Colosseum North Side view
The first time I saw the Colosseum was from the air as our plane approached Rome. Even from a great height, this great and ancient arena impressed me with its size and location in the heart of Rome. After almost 2,000 years, the Roman Colosseum is still the world's largest amphitheatre and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World that received 7.6 million visitors in 2019. And though it has been damaged by earthquakes, weather, and pillaging for twenty centuries, the Colosseum is still impressive and remains the most recognized symbol of the Roman Empire.
Colosseum South Side view and Arch of Constantine
Completed in 79 AD and opened in 80 AD, this massive amphitheatre was in operation for 443 years until it was finally shut down in the year 523 AD, nearly 50 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. Consequently, after it closed, the Colosseum fell into disuse and decline, eventually becoming a quarry where people went looking for stone blocks or bits of metal.
Despite its history of brutal violence, the Colosseum also represents a very high level of Roman engineering and architectural genius. Fortunately, efforts have been made to preserve this ancient amphitheatre and iconic symbol of Roman civilization in the last few centuries.
Before the Colosseum, there was its precursor - the Theatre of Marcellus - which was built almost a hundred years earlier in 13 BC and opened a year later by the first Roman emperor Augustus. The architecture used in this theatre - arches on top of arches, concrete, and fired bricks - made it possible to build the huge Colosseum later.
The Theatre of Marcellus in Rome in the 21st Century
Image courtesy of Oscar F. Hevia
This was the first time the Romans used bricks to build most of the underlying structure of a building, a concept which they used many times afterwards. The image above shows how the Theatre of Marcellus is very similar to the Colosseum.
By the year 70 AD, the Roman Empire had gone through a lot of strife, civil war, and chaos caused by the terrible reign and suicide of Emperor Nero two years earlier. The turmoil got so bad that, in the year 69 AD, there were four different Emperors fighting for control of the empire - Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.
The final victor was Emperor Vespasian, who realized that the Roman people needed something significant to lift their spirits and to make them content after all the turmoil - and that big something was the Colosseum which would be his gift to them.
Image courtesy Mr.TinDC
Image courtesy jamie Heath
Vespasian had the power, he had the money, and his Roman architects had the knowledge and resources to build such a large and complex structure. The Roman people also appreciated that Vespasian was building the Colosseum right on top of where Nero had lived in his enormous and extravagant Golden Palace.
Emperor Vespasian began the Colosseum construction in 72 AD, but he died just seven years later of natural causes in 79 AD. Furthermore, it was thus left to his son and heir, Emperor Titus, to finish building the Colosseum.
Image courtesy of ellenm1
Creative Commons CC by 2.5
Much loved by the Roman people because of his generosity, fairness and benevolent rule, Titus completed and opened the colossal amphitheatre in 80 AD. And then, for an incredible 100 days, the opening of the Colosseum was celebrated with games and parties paid for by Emperor Titus. Tragically, this young emperor died only one year later of a fever in 81 AD.
After his death, his brother Domitian became emperor. He contributed to the Colosseum by adding fourth-floor seating and an underground area of tunnels and elevators known as the hypogeum below the arena.
Domitian died an early death in 96 AD when he was assassinated in the same way as Caesar - stabbed to death. For centuries, Emperor Domitian was thought to be a nasty tyrant. However, a more recent view portrays him as a good administrator with some totalitarian aspects. Nevertheless, because Domitian virtually ignored the Roman Senate and made it clear he intended to rule as a monarch, he was hated by many of Roman Senators at that time.
After his death, the Senate condemned all memory of him to oblivion in a process called: "Damnatio Memoriae. This was in sharp contrast to his brother and father whom the Roman people and Senate had much loved.
The Colosseum was financed by the tragic sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD when, according to the Roman/Jewish historian Josephus, over 1,000,000 Jews were slain, and incredible amounts of gold, silver and ivory were looted.
The Sacking of Jeruslamen in 70 AD
Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans because of a serious revolt beginning in 66 AD by the people of Judea against the Roman Empire. This revolt is called the First Jewish Revolt, and it took the Roman army seven years to end the revolt in 73 AD.
This armed revolt against the Roman Empire was caused by excessive Roman taxation and religious tension between Jews and Romans. Minor clashes eventually grew into a major rebellion where, in just one battle, 6,000 Roman soldiers were wiped out. The Romans, under Vespasian, eventually gained the upper hand over four years by eliminating Jewish forces and bases outside the fortified city of Jerusalem before attacking the city.
A severe consequence of this revolt was the Romans' destruction of Jerusalem and its Second Temple in 70 AD by the Roman military Commander Titus, Emperor Vespasian's youngest son and later heir. Actually, Vespasian had been in command of Roman forces but had to return to Rome because of a civil war after the death of emperor Nero, thus leaving his son in control.
The painting below shows a huge menorah and other loot taken from the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The painting also shows Emperor Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, on the day of the victory parade in Rome in 71 AD, which began with a ceremony at a Roman temple.
Oil Painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1885
The painting above shows the whole Flavian family leaving the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus - "Jupiter the Best and Greatest" - on the Capitoline Hill. And in front, we see Emperor Vespasian dressed in white with his son Titus behind his right shoulder. His youngest son, Domitian, also dressed like his father, is just behind and to the right of Titus.
