The Colosseum is found a stone’s throw from the arch. Originally, the site of the Colosseum was a pond that belonged to Nero’s large palace, the so-called golden house or domus aurea.
As its original name indicates, the Flavian Amphitheatre was built by the Flavian emperors. Construction began under Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, and finished in 80 AD under the rule of Titus. In that same year, a coin was minted depicting the Colosseum. These days, the Colosseum adorns the 50 cent euro coin.
The building owes its current name to the statue that Nero erected in his own honour at the very location where the amphitheatre was later built. It was a truly colossal statue of some thirty-two metres in height.
This makes it all the more impressive that an enormous mass of concrete, natural stone and marble was placed on this kind of subsurface (a pond) without it ever having subsided or shown any tears. The Colosseum has a long axis of 188 metres and a short axis of 156 metres. It is 527 metres in circumference and is 57 metres tall.
The core of the structure was made of concrete and lined with marble. The exterior also used natural stone, but without any cement. Instead, metal clamps were used to connect the stone blocks. You will notice that many of these clamps have been ripped out over the centuries; needless to say, the same goes for much of the precious marble. When we walk inside the Colosseum, you can easily notice the important contribution made by carpenters. It was they who made the formwork for the concrete of the columns and arches. Here and there, you can still see the seams between the wooden planks where the concrete leaked out, leaving a small upright ridge.
The architecture of the Marcellus of theatre served as a model for the exterior. The natural stones and concrete were lined with a layer of marble. The ground level used the Doric order, followed by the Ionic order on the second level, the Corinthian order on the third and it finished with Corinthian pilasters in the attic.
This sequence of using orders, first applied for the theatre of Marcellus, owes its popularity in large part to the Colosseum. During the Renaissance and onwards, countless architects used this sequence of orders, starting with Alberti (Palazzo Rucellai) in 1460. Another favourite and often applied element was the arch motif, flanked by two semi-columns on either side.
In the 19th century, excavations uncovered the underground corridor system and animal cages.
Prior to the construction of this amphitheatre, gladiator fights were held at the old Forum Romanum. Poles would be mounted to support tent walls, surrounded by wooden stands. These were taken down again when the fights were over, which was far from practical.
In all respects, the Flavian Amphitheatre was remarkably well thought-out. For example, it had no less than seventy-six entrances and a refined, extensive system of corridors that lead to the seats and the standing room areas on the different floors. This allowed the fifty thousand spectators to enter and leave the Colosseum quickly. Quite the improvement when compared to the mere two entrances of the Pompei amphitheatre.
There wasn’t usually an entrance fee, though you were required to get a ticket that would list the number of your entrance gate. If you look closely, you can still make out the Roman numbers above some of the entrance arches.
At first, the arena consisted of nothing but sand. This allowed the arena to be flooded, and so the Colosseum hosted water battles with crocodiles and sea serpents. This quickly resulted in all sorts of logistical issues to keep the enormous amount of wild animals accommodated (temporarily). All kinds of animals were used for the spectacles, ranging from herds of elephants and zebras to hippos and elks. The solution was to build several floors below the arena. Wooden boards, covered with sand to ease the task of removing spilt blood, closed off the underground floor. Gladiators were kept, trained and held captive inside two amphitheatres (Ludus magnus), the foundations of which we will examine when we pass through the Via di Giovanni Laterano on our way to the Basilica San Clemente.
Especially during summer, the sun was quite the obstacle for Roman spectators. To solve this, the sailors from Osta, the port of Rome some thirty kilometres west of the city, were requested to construct a sunscreen. With an ingenius system of levers, pulleys, cables, an iron ring above the centre of the arena and thatched mats, the sunscreen could be deployed. We will still see the natural stone poles at the exterior, to which the ropes for the sunscreen were presumably attached to. Modern research, however, revealed this to have been impossible. The angle of the ropes against the upper wooden poles would be so sharp that they wouldn’t be able to carry the force. The stone poles were possibly used to mount crowd control barriers.
Common knowledge today, the Colosseum was used for the immensely popular gladiator fights.
What occurred in the Colosseum can be read in the classical writings by contemporaries. The shows in the Colosseum, which could last up to a hundred days, had a fixed pattern. Animals were killed in the mornings. Followed by the clowns, and the criminals were then killed gruesomely and often painfully slowly. The criminals wore a sign that listed their crimes. The gladiators were next.
Dion described the hunt and the killing of animals at a show in 203 held in honour of the emperor Septimius Severus:
“In that time, there were all kinds of shows to honour Severus’ return, his ten-year anniversary as ruler and his victories. At these shows, at a given signal some sixty wild boars would fight each other, and many other animals were slaughtered, including an elephant and a krokotta (a kind of cow, barbarian in origin and appearance) […] The entire arena was designed like a boat that could hold or release some four hundred animals simultaneously. When the boat suddenly fell apart, the bears, lionesses, panthers, lions, ostriches, wild donkey and bisons appeared, so that the spectators witnessed some seven hundred animals of all kinds running around and being slaughtered.” Cited and translated from: Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’, Athenaeum- Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002 p. 237.
This was followed by the executions of criminals. The below is roughly how it transpired, according to a source that describes a punishment in Lyon in 177.
Maturus and Sanctus endured the entire plethora of tortures again in the amphitheatre, as if they had suffered nothing prior to it. […]
Once more they had to endure the whips, the bites of wild animals that dragged them through the arena, and anything else demanded by the loud screaming audience from all sides. The iron chair was their last rest. As their bodies were being roasted, the stenh of their own burning meat engulfed them.” Cited and translated from: Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’, Athenaeum- Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002 p. 240
Dawn was here, the people gathered to witness the spectacle of our punishment, the bodies of those who were about to die put on show by parading them around the arena, and our owner, whose fame was linked to how much of our blood was spilled, sat ready.
One aspect of my situation roused some sympathy with a few spectators, as it would happen with someone who is thrown randomly into the arena, of who no one knows the father, the sons or the fate: it seems my opponent was too strong. I would fall prey to the sand, no one was cheaper in the eyes of the host. The tools of death sounded everywhere. one would sharpen his sword, the other heated metal plates in the fire [used to keep gladiators in the, they would sometimes throw burning torches], batons here, whips there. You would think people are pirates. The trumpets then sounded their sinister sounds, stretchers were carried into the morgue and a funeral procession could be seen before actual death. Wounds, spitting and blood all around.” Cited and translated from: Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’, Athenaeum- Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002. p. 244.
These gruesome events did not just spawn from sadism. No matter how cruel, it was a way to demonstrate that crime was unacceptable in the Roman empire. It was one of the few options available to emperors to make this known amongst the public. The biggest spectacle was reserved for when the sun was at its highest point: the gladiator fights.
Emperors increased their popularity by organising gladiator fights. The saying of ‘bread and games’ is still used to this day. They would also distribute wheat at locations like the granary of the Trajan’s market (nowadays the Museo dei Fori Imperiali). To entertain the audience even more, wooden balls were thrown towards the spectators during the Colosseum fights. These balls had a sign on them. Depending on what sign was listed, one could collect clothes, food, horses or slaves.