The Colosseum, known as Rome’s Arena of Death, was constructed on the site of Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace in order to give the land back to the people. It was started by Vespasian when he became emperor in 68 AD and was completed by his sons Titus and then Domitian. The first games occurred in 80 AD and lasted for 100 days. The last gladiatorial combat occurred in 404 AD and the last hunt in 523 AD.
The Colosseum (or Coliseum) was started by Vespasian (AD 9 - 79) upon becoming emperor in 69 AD. It was built on the site of Emperor 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 its 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 provide 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 the word arena comes from.
The spectators were seated in tiers above the arena according to class, with the higher social classes nearer the arena. The vaulting of the ramped seating area was concrete covered with stone with the seating having a gradient of 37 degrees which provided a good view for all spectators.
A fence was placed on the podium with wooden rollers on top, in order to prevent anything from climbing over from the arena and getting at the spectators.
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.
Today, when visitors enter the Colosseum along the high roofed corridor they then ascend a staircase that leads to a terrace overlooking the hypogeum: This would have been covered by the floor. Examples of the passage system for enabling people to get around internally can be seen from outside of the building.
Animals and gladiators would be kept in the hypogeum until they were required in the arena when they could 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 Colosseum was completed in 80 AD when the first games took place, these lasted for 100 days with the games themselves lasting 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 that was secured to 240 wooden 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. During the Middle Ages, houses and churches were built in it. In the Renaissance, it was used as a source of building materials. Restoration started in the 18th century and is still going on.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.
To watch a presentation given on the Colosseum by Ron Gatepain as part of a lecture programme on Iconic Buildings and Sites on cruise ships, click on the image below.