The Colosseum is often considered the defining symbol of ancient Rome, due partly to the psychological insights raised by the gladiatorial games that made it famous, but also in its role as an architectural wonder. Despite our revulsion at the ancient use of murder as a form of entertainment, we are inexplicably drawn to the violence. It is as if we are walking a fine line between reassuring ourselves that the Colosseum was built for a brutal society completely unlike our own, and knowing that the capability for such sadism might still be lurking in our modern culture.
Nero, the Roman emperor, never understood frugality. What he lost in love and support from his subjects, he made up for in lavish projects of self-indulgence. One of these projects was the Golden House, his gigantic palace built in the center of Rome, where the Great Fire of 64 A.D. had demolished everything that had previously stood on its ground. After Nero and the three temporary emperors fell, Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, or Vespasian, rose to power. Eager to dispel any resemblances to the despised Nero, Vespasian began construction of the Colosseum, a public venue of entertainment and a gift to his subjects. He had the lake of Nero’s Golden House drained, and the Colosseum took its place. Unfortunately, Vespasian died prior to the completion of his colossal amphitheatre. His son succeeded him, and the Colosseum was completed the following year during the reign of Titus Flavius Vespasianus Augustus , or simply Titus.
The Colosseum was neither the first nor the last amphitheatre to be built. Prior to construction of the Colosseum, there had been multitudes of temporary amphitheatres, but none were too massive or too permanent. In Rome, gladiators performed in the Forum while audiences watched from wooden benches that were dismantled at the close of each day. The proliferation of such temporary amphitheatres may seem impractical, but the Roman senators had very strong political reasons for refusing to build a permanent amphitheatre. In a republic like ancient Rome, citizens had a direct influence on elections and laws. This fact was exacerbated by the dual role of citizens as both voters and soldiers. The power of the Senate depended on the willingness of the soldiers to fight. If the citizen-soldiers were to collectively revolt against the Senate, the republic would crumble and the government would be powerless. Fearful of a potential uprising, the Senate avoided constructing buildings large enough for the majority of citizens to meet and conspire. However, with the advent of Roman emperors, this fear reversed itself. By midway through first century BC, the Republican system of government had imploded. Free elections by the people quickly turned into rigged elections by bribed senators. By 80 AD, when the Colosseum was completed, the monarchy was firm enough for emperors to risk confronting their subjects as a collective. In addition, it was essential that the emperor see and be seen by the people, especially as a means of perpetuating the myth that the emperor was always accessible to his subjects. The Colosseum was the perfect sized forum. It was a place where subjects could view their emperor with gratefulness as a benefactor, for patronizing the Colosseum games, but also recall the power of the emperor as their ruler.
When the Colosseum was completed, Titus held a massive opening ceremony, which was to have lasted a hundred days. Estimates for how many animals were killed during these celebrations range from 9,000 to 500,000. There are various accounts describing the shows given during the celebrations, though most are probably exaggerated. According to Dio’s account, the Colosseum was intentionally flooded, and ships and animals were brought in to stage a mock battle, recreating a famous naval encounter of fifth-century BC Greece. He also describes battles between cranes and elephants, and other magnificent creatures, though it is difficult to imagine how one might persuade a crane to fight within the open Colosseum. Martial’s book of poems, The Book of the Shows, describes scenes in which stories from mythology would be re-enacted. In one myth, the god Poseidon vengefully makes the wife of King Minos of Crete fall in love with a bull, and then give birth to Minotaur, a mix of human and bull. In Martial’s book, this scene is acted out between a woman and a live animal. It is unknown how literally these stories should be taken. There is evidence for dramatic executions of criminals in along these lines (presumably, the woman would not survive the encounter), although it is difficult to imagine how one might force a criminal to act out his or her own death. Possibly, these descriptions refer to people acting as animals, made “real” only by Martial’s fantastical imagery.
The opening ceremonies were atypical of the games held at the Colosseum. Generally, the games were more structured and routine. In the morning, fights involving either animals against other animals, or wild animal hunts by people, were held. During lunch, the Colosseum featured public executions of prisoners, and the afternoon brought gladiatorial fights. Supposedly, a gladiator would salute the emperor, saying “Hail Caesar, those about to die salute you!” before fighting, but the evidence for this line is minimal. A wounded gladiator was at the mercy of the emperor or the audience. A thumbs up supposedly signaled mercy, while a thumbs down signaled death. However, there is no evidence that these thumb signals corresponded to these assumed events; the signals may actually have meant the reverse.