Not only was the Colosseum financed by the spoils of victory from the Jewish revolt, but it was also built by 60,000 to 100,000 captive Jewish slaves who worked on the construction and in the quarries supplying travertine stone. You can see carved images of the victory parade of 71 AD in high-relief panels on the inside arch of the Arch of Titus (image below) located near the Colosseum. This arch was built by Emperor Domitian to commemorate both the deification of his brother Titus as well as the Roman victory over the Jewish revolt.
Image courtesy of Graeme Churchard - CC BY 2.0
In the alternating images above, you can see a closeup of the relief sculptures on the inside of the Arch of Titus, which shows Romans carrying a large menorah, gold trumpets and other booty that paid for the construction of the Colosseum. The Arch of Constantine, located next to the Colosseum, is often mistaken for the Arch of Titus which is located much further away near the start of the Roman forums. However, these two arches can be easily identified by counting the number of arches: the Arch of Titus has only one arch whereas the Arch of Constantine has three. Interestingly, the Arch of Titus was the inspiration for the huge Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The vast structure we know as the Colosseum was known to the Romans as the Amphitheatrum Flavium or the Flavian Amphitheatre in English. The word amphi is a Greek word meaning "two, both, or all-around," and thus a Roman amphitheatre is two Roman theatres joined to form a circular, double theatre. However, Roman amphitheatres were oval in shape and not perfect circles, as shown in the diagram below.
A Roman Amphitheatre is two Roman Theatres joined together
The word Flavian refers to the family name Flavius of Roman Emperor Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian. They also became Emperors and contributed to the building of the Colosseum after the death of their father in 79 AD.
Colosseum construction in 75 AD - outer ring is partially completed and a huge crane is used
The Colosseum was built over a period of 10 years, starting in 70 AD and ending in 80 AD. It was built mostly from a limestone called Travertine, and a volcanic stone called Tuff. These two kinds of stone were used a lot in Roman construction, especially in Rome, where they were readily available. Travertine stone carried much of the heavy load in the structure, as can be seen in this image of travertine stone arches forming part of the third storey of the Colosseum. In addition to stone, the Colosseum also contains a lot of brick and concrete.
In my drawing above, the Colosseum is halfway constructed. You can see a massive ancient Roman crane lifting heavy stone blocks. Further up, another smaller crane is lifting columns. Only part of the outer wall tier (right side) is completed. The marble slabs that covered the outside walls have not been installed yet. The whole structure rests upon a deep, concrete oval foundation which is discussed in detail later in this article.
Romans used large cranes and scaffolding when constructing vast structures such as aqueducts across the countryside
My remaster of a Public Domain image
By the time they started building the Colosseum, Roman engineers already had much experience building large, arched structures such as the aqueduct shown above carrying vast amounts of water across the Roman countryside to a nearby city. They developed and used cranes and scaffolding to lift huge stones and place them skilfully and quickly. I am sure that the experience the Romans gained building aqueducts and large basilicas made the job of building the Colosseum feasible.
The dimensions of the Colosseum, which covers 6 acres, are indeed colossal. Here are some facts and figures that convey the vast size and amount of materials used in constructing the Colosseum:
As seen in the diagram above, the Colosseum's outer walls were composed of 240 arches, 80 arches per floor, and its height was equal to a twelve-storey building. Unlike the three floors below, however, the fourth floor's outer wall was not made of arches; instead, it was just a circular wall with windows placed at intervals of every two arches below. Since the third-floor outer wall had 80 arches, the fourth floor thus contained 40 windows and large gilded bronze shields were placed between each window - none of the shields have survived. Some additional statistics are:
|•||Width of 160 metres (525 feet). Because the Colosseum was oval in shape and not circular, its
length and width differed by about 30 metres (100 feet);
|•|| 300 tons of iron and bronze clamps to bolster and hold the stones together as mortar was not used;
|•||Over 100 hundred drinking fountains for 50,000 spectators;
There is no precise figure on the number of public latrines as virtually all the toilet facilities were destroyed over time. However, there is evidence of pipes in the walls and a complex system of drains and sewer lines below that indicate there were toilets with flowing water that carried the waste into the main sewer line encircling the Colosseum.
In the video below, the severe extent of Colosseum pillaging over the centuries is plain to see - the result of being used as a stone quarry for centuries. Virtually all the marble seating is gone, and much of the structure supporting the seats is gone, basically leaving only a concrete and brick skeleton structure for us to look at today. It is estimated that only two-thirds of the original Colosseum remains.
