Tag Archive: coliseum

The Colosseum

The grandest of all ancient Roman structures is the Flavian amphitheater, begun under Emperor Vespasian and finished less than 10 years later under Emperor Titus in 80 AD.  While in ruin, it remains a symbol of Rome and a very impressive shell of its former self. It was designated one of the new 7 Wonders of the World in 2007. The Colosseum is an example of advanced Roman engineering and design. When it was in use, it could hold as many as 80,000 people, and functioned in every way that a modern sports stadium does today. It was designed to move people in and out effectively, with 80 arched entrances/exits on all sides, stairs leading directly to sections of seating, and several ringed corridors on multiple levels.

It was built on the site of Emperor Nero’s man-made lake and golden house for a specific reason- to discredit the tyrant Nero and symbolically return Rome to the people in the form of a building all of Rome would make use of. Nero had also erected a 90 ft. tall golden statue of himself in the spot. Called the Colossus, Vespasian had the face altered to that of the sun-god and kept the statue. Within a few years, Romans were already calling the building “the Colosseum” after the Colossus. Today, the name is used around the world to describe large sports stadiums. The Romans began building by draining a lake (no small feat) and then used stone and concrete. A building like the Colosseum wouldn’t be possible without concrete, which was a Roman invention and a huge step forward in architecture. It allowed them to mold a foundation using wooden molds that would have been nearly impossible with stone. It also would have taken forever. They also built the entire structure using the second great Roman intention, the arch. Arches allowed the even distribution of weight to provide strength while using much less building material and opening up the space for light and air flow. The Colosseum is a ring of 80 arches 3 levels high, or 240 total. These supported a huge upper structure, which had wooden poles and elaborate rigging that allowed massive awnings to be extended out over the arena, shielding spectators from the burning sun.

The main attractions were public executions and gladiator fights, often with wild animals brought to Rome from across the empire. It’s difficult in our modern world to understand the Roman mindset concerning entertainment. They were  a bloodthirsty people who viewed killing as sport, and to them the gladiators were a lesser species all together. When the building was finally finished, Emperor Titus ordered 100 straight days of games in celebration, a horrific stretch where 5,000 people and wild animals were killed. The Romans had a knack for theater too, and would often use the arena to set up historical or mythical battle scenarios and allow them to play out. There’s evidence that they created a false landscape with dirt and trees in the center to stage a wild-animal hunt. They aqueduct was also diverted to flood the center of the arena for mock naval battles among gladiators.

Under Domitian, the hypogeum was added. Today, you can see it as a confusing maze of tunnels below ground level in the center of the Colosseum. It originally had a wooden floor built on top and covered with sand. The maze had cages for animals and slaves, and a series of pulleys and elevators could make them appear in the arena along with scenery. The Colosseum remained in various stages of use for a few hundred years until fires, earthquakes and the fall of Rome led to its decay.

During the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was used as a church, a cemetery and a fortress. In 1349 a huge earthquake caused the entire south side outer wall to collapse, which is why the Colosseum looks like an oval today. The original facade is still visible on the north side, without the many statues that used to fill the arches. There are also big holes today along the entire wall, which originally supported big brass fasteners that held great pieces of stone. These were taken and reused long ago. The Colosseum’s main use for a long time was as a quarry for stone and material. There were marble seats inside the entire structure, long since removed and reused in the building of Rome’s churches, including St. Peters. Today, only 1 small portion of the seats exists inside.

The Colosseum is a modern day roundabout for traffic in Rome, with lots of cars constantly buzzing by. Much of the restoration in recent years has been to remove the effects of pollution. Today millions tour the building every year, and more than a few modern-day Romans make a killing dressing up as gladiators for photo-ops. A huge debate rages on in Italy about the cost of restoration, as millions are needed to keep the Colosseum and other ancient ruins from further falling apart.

Here’s a fantastic site that has lots of other Colosseum info, as well as free downloadable travel movies and audio tours you can put on your iPod for when we’re there. It also has some virtual 360° shots of the Colosseum… absolutely the best resource online for this stuff. Pretty cool indeed-

Italyguides.it link


Vespasian was fortunate enough to have 2 sons, and he took steps to cement a new dynasty among Roman Emperors before his sudden death from illness in 79 AD. His oldest son, Titus, was actively groomed as his successor and even ruled with his dad in an unofficial role as co-emperor behind the scenes. Vespasian also left Titus to finish the work of defeating the Jewish revolt, seeing that is son would gain military glory. When Titus was finally emperor, many were convinced he would be the next Nero. Give credit to Titus though- his number 1 priority was to please the people and get on their good side, which he did in his 2 (yes, only 2 years) as Emperor. Two major disasters hit Rome  in those years. First, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the south. Second, another major fire swept the city and destroyed much of it. In both cases, Titus was quick to send disaster relief and begin rebuilding efforts. The massive Flavian amphitheater  (or Colosseum) which Vespasian ordered built, was completed and inaugurated with 100 strait days of games. In short order, Titus drained lots of funds but won the favor of Rome. Then, when all was going great, he died suddenly of illness at age 42, probably of malaria. All of Rome mourned, and in death Titus became something of a hero.

It should be said that these 2 Emperors remain enigmas. We know about them from the writings of Roman historians, but those are often tricky to take at face value. As each of the Emperors were glorified or reviled in death, the stories carry bias and it’s hard to know what is true. For instance, the horrible stories of Nero contain elements of truth based in real historical events,  but were written much later by historians who were out to discredit and demonize him. We must take this in mind whenever we study these figures. Titus certainly did a lot in only 2 years and went down among Romans as one of the great rulers, but it’s hard to say if he was really a decent ruler or not. The story of his successor Domitian, is one of the toughest to get to the bottom of. Over time, he has gone down in history with the likes of Caligula and Nero, but the evidence of his reign paints a more complex portrait then that of a tyrant.

