As you walk toward the Colosseum along the Via del Colosseo, with the crowds of sightseers and street vendors surrounding her, you can’t help but marvel at this ruined giant from a time long lost in history. Few ancient structures can identify a city and its founding people. However when you see these structures you immediately know where you are and who built them. The Parthenon identifies Athens and the ancient Greeks and the Colosseum with Rome and the ancient Romans. But very few of these sites have the same mystique of historically correct or incorrect facts as does the Colosseum of Rome. Even its modern name, the Colosseum is incorrect to what the Romans during its heyday knew it as.
To know what is correct, and what’s conjecture about this famous and inspiring amphitheater we must look back before it was built. We start during the time of one of ancient Rome’s most decadent emperors, Nero. His reign was nothing but misrulings, murder and the building of lavish palaces. Even after the great fire of 64 AD, where much of the city was destroyed, he built on the ashes of his people. In the valley next to Nero’s large “deomus aurea” (garden house) which was located on the Esquiline Hill, the largest of Rome’s seven famous hills, he extended his gardens and constructed a large lake in the middle. On this lake he orchestrated sea battles with full size ships for his entertainment, and that of his privileged guests. It was on this site that the Colosseum would be build. At the entrance to these gardens, across from the Roman Forum, Nero erected a 100 foot tall bronze statue of himself as the Roman sun god. This statue was called the Colossus of Nero.
After Nero committed suicide in 68 AD there began a series of civil wars within the empire. During this time there were many would be emperors trying to take his place. It wasn’t until the Roman General Vespasian seized the throne in 69 AD that the empire became stable. Vespasian is best known for his military feats, mostly for putting down the Jewish rebellion and the siege of Jerusalem in 66 AD. Vespasian was the first of the Flavian emperors. Vespasian toned down the excesses of the former emperors and restored power to the Roman courts and Senate. The Emperor also promised that he would build the greatest public amphitheater in the world for the people. Selecting the site of Nero’s gardens and lake he began construction at around 70 AD. Work was finally completed by Vespasian’s son Titus in 80 AD. It was opened with the emperors family name, the Flavian Amphitheater.
Although it took ten years to complete construction went quiet fast for such a massive undertaking. The Flavian Amphitheater was constructed with stone, marble, and concrete. When it was finished its elliptical measurements were 620 feet long by 513 feet wide, with its outer walls measuring over 164 feet high. Over 3,531,466 cubic feet of travertine was used in its building, and the metal pins used to hold the blocks together weighted more than 300 tons. The floor of the arena measured 287 feet by 180 feet, and had a 15 foot high wall separating spectators from the action on the floor. Below the floor were two levels: one for the animals, and one for the gladiators. Tunnels, trap doors, and elevators allowed the combatants and wild animals to enter the arena from below.
Seating was by ancient Roman social order, the upper classes nearer the amphitheater’s arena floor and the lesser classes going up higher. However there was little worry about not getting a seat, because the amphitheater could hold 70,000 spectators.The amphitheater also had many visionary features ahead of its time for the comfort of its audiences and performers. To protect people from the sun there were enormous awnings that were rolled out around its top. Also to protect the audience from one of the wild animals from getting out the arena it was surrounded with a metal mesh screen. The 2000 movie “Gladiator” gave a fairly good idea as to what the Flavian Amphitheater may have looked like, but in reality it was much more spectacular.
For many of the hunting presentations hills, forests and small lakes were constructed on the arena floor. It was written that at one hunting performance over a hundred lions were released through the trap doors into the arena, and so loud were their roars that the crowd was frightened into instant silence. There is also an account that stated that over 9,000 animals were killed during the amphitheater’s inaugural games.
Today when we think of the Colosseum we think mostly of the gladiator battles. However unlike what’s been popularized in movies these fighters were mostly freemen who were looking for fame and fortune, much like today’s pro-athletes. However some were criminals that fought to earn their freedom. Another miss conception about the Colosseum is that Christians were martyred there. This story was started by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749, and there is no historical evidence of that ever happening in the Colosseum. Christians were martyred in Rome but at an earlier time, before the Colosseum. You’ll be very surprised at what place that was, I’ll reveal that location in another post.
So when did the Flavian amphitheater start being called the Colosseum, and how? There are two theories of how this name change came about. One is because of the structures size, being so colossal. Another, and one that I think is more accurate, is due to the bronze statue, “The Colossus of Nero.” Vespasian added sun rays to the crown of the statue’s head and renamed it “the Colossus of Solis.” Later in 128 AD Emperor Hadrian moved the statue closer to the amphitheater when he began building the Temple of Venus and Roma. Because the statue and the amphitheater were so close to each other people would refer to it as the Colosseum. No one is sure when the statue vanished into history, but the Colosseum still stood for them to see, keeping the name Colosseum.
As the western Roman Empire declined and the public’s tastes changed the Colosseum began being less and less used until all performances ended in around the 6th century. By then the arena had suffered much damage from earthquakes, fires, and other natural disasters. When it became completely abandoned it was vandalized and it’s marble and stone used as a quarry for other building projects in the city, these included St. Peter and St. John Lateran. By the beginning of the 20th century more than two-thirds of the original structure was gone. The Colosseum’s marble seats and most of its decorative trimmings are lost. In 1990 restoration began in earnest to save Rome most popular tourist attraction.
Today as you walk inside this great example the glorious architecture of the last imperial period of ancient Roman you can envision the masses walking along its corridors and up the stairs to their seats. And as you go out and see the remains of the arena floor and the cubicles below, you can almost hear the tens of thousands of Roman citizens cheering for their champions.