VIDEO: Inside the Colosseum - Much of the infrastructure has been pillaged over the centuries
Video courtesy of Videvo
Marble was used for the seating and for decoration, but only a tiny bit remains. Many of the walls and ceilings along the passageways that formed the arcades around the perimeter were adorned with frescoes painted in vivid colours such as bright green, red, white and the colour blue, which was expensive to produce in ancient times. Recently in 2013, centuries of grime and air pollution have been carefully scraped off some of the Colosseum surfaces, revealing the frescoes along the passageways and stairs leading to the fourth floor where the poorest sat. The implication is that if even the "poor" sections were highly decorated, then the adornments of the lower Colosseum floors must have been impressive - such as the Podium level reserved for Roman Senators, as visualized in the image below:
Reconstruction of Colosseum Passageway Frescoes
Senators entering and leaving a Colosseum Vomitorium
My remaster of a Public Domain image
Bronze and iron were used to connect the stones together, but the metal has all been pillaged over the centuries which is why numerous holes in the Colosseum stonework can be seen everywhere. After the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD, people became desperate, and they prioritized survival above any noble concept of preserving Roman architecture for posterity. During the Middle Ages, for example, metal was a valuable commodity that people went to great lengths to extract from Roman ruins such as the Colosseum.
Three floors containing 80 arches each along the outside
Image courtesy of Deb Nystrom
The image above shows the western side of the Colosseum wall collapse of 1349 AD - you can see how new columns, brick and concrete were used to build abutments that bolster the east and west side of the Colosseum outer walls that are still standing.
Also notice how the Colosseum is composed of four floors, three with arches all along the outside and a top floor that, essentially, is a circular wall with small windows. On closes inspection, you will see that each floor uses a different type of column:
|Groud Floor - Tuscan Columns|
|Second Floor - Ionic Columns|
|Third Floor - Corinthian Columns|
|Fourth floor - Corinthian Pilasters|
The Colosseum's three orders of architecture
Image licensed from Dreamstime.com
In addition to 40 windows placed at intervals of every two arches, the fourth floor has a series of modillion-like structures - called Corbels - just above the windows. The Corbels numbered 235 and ran all along the outside of the Colosseum - their purpose was to support wooden masts that suspended a large awning over the huge amphitheatre. In the photo above of Colosseum corbels, you can see the hole that the mast went through.
Corbels along the Colosseum 4th Floor outer wall
In the early era of the Roman Republic, a small lake existed where the Colosseum is located. The lake was fed by a small river called the Rio Labicano. In the later Roman Republic, the lake was drained by creating a channel that diverted the water from the Rio Labicano towards the Circus Maximus.
The dry lakebed then became a very populated section of Rome that was filled with buildings and temples. However, after the great fire of 64 AD in Rome, most of the stuctures in this area were destroyed, and the land was seized by Emperor Nero for his own personal use.
After he had cleared away the burnt ruins, Nero built an incredibly vast palace called the Domus Aurea - "The Golden House" - astonishing in its size, luxury, and containing hundreds of rooms sheathed in shining marble. He filled his palace with numerous fountains, pools, and beautiful paintings. In addition, frescoes, precious stones, and gold leaf covered the ceilings and walls, which is why it was called the "Golden Palace" (Domus Aurea).
Showing how the Colosseum is located in the former artifical lake of Nero's 'Domus Aurea' palace
The image above shows the entire Domus Aureau palace and its square artificial lake. A transparent image of the Colosseum is superimposed to show how it was built right in the centre of Nero's former lake. The whole palace covered an area of 81 hectares (200 acres). After the death of Nero in 68 AD, much of the palace was either buried or demolished, and the artificial lake was drained.
Two rooms of Nero's Domus Aurea palace that are still below ground level
The central part of the palace consisted of a vast four-sided colonnade surrounding the large rectangular lake. In addition, a large and separate entrance structure was built on one side of the main palace and this was where a giant statue of the Emperor was located. This gigantic bronze statue, standing over 30 metres (100 feet) high, was called the Colossus of Nero.
Because Nero had such a bad reputation and had caused much resentment among the Roman populace, it was good politics for his successor, Emperor Vespasian, to symbolically give the land in that area back to the people by building a huge amphitheatre for their entertainment.
And so, the large rectangular pool of water was drained, most of the Domus Aurea was torn down and/or buried, and the Colosseum was then built over a ten-year period from 70 to 80 AD.
For those who are interested, parts of the Domus Aurea palace still exist and are being restored. I have included images of two rooms of the Domus Aurea, which can be seen above. If one of the rooms seems to have windows, it is an optical illusion recently created because the whole palace is now underground.
Before building the Colosseum, the Romans first had to ensure that it had a stable and solid foundation. To do that, they drained the Domus Aurea lake and dug deeply into the clay lake bed to a depth of 6 metres (20 feet). The plan was to build a foundation that was shaped like an ellipse or elongated doughnut measuring 188 x 156 metres (620 feet x 500).
The material for the foundation was Roman concrete which is a mixture of lime, volcanic ash (pozzuolana) and crushed stones, laid down in layers and compacted until they ended up with a solid 6 metre deep (20 feet) foundation that would provide a solid flooring for the Colosseum structure.
At first, the foundation was 6 metres (20 feet) high, but they doubled the height to 12 metres (40 feet) because the ground level around the Colosseum had risen considerably. Furthermore, after the terrible fire in 64 AD that destroyed much of the area, the resultant debris raised the ground by several metres/yards.
So, basically, the whole procedure for building the foundation was:
Dig a deep elliptical ring hole;
Fill the hole with successive layers of concrete and gravel, compacting each layer by pounding it until you reach a height of 6 metres (20 feet);
Build a brick wall, 3 metres (10 feet) wide and 6 metres (20 feet) high, on both sides of the ring (see diagram below);
Add concrete between the brick walls until you reach a total height of 12 metres (40 feet) - at this point, the Colosseum foundation was above ground level, which the Roman engineers likely had to raise.