Though most days in the Colosseum varied only slightly, events were occasionally held to celebrate an anniversary or victory, or to commemorate a predecessor. The emperor usually sponsored these games, but a wealthy family could also obtain permission to hold and fund a celebratory event for the public at the Colosseum. An emperor’s reputation could suffer or gain based on their generosity with these displays. The emperor Trajan gave the biggest bloodbath ever recorded at the Colosseum, to celebrate his conquest over Dacia (modern Romania). According to Dio, 11,000 animals were killed and 10,000 gladiators fought over the course of 123 days.
While Trajan and other emperors strategically hosted these massive shows to curry favor with their subjects, other emperors transgressed the boundary of appropriateness. The emperor Domitian, among others, had members of the Roman elite fight as gladiators. Commodus pushed these boundaries the furthest. He was said to have fought hundreds of private gladiatorial bouts, and he often fought in public displays, though with wooden swords only. Once, he opened an extravaganza by killing a hundred bears with spears thrown from walkways through the arena. The next day, he killed many harmless domestic animals, with nets to prevent disaster anyway, as well as a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Senators and knights were required to attend the games when the emperor was fighting, though they were more tense than comfortable. At one game, Commodus killed an ostrich and then took its head and approached the senators in the audience, as if to threaten them. Though senators were forced to watch the games, commoners had a choice, and many chose to stay home. Some refused to watch out of disgust for the emperor, while others stayed away because they had heard a rumor that the emperor was planning to dress as Hercules and shoot random spectators as if he was killing the Stymphalian birds from Herculean legend.
SEATING AND ARCHITECTURE
Even if we were to assume that writers such as Dio and Martial exaggerated the figures they cited in their descriptions of the Colosseum games, the arena necessary to accommodate such lavish displays would have to be massive. Indeed, the Colosseum is forty-eight meters high, and the original building is estimated to have used 100,000 cubic meters of travertine marble, quarried nearby at Tivoli. Over the years, the Colosseum has suffered natural disasters and looting, and survived through restorations and renovations. The combination of these factors makes it nearly impossible to determine which sections are original. In addition, the Colosseum has lost almost all of its original decoration, including marble facings, rich paintings, stuccoes, and statues. We have an idea of what the monument would have looked like with its decoration based on surviving paintings of the Colosseum done during the Renaissance, when more of the stucco decoration remained intact. Today, small fragments of brightly painted plaster still survive from the corridors, perhaps a sign of vivid coloring in ancient times.
The original Colosseum had four visible arcaded stories and an underground level, which was added shortly after the initial structure was built. It is built in the shape of a series of concentric ellipses, with a series of four annular (the Latin word for “ring”) corridors. The ground floor contains all four corridors, while each additional story contains one less corridor, until the top story has just one ring. The ground floor has plain Doric columns, the first has more complex Ionic columns, the second even more highly flourished Corinthian columns, and the top has Corinthian columns interspersed with windows. The effect of the arcaded stories was to create stadium seating, so that everyone in the Colosseum had a clear view of the arena. Each corridor offered access to a different part of the monument, and stairwells lead to the higher levels. The corridors probably contained water fountains and lavatories as well. The staircases were carefully planned and situated so that the elites could directly access the lower levels without being forced to mingle with the peasants headed for the upper levels.
The Colosseum had eighty numbered arches. Seating assignments corresponded to the numbers on the arches, organizing spectators into sections. Unlike modern stadiums, it was not possible to spend more money to buy a better ticket. Instead, tickets were distributed at no cost by organizations or powerful, influential patrons. Though no entrance tickets survive, they were probably small tokens made of wood, lead, or bone, which specified a block or entranceway, level, and row number.
Upon entry, spectators would have seen the arena as the ground floor. However, below the ground floor was the underground floor, and below even that floor was a complicated system of drainage. Since the Colosseum was built on the site of what was once Nero’s lake, flooding was a problem. The bowl-like shape of the Colosseum only enhanced this potential issue. However, a vast hydraulic system was arranged even before the foundations were built. The intricate network of underground drains runs all the way around and through the center of the monument. This vast ring runs eight meters bellow the valley floor, taking water off to flow into the Tiber River.