Domitian was the younger son of Vespasian and brother of Titus, and since Titus didn’t have an heir he moved quick to make sure he was next in line. He was declared Emperor in 81 and began his 15 year rule in a difficult position. Many assumed that Domitian had poisoned his brother to get the throne, though there’s no evidence that he did. By all accounts, Domitian was a cold, power-hungry dictator. He saw no reason whatsoever to pretend (as his predecessors had) that the senate held any power over him, so he moved quickly to take total control. At the same time, he launched more huge building campaigns and wars on the empires outer borders. Historians paint him as unhappy, insecure and paranoid, always on the lookout for those wishing him harm. He had many prominent senators put to death or exiled. It’s never been proven, but some ancient sources say Domitian persecuted Jews and early Christians as well. In the end, he was assassinated as part of an elaborate plot. It goes without saying that the senate and other higher-ups hated Domitian for his abuses of power, but then, they also wrote the histories. For most Romans though, life was peaceful under Domitian. It would seem that for all his shortcomings, Domitian was an effective ruler who, for a time, maintained order and helped Rome to prosper.

He left his mark in Ancient Rome in the form of buildings. He restored temples in the forum after the fire of 80, and dedicated the huge arch of Titus to his late brother. Today, just west of the Colosseum and south of the Forum are the remains of the palace on the Palatine hill, the mythical hill in Rome where Romulus and Remus were nursed by the she-wolf and the location of Rome’s first settlement. Domitian had the hill leveled off and completely rebuilt with a 440,000 square foot palace overlooking the Circus Maximus on one side and the Forum on the other. It’s in pretty bad shape today, but you can still tell from the size of the foundation and wall fragments how enormous it was. The complex had many separate buildings and private residences, all painted with elaborate paintings and furnished with the finest stone from across the empire. A huge extension of the aqueduct was made to bring water directly to the palace. Domitian is said to have been so afraid of conspirators, that he had columns installed made of reflective white marble so he could always see behind him.

Domitian also built a great stadium of his own across town (as if Rome didn’t already have enough venues for chariot racing and gladiatorial fights). Today, one of Rome’s most famous Piazzas occupies the spot. The Piazza Navona, when viewed from the air, still has the elongated horseshoe shape of Domitian’s stadium. Here’s a model of what Domitian’s stadium looked like and Piazza Navona from the air:

There’s no doubt about it- Emperor Nero, the last in the bloodline of “the divine” Augustus, was certainly among the most diabolically evil tyrants of all time. He grew up idolizing Caligula, who most Romans figured was as bad as an Emperor could be. Caligula was certainly bad, but also crazy. Nero was just plain evil, and he used his unlimited power in horrific ways. By the time he was forced to commit suicide (which he did while lamenting, “what an artist dies in me”) he had bankrupted Rome, killed off all his family members and pretty much everyone else in prominent government standing, and ruthlessly persecuted Christians.

Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was a woman willing to anything to have power. As a woman she couldn’t become Emperor, but her son could, so she married Emperor Claudius (even though he was her uncle), convinced him to adopt her son Nero as his heir, and then poisoned him. She was very much the puppeteer behind her son and his early reign as Emperor. Eventually, Nero grew tired of her influence and had her killed.

There are many crazy stories about Nero and his abuse of power, but none more important than his actions surrounding the great fire of 64. Rome burst into flames, and over 6 days most of the city burnt to the ground. Word spread quickly that Nero had fiddled (or played his lyre) as he watched Rome burn. Historians say that he sang a song about the fall of Troy, and through he probably wasn’t rejoicing at the fire, his image took a huge hit. To deflect the criticism after the fire, he blamed the Christians in Rome. They were an easy scapegoat. To Romans, they followed a common criminal who was killed by Rome, and they “drank the blood and ate the body” of Jesus. It was understandable that they were sometimes seen as cannibals. The first great persecution was a result. Christians were dressed in animal skins and fed to lions for sport, and crucified and burned as human torches. Sometime during this persecution, the apostles Peter and Paul also met their ends. According to tradition, Peter was killed in the circus of Nero and crucified upside down, while  Paul, as a roman citizen, was beheaded. St. Peters basilica was built over Nero’s circus on the spot of Peter’s crypt, which became a place for early Christians to gather. Here’s a map that shows the foundations of Nero’s chariot track, the original St. Peters, and the basilica as it is today:

Nero’s excesses are legendary. In the aftermath of the fire, he took a large area of burnt Rome and transformed it into an enormous golden palace for himself, called the Domus Aurea. When Nero built it, there was a huge backlash. Romans came to believe that Nero himself had started the great fire in order to clear the city for his own palace. The Domus Aurea included hundreds of decorated rooms, large courtyards, a man-made lake with a floating palace in the middle, and a 120 foot high colossal golden statue of Nero as the sun-god (The colossal statue led to the much later naming of the building to be built in it’s place, the Coliseum). After Nero was dead, those in power attempted to eradicate all traces of him by altering his statues and buildings. They filled in his lake at the Domus Aurea, and eventually built the greatest of all Roman buildings on the site: the Flavian amphitheater, or Coliseum. Much of the Domus Area is still there, with many underground rooms exquisitely painted. It was only recently opened to tours in the last few years, but in 2010 torrential rains caused the cave in of a huge vaulted ceiling, causing destruction and the closing of the Domus Aurea for the foreseeable future.