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The Colosseum: Rome's Arena of Death and Glory

The Colosseum in Rome, is one of the most amazing constructions, and an enduring symbol of the magnificence of the Roman Empire.

The Colosseum: Rome's Arena of Death and Glory
The Colosseum today. Photo credits: Unsplash

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In the heart of Rome stands the Colosseum, an enduring symbol of the power, ingenuity, and brutality of the Roman Empire. This architectural marvel, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, has captivated the imagination of people for centuries, not just for its imposing structure but for the tales of gladiatorial combat, wild beast hunts, and public spectacles that unfolded within its walls.

Foundations of the Colosseum

Commissioned by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty in AD 70-72 and completed by his son Titus in AD 80, the Colosseum was a grandiose project intended to symbolize the eternal strength of Rome and to curry favor with the populace by providing a venue for public entertainment. Constructed on the site of a vast artificial lake that was part of Nero's extravagant Domus Aurea complex, the Colosseum was a political statement as much as it was an architectural one, reclaiming land for the Roman people that had been monopolized by the despised emperor.

Constructed in the 1st century A.D., this iconic structure is primarily associated with the violent entertainments of the era, including battles between gladiators and wild beasts. As one of the most well-preserved and emblematic buildings of ancient Rome, it stands as a lasting tribute to the Flavian Dynasty's significant impact on the Roman Empire, showcasing their architectural and engineering prowess.

Upon ascending to the throne in 69 A.D., Emperor Vespasian, along with his sons Titus and Domitian, initiated an extensive construction initiative aimed at revitalizing Rome after it had suffered from fire, disease, and conflict. The Flavian Dynasty, over its 27-year rule, refurbished numerous city structures, artworks, and landmarks. In 70 A.D., Vespasian commissioned the construction of this grand amphitheater in the heart of Rome, financed by the riches acquired from the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in the First Jewish-Roman War. Dedicated a decade later, the Colosseum symbolized Rome's revival and prosperity under Flavian rule.

The Colosseum during golden hour
The Colosseum in Rome during the golden hour. Photo credits: Unsplash

This architectural masterpiece, the most grandiose and intricate amphitheater of its time, was constructed using an estimated 3.5 million cubic feet of travertine, along with vast quantities of marble, stone, and wood, reaching a height of 157 feet—equivalent to a modern 15-story building—and accommodating between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators.

Nathan Elkins, the deputy director of the American Numismatic Society and the author of "Monument to Dynasty and Death: The Story of Rome’s Colosseum and the Emperors Who Built It," notes,

“The Colosseum was just one part of a broader scheme by Vespasian and his sons to transform Rome. This was part of a larger effort to remove the influence of Nero from the city and to highlight their own legacy. The inauguration of the Colosseum by Titus featured 100 days of festivities, showcasing gladiatorial duels and exotic animal shows"

Architectural Marvel

The Colosseum's design was revolutionary. It could hold up to 80,000 spectators across its four levels, featuring a complex system of vaults and arches that supported the massive structure while allowing for easy movement of the crowds. Its exterior, comprised of travertine limestone, tufa infill, and brick-faced concrete, was both sturdy and aesthetically pleasing, a testament to Roman engineering prowess.

The interior of the Colosseum in Rome today. Photo credits: Unsplash

Before the Colosseum's creation, amphitheaters were typically makeshift, constructed from wood for temporary use. The Colosseum represented the second, yet by far the largest, permanent amphitheater erected in Rome. Although circuses, designated for chariot racing, were considerably larger, the Colosseum hosted a variety of violent spectacles, such as animal hunts, the execution of prisoners, and fights between gladiators.

Its elliptical design ensured that spectators had clear views from any seat within the arena. The Colosseum's external appearance features four tiers, with the first three tiers each boasting 80 arches. These arches are crucial both for supporting the grand scale of the edifice and for imparting a sense of lightness to the otherwise imposing mass of the structure. Symbolically, the arches serve as a multitude of triumphal arches, signifying the Colosseum's construction with the riches acquired from Judea.

The arrangement of seating in the Colosseum was strictly determined by social hierarchy, with the highest-ranking individuals positioned closest to the action on the arena floor, and those of lower social standing seated further up. The arena's vaulting played a pivotal role not just in maintaining the structural stability of the edifice but also in ensuring smooth access and movement for the audience. From the moment attendees entered the arena, the pathways leading to their seats were meticulously designed to reflect their societal rank.

