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The Colosseum was built by Emperor Verpasian, the founder of the Flavian Dynasty. The Colosseum was actually originally called “the Flavian Amphitheatre”. The construction started in year 72 AD and the whole building stood completed 8 years later.
The huge structure was constructed on top of a park built by the previous emperor, Nero. This park included a massive statue of Emperor Nero, which was allowed to remain next to the theatre.
The statue was known as the Colossus statue, from which the theaters current name – Colosseum – derives from. The name was further changed towards “Colosseum” during the Middle Ages. In Italian, the amphitheatre is still known as Il Colosseo.
A massive stadium
The size of the Colosseum is imposing. Its elliptical structure reaches 189 meters long, 156 meters wide and stands almost 50 meters tall. The number of people it could accommodate is not certain, but estimates put the figure at around 50,000. The architecture was carefully planned in order to fit all these people. Its architects adopted solutions very similar to those used in modern stadiums to deal with the same problem.
The Colosseum had a total of eighty entrances at ground level. Each one was numbered, just like each exist and each staircase. In order for spectators to find their seats, they were given tickets in the form of numbered pottery shards which directed them to the appropriate section and row. The sections were based upon class and rank in the society, with the higher classes getting the seats which provided the best view.
Innovation at its finest
The Colosseum was not only groundbreaking when it comes to sheer size; it was also one of the most innovative and complex buildings of its time. The arena in particular had some very innovative solutions.
The arena consisted of a wooden floor covered by sand which concealed an elaborate underground structure known as the “hypogeum”. The hypogeum, literally meaning “underground”, consisted of a two-level subterranean network of tunnels and cages.
The underground was where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Several tunnels connected nearby stables and gladiator schools to the hypogeum which allowed them to enter the structure undetected. By raising and lowering several hidden shafts and platforms, both gladiators and wild animals could be summoned instantly into the arena.
One can’t mention the Colosseum without mentioning gladiators. These classic warriors got their name from the roman short word, Gladius, which was used by the Roman legionaries. A gladiator was normally a prisoner of war or a slave who had been given the decision to either stay as a slave or fight in the arena.
For the ones who got the chance to chose, the decision was most likely hard -but easy. Slavery meant a slow, often painful death. On the other hand, successful gladiators could become very famous and even earn some money. If they survived enough battles, they also won their freedom by gaining the wooden sword.
The gladiator battles were by far the most appreciated of all shows. Before the battles began, the gladiators always paid homage to the Emperor’s stage with the famous words; “Ave Caesar, those who are about to die salute you.”
The gladiator battles were often duels between two combatants, matched up against each other depending on why type of equipment they carried. If one gladiator had been defeat in a duel, but not killed, he could ask for mercy by raising his arm. The emperor then decided his fate by either giving thumbs up or thumbs down, while the crowds did their best to affect the decision.
Other shows that frequently took place in the arena were battles between wild animals and between men and animals. The animals were mainly imported from Africa and the Middle East and included creatures such tigers, lions, bears and panthers. The games were usually held for a whole day or even several days in a row.
To mark the inauguration of the Colosseum in year 80 AD, Vespasian's successor, Titus, held games one-hundred days in a row. In the process, thousands of wild animals and gladiators were killed.
More than entertainment
The theatre quickly became the most important political tool of an emperor. Emperors used the Colosseum to entertain the public with games. It was here that the emperor met and controlled the people of Rome. The arena continued to be used for contests well into the 6th century, with the gladiatorial fights in early 5th century.
Throughout the years, the Colosseum has been damaged several times. Within its first 500 years, several earthquakes accrued which led to both external and internal damage on the structure. Lightning also hit the Colosseum one time, resulting in a fire which destroyed wooden parts of the amphitheatre's interior.
Severe damage was dealt to the Colosseum in the 14th century, when a major earthquake caused parts of the outer walls to collapse. The result of this can still be seen today, as the whole southern part of the outer wall is gone.
During the Middle Ages, ancient Roman buildings and monuments weren’t respected in the same way they are today. For this reason, much of the tumbled stone was reused to build palaces, churches, hospitals and other buildings elsewhere in Rome, which has made any large rebuilding projects impossible.
Other signs of the medieval spoliation can also be seen on the Colosseum. The bronze clamps which held the stonework together have been hacked out of the walls, leaving numerous marks which still scar the building today.
During its history, the Colosseum has not only been used for games and events. After the last gladiator and hunting events, it has been used as a church, as a cemetery and even as a fortress at one point.
During the 16th and 17th century, Church officials sought a productive role for the old Colosseum. Pope Sixtus the 5th even suggested that the building should be turned into a wool factory, but his proposal fell through.
This thought of making the building productive was later abandoned. Instead, several Popes had various stabilization and restoration projects initiated. What they didn’t know at this time, is that this decision was about to make the Colosseum extremely productive in the future. Without their restoration projects, the Colosseum of today would not have been the same.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century, the façade has been reinforced and the interior repaired. There has also been a major restoration project more recently, finishing in year 2000. This project involved cleaning the building in order to deal and combat the effects of air pollution.
Why visit the Colosseum ?
The Colosseum was the Roman Empire’s most impressive building. The ruins of the Colosseum have fascinated people over the centuries with its striking beauty. One can only imagine how great it was during its prime time.
The Colosseum has become one of Rome's most popular tourist attractions, receiving millions of visitors each year. Hardly surprising, as the Colosseum is not only one of Italy’s most famous buildings, but one of the most famous buildings in the whole world.
Visitors to the Colosseum can enjoy walking in what use to be the Roman Empire’s most impressive building. The underground of the Colosseum, the hypogeum, is now totally exposed, so visitors can really get a good look of the fascinating levels.
The Colosseum is located in Rome, Italy. The Colosseum is situated next another of Ancient Rome's greatest sites; the Roman Forum. For the exact location of the Colosseum, check out the location map to the right.
The Colosseum at dusk. (GFDL) David Iliff.
The walls of the hypogeum. (GFDL) Wknight94.
The Colosseum at night. (GFDL) Marco Rimoldi.
Marks of the spoilation. (GFDL) Wknight94.
Interactive location map. For a larger and more detailed map, check out our Italy map.
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