Obviously, despite the Romans' efforts, the foundation was not 100% secure because earthquakes, especially in 1349 AD, caused the collapse of the whole southern outer walls of the Colosseum. The main culprit that caused the collapse, apart from the earthquake itself, was the clay below the foundation structure which shifted and sank due to intense ground shaking.
Colosseum foundation measurements compared to overall structure
After digging the huge and deep hole for the foundation, the large amount of material raised the ground further to a total of 6 metres (20 feet). Thus, the foundation height was increased and even bolstered with much brickwork above. The foundation is not actually flat all across the top because the Romans built elevated strips that corresponded to the outer walls that sat directly above.
Another interesting aspect is that the foundation is thicker below the Colosseum's outer walls and thinner around the edges of the arena. The design of the foundation and of the whole Colosseum structure strongly suggests much planning and study was done well before the construction began. From what we understand of Roman architectural design and planning, it was very similar to the process used today.
A form of blueprints, using a precise scale, were produced detailing the structures to be built. Also, 3D models certainly were made so the Roman architects and builders would have a visual model to study. Finally, sketches showing specific details to guide the sculptors and artists, as well as other sketches showing the Colosseum from different perspectives, would have been made.We know the Romans used a form of blueprints because the great Roman architect, Vitruvius, tells us so:
A groundplan is made by the proper successive use of compasses and rule, through which we get outlines for the plane surfaces of buildings. An elevation is a picture of the front of a building, set upright and properly drawn in the proportions of the contemplated work. Perspective is the method of sketching a front with the sides withdrawing into the background, the lines all meeting in the centre of a circle.
Vitruvius, DE ARCHITECTURA, Book 1, Chap. 2 - 2
Construction of such an enormous and complex structure was costly, and it was imperative that it be built solidly so there would be no sinking or collapsing of the structure; achieving those goals required meticulous planning, just like today when building a skyscraper, for example.
The Hypogeum we can see today below the Colosseum arena was buried under 12 metres (40 feet) of dirt and rubble. For over a thousand years, the vast and deep area below the arena was not visible, and it wasn't until the early 1800s that attempts were made to excavate the Hypogeum. However, these early attempts were foiled by persistent flooding until the 1930s when the hypogeum was finally emptied of all debris.
Colosseum Hypogeum partially rebuilt wooden arena floor
Image courtesy of Terrazzo - CC BY 2.0
For the first ten years of the Colosseum's existence, from 80 to 90 AD, the arena's floor was located on solid ground. After those ten years, the arena floor was a wooden surface, covered with sand, and suspended over a deep series of structures below.
Those underground structures, made up of long tunnels and rooms, form the "Hypogeum," which means "underground" in Greek. It housed animals, prisoners, and gladiators.
Colosseum Hypogeum side view of arena floor
Image courtesy of Tahbepet - CC BY-SA-2.0
The Hypogeum also contained a series of elevators operated by pulleys and ropes to lift animals, props, and people up to the arena floor. Archaeologists estimate that between 24 and 28 elevators (or hoists) were used, which could lift up to 272 kg (600 pounds). Each elevator required up to 8 people each to operate. Upon reaching the surface of the Colosseum arena, trapdoors in the arena floor opened, releasing ferocious beasts to delight the 50,000 spectators.
In 2015, one wooden replica of those ancient elevators was built. A crane was then used to lift the replica over the arena floor and down into the Hypogeum. After figuring out how to get the elevator and trapdoor to work, they released an animal into the Colosseum - for the first time in over 1,500 years. You can see the story of that elevator recreation in the Youtube video below:
The animal they released was a wolf, which is odd since the Romans never used wolves in the Colosseum. The reason is that Romulus and Remus - the mythological founders of Rome - had been suckled by a she-wolf and, thus, wolves held a special place in the Roman heart. Maybe the people in the video should have released a chicken wearing a tiny Gladiator helmet instead which would have been hilarious.
For at least three centuries, an enormous 30 metres high (100 feet) bronze statue, known as the Colossus of Nero, stood very close to the Colosseum. The statue represented Emperor Nero, and it was located near his Golden Palace entrance (vestibule) area. This giant statue was built between the years 64 - 68 AD by the Greek Architect Zenodorus.
After Emperor Nero's death by suicide in 68 AD, Emperor Vespasian had the giant statue transformed into the Roman Sun god Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun"). A crown of Sun rays was added to the statue's head, and the face may have been altered to no longer resemble Nero. The name of the statue was also changed to "Colossus Solis" due to its association with the Roman Sun god.
In 125 AD, Emperor Hadrian began building the largest temple ever built in Rome - the Temple of Venus and Roma - near the Colosseum. However, the Colossus statue was in the way - so it had to be moved. Using 24 elephants, Hadrian had the Colossus dragged to a new location beside the Colosseum, where it then stood for about three centuries until its destruction.
Because of the enormous statue's very close proximity to a colossal-sized amphitheatre, it is reasonable to assume that the name "Colosseum" derived from those aspects. The statue is still commonly referred to as the Colossus of Nero despite alterations that converted the statue into the Roman god Sol Invictus shortly after Nero died in 68 AD.