The Colosseum’s deepest foundations are roughly in the shape of two concentric circles. Under the walls and seating, these foundations lie twelve to thirteen meters deep, continuing for six meters outside the perimeter wall. Beneath the arena, the foundations are only four meters deep. Digging just the oval hole alone would have been a massive enterprise. Most likely, some excavated earth was used to raise the ground level around the whole building, while the rest was carted away. After the area was excavated, the building of the retaining wall began. The remaining hole, around 250,000 cubic meters in volume, was filled in with concrete, lime, mortar, and sand mixed with water and volcanic rock.
Shortly after the Colosseum was built, the underground floor was added for logistical purposes. It is rich with mazes of walls, forming different rectangular compartments. Interspersed between these compartments are square areas, which formed shafts for lifts to carry animals from the underground to the arena level. Some of the other rectangular compartments were storage areas, while others were rooms for gladiators or animals to be kept while they waited for their appearance in the arena.
A thick wooden board lay over the underground maze, forming the arena level. This would have been the first level visible to spectators. Three inches of sand lay over the wooden board, to soak up the blood and urine from the games. A tall wall surrounded the arena, keeping spectators safely distanced from the fights ensuing below. However, even a thick wall is not always enough to prevent an angered animal or a vengeful gladiator from climbing or jumping into the crowd. Other measures would have been in place to prevent a tragedy. These probably included a set of ivory rollers set around the arena, an extra fence jutting out toward the arena, and a wide net.
The next three levels were all filled with seating areas. Class differentiation was built into the Colosseum, with seating determined by rank. The elite seating was in the boxes on the northern and southern sides of the arena, at ringside. Elaborate northern and southern entranceways led directly to these elite boxes. It is believed that the southern entrance was for the emperor, due to the discovery of an underground passageway which gave direct access to the ringside from somewhere outside the building. This passageway was an insertion, probably soon after the building was opened, and it was decorated elaborately. Originally, the walls were faced in marble or alabaster, later replaced with frescoed plaster, and there was lavish stucco in different spots, while the floor was covered in mosaic. This passage was added to give the emperor safe passage to his private box. The northern box probably accommodated minor royals or the Vestal Virgins.
The senators and Vestal Virgins sat in wooden benches near the arena, while knights, the next official rank, sat behind them. Each descending rank sat on the next highest level, until the top of the seating area, which was reserved for slaves, non-citizens, and women. Relegating women to the poorest seating of the arena ensured that the audience (at least the elite crowd) was overwhelmingly male, since no woman of any pretensions was likely to enjoy sharing seats with the lowest classes of society. A little above the peasant seating, on the highest level of the outer wall, sockets were used to attach an awning over the audience. The awning provided some shade for the seating, but the center had a circular hole to ensure that light could still enter the arena.
The Colosseum was built with every factor in mind, including strategically placed passageways, an elaborate drainage system, and rank-based stadium seating. Now only one question begs an answer: who designed the Colosseum? Much to experts’ dismay, this query remains unanswered. We do know that vast quantities of slave labor, both skilled and unskilled, made up the majority of the workforce. Individual sections and arches were probably subcontracted to different groups. While the voussoirs (crucial to structural stability) in the arches are virtually identical, each individual arch varies by quite a bit more, reflecting variety based on the size of the travertine blocks delivered from quarries.
THROUGH THE AGES
Though the Colosseum began as a venue for emperors to host gladiatorial games, it has since held a variety of meanings and uses. Though the last gladiatorial game was held in the 420’s, animal hunts continued to be held for at least another century. Except for a bullfight held much later, our last evidence of an animal hunt is from 523. The Venerable Bede predicted, “While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand / When falls the Coliseum, / Rome shall fall, and when Rome falls – the world” (Quennell 89). Indeed, the Colosseum fell into disuse with the rise of Christianity and the fall of the ancient Roman Empire. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, passed legislation against the gladiatorial shows. However, it was highly ineffective and rarely enforced. Ultimately, it was civil war and barbarian invasions that drained Roman resources, effectively ending the shows through a lack of funding.
There are traces of animal stalls, shacks, and haylofts from the sixth century. Occupation of the Colosseum in this manner continued for centuries. Ownership is documented in legal records referring to small houses, gardens, courtyards, and boundary walls nestled both inside and around the monument. This smaller housing transformed into a much larger scale during the mid-12th century, part of the Colosseum was incorporated into the Frangipane palace. However, they lost control of the Palace a century later to the rival Annibaldi family, who then eventually sold it to the Christian “Order of St. Salvator”.
