Without a doubt, one of the most famous and iconic attractions in Rome is the Colosseum. Approximately 4 million tourists visit the Colosseum each year, making it one of the most visited sites in the world!
The Colosseum was built during the Flavian Dynasty, so it was originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater. It gained the name “Colosseum” years later, when a 30m statue of former emperor Nero, called the Colossus of Nero, was moved nearby. Nero, a man known for expensive taste and wild spending, had originally built an enormous palace on the site where the Colosseum now stands. However, it burned down in the great fire of 64 AD. Vespasian, the fourth emperor to rule after Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, vowed to return this piece of land back to the Roman people.
Construction on the Colosseum began in 72 AD, under Vespasian’s rule. Approximately 60,000 Jewish slaves constructed the amphitheater over 8-9 years, using a combination of travertine stone and concrete. Unfortunately, Vespasian died before he could see it completed. However, Vespasian’s son, Titus, continued his father’s legacy. When the amphitheater was finished around 80 AD, Titus opened it to the public with 100 consecutive days of games and gladiatorial combats.
With dimensions of 188m long and 156m wide, it’s the largest amphitheater in the world. It could easily accommodate at least 50,000 spectators at a time. 80 arched entrances allowed an easy flow of spectators in and out of the building.
Ancient Roman writers documented accounts of mock sea battles taking place at the Colosseum during Titus’ reign. Water may have been transported from the city’s main water source, the Aqua Claudia aqueduct, to flood the substructures. However, it’s still not entirely clear how quickly the arena would have filled with water, or how often these mock sea battles would have been staged.
The theater didn’t have a solid roof, but spectators were protected from the elements by a series of awnings called velarium, which were hoisted overhead on posts. You can see the row of sockets and post supports along the upper tier here:
Years later, when Domitian, Titus’ brother, inherited the title of emperor, he made additional alterations to the Colosseum. For one thing, he expanded the seating capacity by having another tier added. Seating was divided up according to a citizen’s rank in the community. The first tier was reserved for the highest ranked officials, such as the Vestal Virgins, priests, senators, and the emperor himself. The second tier was filled by the upper class and business men. The third tier was for ordinary citizens, and the fourth tier was for women and the poor, who either stood or sat on wooden benches. Tickets to events at the Colosseum were usually free.
In 2015, workers cleaning the walls of the Colosseum interior uncovered traces of red paint over some of the entrances. The paint was used to number the entrances, guiding spectators to their corresponding seats. This find supported the theory that the ticketing system followed a designated seating process similar to today’s stadium events!
Another of Domitian’s contributions to the amphitheater was to add a hypogeum under the arena. This network of rooms and passageways underneath the Colosseum was used to quickly bring gladiators and wild animals into the arena.
Tunnels underneath the arena also connected to other buildings outside the Colosseum walls. These outer buildings included gladiatorial schools, stables, the hospital, and areas for the removal of the bodies of dead combatants and animals. With the addition of these tunnels, however, the mock sea battles could not longer take place.
This is a close-up view of the hypogeum passages and chambers. It also housed a complex system of pulleys and lifts to raise fighters up to the main stage:
The hypogeum had 32 cages for wild animals, as well as chambers for the gladiators to prepare themselves before fighting, often to the death.
The floor of the arena was originally covered in wood, followed by a layer of sand. The sand absorbed the blood of the animals and gladiators in between battles. In fact, the word harena is Latin for sand.
A fire in 217 AD triggered by lightning destroyed the wooden upper levels of the Colosseum and the wooden floor of the arena. The fire destroyed all of the wooden structures in the amphitheater, resulting in 5 years of restoration work. During that time, the gladiatorial games were moved to the Circus Maximus. The building reopened in 222 AD, but the repairs weren’t fully completed until 240 AD. Another fire in 250 AD facilitated additional repairs.
The Colosseum was in constant use for nearly 400 years, and survived several additional fires and earthquakes. After Alaric, king of the Visigoth, sacked Rome in 410 AD, the massive amphitheater was abandoned. The Visigoth war prevented Romans from burying their dead outside the city walls, as was tradition. So, the Colosseum and surrounding area became a makeshift graveyard.
Around 435-438 AD, emperor Valentinian III abolished the gladiatorial games, but the arena continued to be used for contests and animal hunts until 523 AD. Not long after, parts of the Colosseum began to be dismantled for construction of other buildings. In the 6th Century, a small chapel was built inside the walls of the amphitheater, and some of the underground vaults became living quarters and workshops. By 1200 AD or so, the Colosseum became a fortress for the Frangipani family.
In 1349, an earthquake destroyed approximately two-thirds of the amphitheater. Over time, the hypogeum became buried under rubble and dirt, and was largely forgotten. Marble was removed from the interior walls of the amphitheater to make quicklime, stone was taken out for other projects, and the bronze clamps that held the stonework together were chipped out and melted down. A religious order soon took over the remaining portion of the amphitheater, which they inhabited until the 19th Century. In 1743, a law was passed that forbade any additional removal of stones from the Colosseum.
In the 1800s, the exterior of the building was reinforced, and the interior went through several stages of repair and restoration. Archaeological excavations in 1813 and 1874 uncovered some of the forgotten substructure of the Colosseum. These excavations also uncovered stunning architectural fragments.
When we visited the Colosseum, they had numerous mosaics, statues and architectural elements on display in the entry passage.
This is a mosaic of a tiger and two bestiarii, or combatants who fought against animals in the arena:
And a fresco, possibly depicting Sappho, 55-79 AD:
A better shot of the barrel-vaulted ceiling in the entry passage:
The Colosseum recently underwent an extensive three-year restoration project to bring it back to its former glory. The exterior was washed using a fine pressure spray to remove 2,000 years of grime and pollution. Tour groups can now access the top tier of the seating area, and by the end of 2018, the arena floor may be replaced, allowing concerts and live performances once again. (But probably no mock sea battles or gladiatorial combats!)
The Roma Pass is a good value if you want to see several museums and attractions such as the Colosseum. There are two pass options, one for 48 hours and one for 72 hours. With the pass, you can “skip the line” at the Colosseum, the Capitoline Museums, and the Castel Sant’Angelo. You can purchase the Roma Pass here: Roma Pass