Colossus Solis statue beside the Colosseum in Rome
More commonly known as "Colossus of Nero"
INSET - Top: Colossus carved on a Roman Gem
Bottom: Coin showing Colossus next to Colosseum
The image above shows a recreation of the Colossus Solis and its location near the Colosseum. Unfortunately, ancient images of the Colossus are found only on some coins and a gem shown inside the right side inset in the image above. From this point on, I will refer to the statue as the Colossus of Nero because that is the name everyone still uses.
Any image showing the Colossus wearing a toga garment, for example, is incorrect. Instead, the statue is nude, with one hand resting upon a rudder resting on a globe; the other arm rests on a pillar for support. Conventional wisdom says the Colossus was destroyed either after the Sack of Rome in 410 AD or by a series of earthquakes in the 5th century.
The last recorded mention of the Colossus of Nero was in 354 AD. There are Medieval records, probably unreliable, stating Pope Gregory the Great had the Colossus destroyed ("burned") and then melted during the 14 years he was Pope (590 to 604 AD). This would mean that the Colossus still existed as late as the early 600s; however, there is no evidence that the story is accurate.
Until 1936, part of the brick and concrete podium supporting the statue still existed. Unfortunately, it was demolished by the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini. In addition, he had the remains of the nearby Meta Sudans fountain removed simultaneously so that both ancient structures would not hamper the flow of traffic around the Colosseum. The exact location of the Colossus, very close to the Colosseum, is shown in the recent Google Earth photo below (lower left).
All that remains of the original podium of the Colossus of Nero are some concrete blocks that may not be visible. I am guessing that the original concrete blocks are now below ground and out of sight. Therefore, the low platform in the image below that people are sitting on is likely not part of the actual podium.
The structure we see today is a new construct, built in 1986. It marks the spot where the Colossus of Nero stood since 128 AD after Emperor Hadrian moved it from its former location within Nero's palace - the Domus Aurea.
Image courtesy of Graeme Churchard
It would be great if the blocks we see in the photos above were part of the podium that supported the giant statue, but I don't think they are. In my opinion, the main reason why these blocks are not the originals is because of the "wear and tear" they would be exposed to from thousands of people sitting on them and from the weather. If the goal is to preserve the few remains of the Colossus of Nero, then it would be best if the blocks remained buried and protected.
I cannot find any information stating whether or not the blocks we see in the photo above are indeed part of the Colossus of Nero's foundation structure. I also wonder if the dimensions of the platform the people are sitting on in the photo correspond accurately to the actual size of the ancient podium that supported the statue; if so, indeed that was a large podium, with an even larger statue above.
Three kinds of gladiators fighting in the Colosseum before the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins
Secutor (left) with helmet, round shield and sword - Murmillo (middle) with large shield, helmet & sword - Retiarius (right) with a net and trident
The primary purpose of the Colosseum was political: to make the Emperor or whoever else paid for the games (the "Editor") popular and to create prestige. In addition to paying for the Colosseum games, the Editor also chose the type of "entertainment" to be displayed, such as Gladiator fights, executions, battles with ferocious animals, dramas, Etc.
Another essential purpose was to keep the people of Rome (especially the idle unemployed) entertained and thus happily distracted so there would not be as much unrest. Many times, the people of ancient Rome rioted and caused much damage and injury - over 150 times, as explained in the quote below:
... From 200 BC to AD 375, there were at least 154 episodes of unruly collective behaviour in the city of Rome that could be considered riots (an overall frequency of 1 riot every 3.7 years).
The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome,
Part V, Chap 24, Riots
The Colosseum was an integral part of the "Bread and Circuses" (Latin: Panem et Circenses) concept of how the Roman government would stage huge spectacles and hand out free food to appease the masses. This expression was first described by the 2nd Century Roman poet Juvenal.
So how was this critical task of entertaining the Roman people achieved? There were many ways - mostly violent - which are listed below:
|•||People fighting each other;|
|•||People fighting animals;|
|•||Animals fighting animals;|
People being executed in cruelly imaginative ways, as shown in the next section, which lists the various
kinds of execution used in the Colosseum.
Battle re-enactments on land and naval (before Hypogeum was constructed) using actual violence;
Non-violent entertainment, such as: animal acts, dramas, processions, musicians, Etc.
Another indirect political purpose of the Colosseum was simple propaganda - to show the world the ferocity and engineering skills of the Romans.
In Roman times, the Colosseum was depicted on coins and was famously considered the most fantastic arena in the whole Roman Empire. Even today, we still marvel at the Colosseum's size and construction despite two-thirds of it having been pillaged over the centuries.
When the Romans felt it was necessary to execute someone, they often did so with morbid imagination and drama. And the Colosseum, with its audience of 50,000, provided the perfect stage where executions became entertainment. One of the most cruel forms of "execution as entertainment" in the Colosseum is described below.
One can only imagine the terror and desperation the condemned felt while seated on a particularly nasty form of Roman execution called the Petaurua - the "Seesaw of Death".