By the Middle Ages, the original use of the Colosseum had been completely forgotten. In 1332, a bullfight was held in the Colosseum, but ironically, those who held it seemed to have made no connection with the ancient use of the venue. Eighteen humans and eleven animals were killed during these games. There have been no recorded games held in the Colosseum since then.
The term “Colosseum” was actually adopted much later. The Colosseum began as the “Hunting Theater”, or simply the “Amphitheater”. However, during the Middle Ages, it was referred to as the “Coliseum”, from colo, the Latin word for worship. The building was thought to have been a Temple of the Sun, originally roofed with a gilded dome, and home to pagan demons, with a huge statue of Jupiter in the center of the arena. It was not until the fifteenth century, when Italian Renaissance humanists studied classical texts, that the Colosseum was once again recognized for the amphitheatre it had originally been.
Christianity took up the Colosseum as a holy monument, symbolizing the sacrifice of so many early Christian martyrs for their God. However, there are no actual accounts claiming that Christian martyrs were ever executed in the Colosseum; it is only assumed, since it would have been the logical place for executions to occur. Regardless, the role of the Colosseum as a symbol of death and brutality reversed with the rise of Christianity. The Catholic Church began to celebrate the Colosseum as a shrine to the martyrs who had died there. From 1490 until midway through the 16th century, Christian passion plays were regularly performed at the Colosseum, on Good Friday. In 1519, the small chapel of Santa Maria della Pieta, housing a resident chapel hermit, was constructed at the eastern section of the arena. Pope Clement X had a wooden cross placed atop the building with painted text to commemorate the religious significance of the Colosseum. In the 1750s, Pope Benedict X1V added another inscribed plaque. It was not until the 1870s that the religious décor was torn down and the resident chapel hermit was evicted. Catholic groups held pray-ins and the Pope protested the removal of religious symbols from the Colosseum, but both were to no avail. However, the Pope still visits the Colosseum every year on Good Friday.
Despite the religious significance of the monument, the papacy turned the Colosseum into a quarry during various points in time. Papal records dating up until the 17th century reveal permission forms to “quarry stone from the Colosseum”. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V signed permission for 2,522 cartloads of stone to be removed from the Colosseum to make limestone for St. Peter’s Basilica. During the 17th century, Pope Urban VII allowed his family, the Barberini, to take fallen travertine marble from the Colosseum to build their new Palazzo Barberini. One cynical comment reads cleverly in Latin: “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (“What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini have done”).
Religious groups were not the only special interest groups to claim the Colosseum as their own. One of the Colosseum’s long-standing claims to fame is its flora. Due to the micro-climate within the walls of the monument, or perhaps more fancifully because of seeds which once fell from the fur of exotic animals used in the games, an enormous range of plants thrived in the Colosseum. Some of the plants are even extraordinary rarities. The flora of the Colosseum were first catalogued and published in 1643 by Domenico Panaroli, of the University of Rome. Panaroli recorded finding 337 species. In 1815, another professor, Antonio Sebastiani, listed 261 species. The reduction in number may have been due either to poorer observation or to the major excavations of the monument, which would have disturbed the flora. Forty years later, Richard Deakin, an English doctor and amateur botanist from Sheffield published The Flora of the Colosseum. The illustrated work listed 420 different species (though modern scientists reduce this number to 418 unique species). He was especially keen on symbolic value, focusing especially on one flora called “Christ’s Thorn”. Deakin dreaded the excavation work which would ruin his beloved species. He had good reason to be worried; in 1870, archeological authorities ordered the removal of the “weeds” in the Colosseum. Today, the Colosseum is virtually a flower-free zone.
The Colosseum has been many things. It began as a gift from an emperor to his subjects, continued as a haven to the poor, a palace to the rich, a symbol of Christian triumph over paganism to some, as a quarry to others, and a ground of study to botanists. It has withstood time and the elements, and it held countless functions, but one thing the Colosseum has never been is completely forgotten. Today, it undergoes daily scrutiny by countless visitors, all of whom are awed and perplexed both by the resplendent genius of the architecture and by the psychological implications of such a structure. Even now, a myriad of myths surround the Colosseum, some based in fact, some shrouded completely in mysticism. And so the Colosseum stands: a collection of myths wound tightly into one of the grandest monuments of ancient Rome, destined to stand for generations to come.
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