permit their exit within only a few minutes. Fun Fact: The name vomitoria derived from the Latin word for a rapid discharge, from which English derives the word vomit.
The arena itself was 272 ft by 157 ft (280 by 163 Roman feet). It comprised a wooden floor covered by sand (the Latin word for sand is harena or arena), covering an elaborate underground structure called the hypogeum (literally meaning underground).
The hypogeum was not part of the original construction but was ordered to be built by Emperor Domitian. Little now remains of the original arena floor, but the hypogeum is still clearly visible today.
It consisted of a 2-level subterranean network of tunnels and cages beneath the arena where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Eighty vertical shafts provided instant access to the arena for caged animals and scenery pieces concealed underneath.
Hegmata (larger hinged platforms) provided access for elephants and other large pieces to be added quickly. It was restructured on numerous occasions, and today at least 12 different phases of construction can be seen.
The hypogeum was connected by underground tunnels to several points outside the Colosseum. Animals and performers were brought through the tunnel from nearby stables, with the gladiators’ barracks at the Ludus Magnus to the east also being connected by tunnels. Separate tunnels were provided for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins to permit them to enter and exit the Colosseum without needing to pass through the crowds.
Substantial quantities of machinery also existed in the hypogeum. Elevators and pulleys raised and lowered scenery and props, as well as lifting caged animals to the surface for release.
There is evidence for the existence of major hydraulic mechanisms and, according to ancient accounts, it was possible to flood the arena rapidly, presumably via a connection to a nearby aqueduct. However, the construction of the hypogeum at Domitian’s behest put an end to the practice of flooding, and thus also to naval battles, early in the Colosseum’s existence.
The Colosseum was used to host gladiatorial shows as well as a variety of other events. The munera (shows) were always given by private individuals rather than the state.
They had a strong religious element but were also demonstrations of power and family prestige, and were immensely popular with the population. Another popular type of show was the venatio (animal hunt).
This utilized a great variety of wild beasts, mainly imported from Africa and the Middle East, and included creatures such as wisents, rhinoceros, bears, hippopotamuses, elephants, giraffes, aurochs, Barbary lions, panthers, leopards, Caspian tigers, ostiches, and crocodiles.
Battles and hunts were often staged amid elaborate sets with movable trees and buildings. Such events were occasionally on a huge scale.
Trajan is said to have celebrated his victories in Dacia in AD 107 with contests involving 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators over the course of 123 days. During lunch intervals, executions ad bestias would be staged.
Those condemned to death would be sent into the arena, naked and unarmed, to face the beasts of death which would literally tear them to pieces. Other performances would also take place by acrobats and magicians, typically during the intervals.
During the early days of the Colosseum, ancient writers recorded that the building was used for naumachiae (more properly known as navalia proelia). Accounts of the inaugural games held by Titus in AD 80 describe it being filled with water for a display of specially trained swimming horses and bulls.
There is also an account of a re-enactment of a famous sea battle between the Corcyrean Greeks and the Corinthians. This has been the subject of some debate among historians since there would not have been enough space in the arena for the warships to move around.
It has been suggested that the reports either have the location wrong, or that the Colosseum originally featured a wide floodable channel down its central axis. If that was the case it was later replaced by the hypogeum.
Sylvae (recreations of natural scenes) were also held in the arena. Painters, technicians, and architects would construct a simulation of a forest with real trees and bushes planted in the arena’s floor, and animals would then be introduced.
Such scenes might be used simply to display a natural environment for the urban population, or could otherwise be used as the backdrop for hunts or dramas depicting episodes from mythology. They were also occasionally used for executions in which the hero of the story, played by a condemned person, was killed in a gruesome but mythologically authentic way, such as being mauled by beasts or burned to death.
In 2011 Diego Della Valle, head of the shoe firm Tod’s, entered into an agreement with local officials to sponsor a €25 million restoration of the Colosseum. Work was planned to begin at the end of 2011, taking up to 3 years.
Due to the controversial nature of using a public-private partnership to fund the restoration, work was delayed and began in 2013. The restoration (completed in 2016) was the only full cleaning and repair in the Colosseum’s history.
The initial stage was cleaning and restoring the Colosseum’s arcaded façade and replacing the metal enclosures that block the ground-level arches. The project created a services center and restored the galleries and underground spaces inside the Colosseum, including recreating the wooden floor that once covered the underground spaces.
The Colosseum today is now a major tourist attraction in Rome with thousands of tourists each year paying to view the interior arena, though entrance for citizens of the European Union (EU) is partially subsidized, and entrance is free for EU citizens under 18 or over 65 years of age.
There is now a museum dedicated to Eros located in the upper floor of the outer wall of the building. Beneath the Colosseum, the network of subterranean passageways once used to transport wild animals and gladiators to the arena was opened to the public in summer 2010.
The Colosseum is also the site of Roman Catholic ceremonies in the 20th and 21st Centuries. For instance, Pope Benedict XVI led the Stations of the Cross called the Scriptural Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on Good Fridays.
Although partially ruined because of damage caused by earthquakes and stone-robbers, the Colosseum is still an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome. The Colosseum is also depicted on the Italian version of the five-cent euro coin.
We hope you have enjoyed today’s adventure into possibly the most iconic centers of all of history. If you haven’t been to see the Colosseum, or Rome for that matter, we hope this may have inspired you to make your own journey.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
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