The horrible scene shown below was summed up perfectly in an online article by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, who effectively conveys the horror and desperation of the condemned men. I shall attempt a concise version of her description.
In the image above, one of the condemned men has pushed his legs down hard, causing his end of the seesaw to rise up, lifting him into temporary safety ... while sending the poor man at the other end down into a storm of teeth and claws and agony.
You can hear the crowds roar and then erupt into laughter and applause while placing bets on how many times the Petaurua would rise and fall, which man would die first, and whether or not he would be torn apart and eaten ...
I apologize if this has shocked you; but, unfortunately, this was the vicious reality of the Colosseum for hundreds of years. And there were many other forms of executions which the imaginative Romans used: Here is a partial list:
|•||Ad Gladium: ( death by sword);|
|•||Trampled to death (usually by elephants);|
|•||Ad Flammas or Crematio: (burnt to death);|
meant you would be allowed to live if you survived);
Mock battles to the death sometimes involving hundreds of people;
Mythological re-enactments whereby famous events from Greek and Roman mythology would be acted out
in a fiendish way.
Two classic examples of this type are:
The myth of Icarus who used wings of wax and feathers to fly too close to the Sun and consequently fell to his death. The Romans re-enacted this particular mythology by dressing a criminal to look like Icarus, putting him on a catapult ... and then launching him high across the arena to his certain death and the great amusement of the Roman crowds.
The myth of Prometheus who was punished by the God Zeus by being chained to a rock while an eagle ate his liver which would always grow back so that the eagle could feast again and again. In the Colosseum version, the criminal was tied to the ground while a chained Bear slowly ate him. The bear was pulled away at regular intervals to prolong both the victim's agony and the entertainment value;
Damnatio Ad Bestias ("Condemnation by Beasts") was execution by predatory animals such as:
lions, bears, tigers, cheetahs, jackals, wild boars, leopards, etc.
A common practice was to force the condemned, while naked, to fight wild beasts armed with only a small wooden weapon.
Or someone would be strapped naked to a post on top of a small chariot with a long handle which someone would push towards the beasts.
And, of course, the condemned were often sent to their deaths with no weapons at all, as shown in a famous painting, below.
Saint Eustace in the Colosseum - Alexey T. Markov - 1839
Not all Colosseum spectacles were violent. For example, there were also circus-type entertainments such as gymnastics, riding animals, Etc. Also, I have read how the Romans loved to watch a particular elephant that was trained to use its trunk to draw things in the sand of the arena.
It is also said that another elephant, during emperor Nero's time, greatly amused the spectators by walking a tightrope - probably just a wild story as it seems rather improbable.
Over the course of its 443 years of operation (80 - 523 AD), I am sure that a considerable variety of non-violent entertainments were on display.Further down this page, in the "Colosseum Daily Schedule of Events" section, I provide more details and the times of day when the Colosseum displayed violent forms of entertainment and executions.
Of course, some of the most famous events staged in the Colosseum were the Naumachiae mock naval battles. The arena was flooded, and flat-bottomed boats were used. These mock naval battles were even held 140 years before the Colosseum existed, during the time of Julius Caesar in 46 BC.
Mock Naval Battle - a "Naumachia" in the Colosseum opening games in 80 AD
The first recorded naval entertainment in the Colosseum occurred in 80 AD, during the 100-day opening games. After the arena was flooded, flat-bottomed boats carrying 3,000 combatants re-enacted a naval battle between Syracuse and Athens. It is said that sometimes there was an island in the middle of the arena so that the combatants could disembark and fight it out on land.
We know, with certainty, that the Colosseum arena was flooded because some of these naval events have been described and recorded by the Roman historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio.
Even today, we can still see the remains of the water and drainage system in and around the Colosseum, which provided for the fast filling and emptying of the arena. The only concern I have about this involves the deep structure below the arena - the Hypogeum - built in 90 AD, ten years after the Colosseum first opened. If the Colosseum still held naval spectacles after the Hypogeum came into existence, then I imagine all kinds of water damage and technical problems.
Close-up view of a Colosseum naval battle
Since the wooden arena floor was suspended above the hypogeum below, it would have to be very thick and well supported to withstand the enormous weight of the water above.
The other option would have been to fill up the whole hypogeum and also the arena with water - and indeed that would have been very hard on all the elevators, trapdoors, and other equipment in the hypogeum. Wood and ropes and cables would swell, metal would rust, and animals and equipment would have to be moved to safety.
It is also very likely that the hypogeum contained work areas for blacksmiths, storage areas for all the props, cages for the animals, Etc. Therefore, the amount of damage and disruption that would be caused by filling the whole hypogeum with water would probably be unacceptable.
It thus seems reasonable to assume that flooding of the Colosseum for mock naval battles might have ended after the hypogeum was built in 90 AD. Also, the loss of mock naval battle events in the Colosseum would not have been that significant simply because its main attractions were the gladiator games, the hunts, and the executions.
Another consideration is that if the Romans wanted to state a mock naval battle, they could stage the event elsewhere, such as on the river, a small lake, or some other venue dedicated to those kinds of events. For example, when both Julius Ceasar in 46 BC/BCE and Augustus in 2 BC/BCE held naumachia events, they both had basins dug out beside the Tiber river. These basins were wide enough to hold Roman bireme and trireme ships carrying 3 or 4 thousand combatants.