Movement within the Colosseum was highly regulated, guiding spectators through the complex in a manner that strictly adhered to their social class. This level of segregation was so pronounced that the architectural layout of the corridors effectively prevented any interaction between Senators and Equestrians, ensuring that individuals only encountered others of their own class.

The Colosseum from the side
The magnificent Colosseum in Rome today. Photo credits: Unsplash

Beyond its impressive scale and durability, the architecture of the Colosseum included several remarkable engineering innovations. Among these were the vela, or "sails," large canvas awnings that shielded spectators from the sun's intensity during events. Managing the vela, as grand in scale as the Colosseum itself, presumably demanded the efforts of a thousand men, specifically sailors from the Roman fleet. While the vela adorned the Colosseum's uppermost part, equally intricate were the subterranean structures beneath the amphitheater. The arena, named after the Latin term for the sand that blanketed its wooden floor (used to absorb the bloodshed in combat), featured an elaborate underground system known as the hypogeum.

Beneath the Arena Floor

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Colosseum is what lay hidden beneath the arena floor: an elaborate underground complex known as the hypogeum. This subterranean labyrinth, added during the reign of Domitian, Vespasian's younger son, consisted of two levels of tunnels, chambers, and cells where gladiators and animals were held before contests. The hypogeum contained ingenious lifting devices and trapdoors, allowing for dramatic entrances of beasts and combatants into the arena, adding an element of surprise and spectacle to the games.

It was here, in the dimly lit corridors, that gladiators prepared for battle, praying to their gods or contemplating their fate. The hypogeum also housed the animals that would be used in the games, from lions and tigers to bears and exotic beasts brought from the far reaches of the empire, emphasizing Rome's power and reach.

Contrary to expectations of a smooth, sandy ellipse, the Colosseum's floor unveils a complex network of stone walls arranged in concentric circles, intricate patterns, and compartments, resembling an enormous thumbprint. This complexity intensifies as one descends the lengthy staircase at the stadium's eastern end, leading into the remnants concealed beneath a wooden floor for the nearly five centuries of the arena's active use since its opening in A.D. 80. Amidst the ruins, weeds reach waist-high across the flagstones; caper and fig trees emerge from the moist walls, composed of a mosaic of travertine plates, tufa blocks, and brickwork.

The walls and floor are marked with numerous carefully crafted slots, grooves, and wear marks, the purposes of which are left to speculation. This speculation is dispelled upon encountering Heinz-Jürgen Beste from the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, the foremost expert on the hypogeum, the remarkable and long-overlooked ruins beneath the Colosseum's floor. Beste has dedicated over 14 years to unraveling the mysteries of the hypogeum—derived from the Greek term for "underground".

Colosseum interior
Interior aspect of the Colosseum in Rome. Photo credits: Unsplash

The Arena of Death

The Colosseum was the stage for gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. These events were not mere entertainment; they were rituals that reinforced the values of Roman society, demonstrated the power of the emperors, and provided a cathartic escape for the masses. Gladiators, often slaves or prisoners of war, fought to the death, their blood spilled on the sand of the arena as a spectacle for the roaring crowds.

One side of the Colosseum in Rome
The Colosseum in Rome. Photo credits: Unsplash

The Colosseum's Legacy

The 1349 earthquake resulted in significant damage to the Colosseum, causing the outer wall to crumble. The debris from this collapse was repurposed for the construction of Rome's hospitals, palaces, and various other buildings. Rome's practice of reusing materials from older edifices for new constructions affected the monument immensely. As it deteriorated, its marble exterior was commandeered for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica by papal decree, which today stands as another renowned attraction in Rome.

The Colosseum remained in use for over four centuries, but with the decline of the Roman Empire, it fell into neglect. Over the years, it was stripped of its valuable materials, ravaged by earthquakes, and repurposed as a fortress, quarry, and Christian shrine. Despite this, the Colosseum has endured, standing as a monument to Roman architectural and engineering achievement.

Today, the Colosseum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. It continues to be a powerful symbol of Rome, drawing millions of visitors who come to marvel at its grandeur and to reflect on the lives of those who fought and died within its walls.

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For those that want to learn more about how the Colosseum looked and how it was constructed, we hope you’ll enjoy this video:

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