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The Roman Empire • Rome • 4 • Colosseum

by mythic44

The Colosseum remains a world renowned, iconic symbol of the Roman Empire

The Colosseum is a site like no other. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing represents the sheer power and magnificence of the Roman Empire like this stunning piece of ancient architecture. Once the largest amphitheatre of Ancient Rome where gladiators, criminals and lions alike fought for their lives.

The Colosseum, or ‘Colosseo’ in Italian, was once the largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire. It was built in the first century AD by the Emperor Vespasian as a place for the people of Rome to enjoy. Originally named the Flavian Amphitheatre, after Vespasian’s family name, the man who brought the Roman Empire back from the brink would not live to see its completion.


The construction of the Colosseum was very much a symbolic gesture to create a clear distinction between Vespasian and his predecessor, Nero. Nero had committed suicide after suffering military coups, partially a result of his extravagance, which included building the opulent Golden House and a vast statue of himself. By contrast, Vespasian was building the Colosseum for the citizens of Rome. As if to emphasise this point, the Colosseum was built in the former gardens of Nero’s palace over the site where Nero’s colossal statue had stood.

Completed in 80 AD, the Colosseum was opened with great fanfare by Titus, Vespasian’s son and successor. He marked the opening of the Colosseum with one hundred days of games, including stunning battle recreations on artificial lakes of water. The fact that the Colosseum was completed by this date was particularly impressive considering the building’s incredible complexity, vast size and the fact that Vespasian only came to power in 69 AD.

Even despite the short timescale of the build, the result was spectacular. Not only was the Colosseum able to take up to 50,000 spectators, it was also perfectly symmetrical, ornately decorated in marble and stone and an incredible feat of engineering.

The Colosseum remained the amphitheatre of Rome until the end of the Roman Empire. This was the place where gladiators, lions and those accused of crimes were put to the test, often fighting to the death.

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum has suffered from various destructive forces, including extensive pillaging of its stone and marble as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes. In fact, its materials contributed to many famous Roman buildings such as St Peter’s Cathedral and the Palazzo Venezia. Yet, even though a third of the Colosseum has been lost over time, this magnificent structure remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful historic sites in the world.

A visit to the Colosseum offers a great insight into the lives of Roman citizens and those who had the misfortune of fighting there. In particular, it is now possible to tour the underground hallways and corridors where the gladiators of ancient Rome would prepare to fight and ponder their mortality. Also recently opened are the higher areas of the structure, from where you can take in views of the Roman Forum.

There is a museum within the Colosseum with a wealth of interesting artifacts and information and audio guides are available in a number of languages. This site also features as one of our 7 New Wonders of the world.

The Colosseum (or Coliseum) was started by Vespasian (AD 9 – 79) on becoming emperor in 69 AD. It was built on the site of Nero’s Golden Palace in order to give the land back to the people having been acquired by Nero following the great fire of Rome in 64 AD when the previous amphitheatre was destroyed. Vespasian never saw the amphitheatre completed as he died in 79 AD. It fell to his sons, Titus and then Domitian to complete the project.

Rome is about 2600 years old, and during this time, layers of buildings and roads have accumulated, with many ancient buildings to be found underneath modern day ones.  The Square around the Colosseum, however, is at the same level as it was in ancient times.

When it was first built, the Colosseum was surrounded by an area paved with large travertine slabs with boundary stones set in the ground. A Colossal statue of Nero, which stood by his palace was retained and it was that which gave it it’s name although its’ correct name was the Flavian Amphitheatre – after the Flavian dynasty of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian.

The building itself is elliptical in shape, 187 metres long by 155 metres across and 50 metres high. It originally consisted of three floors – with the attic being added later by Domitian. It consisted of 240 external arches with 76 used as entrances. These were numbered, and determined the entrance to be used by each ticket holder. This enabled an efficient circulation of the 50,000 to 70,000 people it could accommodate and provided swift access and egress – calculated to be approximately 30mins – and it kept the different classes of spectators separated.

The arena is 75 metres by 44 metres with the floor made of timber. This was covered with yellow sand which is called harena in Latin, which is where we get the word arena. The spectators were seated in tiers above the arena according to class, with the higher social classes nearer the arena.  A fence was place on the podium with wooden rollers on top, in order to prevent anything from climbing over from the arena.

When first constructed, the floor could be removed, allowing the arena to be flooded for sea battles called a naumachia; later Domitian added a complex of stores and holding rooms which were constructed  on two floors and known as the hypogeum (meaning underground) which brought an end to the naumachia. Animals and gladiators would be kept in the hypogeum until they were required in the arena when they would be lifted into the arena by a series of elevators, or guided up ramps. The hypogeum was connected by underground tunnels to a number of points outside the Colosseum in order to be able to bring in the animals, gladiators and the condemned without them having to use the streets around the Colosseum.

The construction of the Colosseum involved the draining of the lake constructed by Nero and was achieved due to a number of technical innovations in architecture and construction developed by the Romans. These were the arch, concrete and mass production of bricks. It used a number of construction materials to maximise their qualities, these were travertine, tufa, brickwork and cement. The project required vast resources, much of which came from the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The games themselves lasted all day, the morning entertainment was the hunt, where animals were hunted and killed; in many cases with the use of elaborate scenery. Midday was when the condemned were executed and the afternoon was the gladiatorial combat.

During the games spectators would be protected from the sun by an awning which was secured to poles passing through sockets at the top of the building and supported on rests built into the walls. The awning was controlled by a unit of sailors of the imperial fleet.

The Colosseum became known as the arena of death due to the number of animals and people who died there in the name of entertainment. The Inaugural games lasted 100 days with thousands of animals being required.  The Colosseum remained in service for four and a half centuries with the last gladiatorial combat in 404 AD and the last hunt in 523 AD.

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