On a typical day, Colosseum "entertainment" was divided into three main events, which I show using ancient Roman paintings, mosaics, and a low-relief sculpture:
The VENATIO was held in the morning. Animals from all over the Roman Empire were displayed, and the animals would either hunt each other or be hunted by trained human hunters called Venatores or Bestiarii. These hunting events were called Venationes, which have survived in the form of Spanish bullfighting that still happens today.
In the Roman painting above, we see a man that is armed only with a spear and no armour, fighting a lion. Unless he is very skilled, I would say his odds of surviving the encounter are quite poor.
It is said that sometimes the Emperor, in his special box, would use his bow to shoot animals of many kinds. Lions and tigers are traditionally shown in the Colosseum, but other animals were used, such as bears, cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes, elephants, ostriches, crocodiles, camels, boars, gazelles, Etc. So many animals were trapped in the wilds that some species became extinct, such as the North African elephant.
Above we see another example of a man in just a robe using a spear to fight a ferocious animal. We can see blood coming down from the animal's neck, so it looks like the man was skilled or lucky.
The LUDI MERIDIANI was held after lunch. This was the time for executions of criminals, prisoners of war, runaway slaves, and other unfortunates, known collectively as the Damnatio. These executions employed various means, either through torture or "Damnatio Ad Beastias," whereby the person was killed by ferocious animals.
The ancient Roman mosaic above shows violent pandemonium in the arena. A naked man tied to a stake on the left has a leopard clinging to him, while another naked man tied helplessly on a tiny chariot is pushed towards a leaping leopard. On the right, a dog is running amok, while someone below with a spear is probably fighting another leopard. And in the middle, a man with a whip is stirring things up.
Very likely, a Roman with a powerful voice was providing loud and amusing commentary in the background for the cheering spectators. I can only imagine the suffering of the condemned. These men were in all likelihood criminals - perhaps even murderers - but that is a very cruel and vicious means of execution.
Another form of this type of execution that greatly amused the spectators was when criminals, blinded by masks and armed with weapons, were made to wander about the arena floor with others as they tried to kill each other.
Without a doubt, Christians were killed in the Colosseum, but the exact extent of Christian executions is not certain. Some estimates are that 3,000 were killed before Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD that made Christianity legal throughout the Empire. During the time of Emperor Nero, executions as public entertainment happened in the Circus Maximus that seated 250,000 spectators.
The LUDI GLADIATORI events started between 3 to 6 p.m., depending on the available amount of useful sunlight. The term "Ludi Gladiatori" (Latin) means "Gladiator Fights".
Above we see what looks like a Retiarius gladiator and a Secutor gladiator fighting - spear versus sword and shield. In between them is the Summa Rudis referee supervising the fight and holding a long baton called a rudes. The referee could stop the fighting if one of the Gladiators did something illegal.
These armed fights were held in the later afternoon when both the fighters and the spectators were spared the blinding light and heat of the mid-day Sun. In the later afternoon, there was still enough good light for the crowds to closely follow the intense fighting in comfort, especially during the summer, when the fighting could continue up to 7 p.m. or later.
The subject of Gladiators is explored further in the next section.
Mention the word "Gladiator", and most people immediately think of the Colosseum. However, these fighters had been around long before this huge amphitheatre was built in 80 AD.
Almost 350 years earlier, starting in 264 BC/BCE, gladiatorial fights were held at the funerals of the Roman rich and powerful as a way to honour the dead and to purify their souls through the spilling of blood. The first fights held in that year were in the Forum Boarium of Rome, and these fights were sponsored by Decimus Junius Brutus to honour the memory of his dead father.
By the time of Julius Caesar, who died in 44 BC/BCE, these fighters became so popular that he sponsored hundreds of Gladiator fights during the funerals of his father and daughter.
Roman mosaic of two Gladiators fighting
It was not long before Roman emperors and other government officials, to gain popularity, were sponsoring Gladiator fights in the Colosseum and other public arenas filled with roaring crowds.
At first, all Gladiators were prisoners or enslaved people. But, eventually, all kinds of people became Gladiators because they were attracted by the glory, the crowds, and the excitement. Even a few Emperors tried their hand at gladiatorial fighting.
6 of the 25 Types of Gladiators
There were 25 different types of gladiators, such as
Samnites, Thraex, Myrmillo, and Retiarius, each type characterized by their particular fighting style, armour and weapons such as
swords, spears, tridents, daggers and nets in combination with various kinds of small, large and weaponized shields.
Gladiators did not always fight to the death. Killing an opponent was the exception and not the rule because of the great expense and time involved in their training. In fact, through great skill and luck, Gladiators could sometimes elevate themselves to freedom and star status.
The image below is interesting because it shows us another Summa Rudes referee among the five fighting gladiators. Gladiators had to follow a system or rules which were enforced by the referee who wore a tunic - often with red edges - and boots while carrying a long rod. Presumably, if an infraction of the rules occurred, the rod was used in some fashion such as either pushing the men apart with it or even hitting them? Who knows.
Roman mosaic showing Gladiators with a Referee in white tunic
Another interesting but gruesome
aspect is that the act of dying was as crucial as the actual fighting.
Gladiators were trained and expected
to die honourably and calmly. Crowds would get angry if a Gladiator died a cowardly or reluctant death,
shouting, "Why doesn't he rush the steel?" or "Why doesn't he die willingly?" or "Why is he such a coward?"
Right after the next section, I will explore the end of gladiatorial fighting in the Roman Empire as I look at when, why, and how it all stopped.
A common misconception is that Colosseum spectators decided the life and death fate of a defeated Gladiator by using a "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" hand gesture. This is not correct.
The actual "death" gesture was the Pollice Verso - a fist with thumb out and waved about in any direction - which indicated death because the thumb sticking out symbolized a knife or sword, Etc.
The "life" gesture was the Pollice Compresso - a fist with a thumb hidden inside the fist. This hand gesture meant life because the hidden thumb symbolized a weapon that was sheated.
Moreover, a fist held steady with no thumb showing was much easier to identify at a distance. This was important to the Emperor, for example, when trying to decide what message the crowd was trying to convey regarding the fate of a defeated Gladiator.
The belief that the Romans used a "thumbs up or down" to decide the fate of someone started in 1872 with a painting called the "Pollice Verso" by artist Jean-Leon Gerome. People were so impressed by the imagery that they assumed historical accuracy was being portrayed.
Gladiatorial displays ended in the year 404 AD after the death of Saint Telemachus, a Christian monk who attempted to stop the carnage he witnessed in the Colosseum by shouting in protest.
For his efforts, he was summarily killed by the enraged spectators. While it is said that he simply stood up in his seat and pleaded for the gladiatorial fighting to end in the name of Christ, other accounts state he left his seat and entered the Colosseum arena where he then tried to intervene in the fighting. As you can imagine, that did not go well for him.
Left - St. Telemachus protests Gladiator fight in Colosseum
Right - St. Telemachus being stoned to death in Colosseum
Sketches by Jan Luyken 1701 and colourized by myself
At this point, some accounts say that one of the Gladiators pierced him with his sword, while others say he was stoned to death by the spectators. What is essential is that Telemachus did protest in some way and was promptly killed for having done so.
Consequently, gladiatorial fighting was ended forever by Roman Emperor Honorius, a Christian, who was greatly dismayed by the monk's death.
Some sources say that Telemachus died just a few days before gladiatorial fighting ended in 404 AD. However, another source (Frederick Holwick) says that Telemachus was killed in the Colosseum 13 years earlier, in 391 AD. Therefore, it may have taken Emperor Honorius 13 years to ban gladiatorial fighting.
Notwithstanding the actual year of
Telemachus' death, the last gladiator fight
occurred on January 1, 404 AD. But events at the Colosseum
continued until 523 AD, almost 50 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in
476 AD. The very last
spectacle held in the Colosseum was a Venatio, an animal hunt.
Below is a quote by Theodoret of Cyrus, a fifth century Christian theologian from Antioch, writing about the actions of Telemachus in the Colosseum and his consequent death:
... when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and, stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and, inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.
When the admirable emperor (Honorius) was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the number of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.
Theodoret, Book 5, Chapter 26
Thus, 668 years after Gladiator fights began in 264 BC/BCE, it all came to an end on January 1, 404 AD. And then almost 120 years later, the Colosseum itself was closed for good. The excitement, the carnage, and the crowds ended.
A very Roman phenomenon was the practice of Sparsio, which was widely used for political and economic reasons (redistribution of wealth). Sparsio is a Latin word meaning door prizes or sprinkles or a gentle cascade of water.
In practical terms, Sparsio can be in the form of Sparsiones, a shower of food items or Sparsio Missilium, which is a shower of wooden or brass balls with a voucher inside that could be exchanged for wine, food, little statues, or even property. The Romans called these handouts "Sparsiones," and they were very much a beloved part of the Colosseum experience that usually occurred during intermissions (Latin: "intermissio").
The tradition of generously distributing food to the masses at religious events, funerals, triumphal events, and munera (games) by Romans of great wealth and social status had a long tradition that was intertwined with Roman politics. The practice of Sparsio was especially generous at the Imperial munera (games) when the Editor (sponsor) was the Emperor himself.
Intermission at the Colosseum: spectators pelted with Sparsiones while being wined and dined and misted with fragrances
Large dates and bronze balls containing prizes are raining down - stewards are serving cups of wine
Sparsiones took the form of either a token ("tesserae") or a gift. Tokens were wooden capsules or balls that could be opened, revealing a prize inside that could be a marked piece of paper that could be exchanged for property, food, money, or objects such as small statues, engraved cutlery, or wine.
Sparisones also took the form of food raining down on the spectators - sweets, nuts, dates, fruits, vegetables, and flowers. And while the delighted spectators were grabbing all these items being thrown at them, they would sometimes be sprayed with cooling mists scented with perfumes.
For liquid refreshment, people with large baskets or trays worked their way through the crowds, handing out cups of wine or water and even more snacks such as pieces of bread and pastries.
A Roman poet, Publius Papinius Statius, attended the Colosseum games during the reign of Emperor Domitian, and he recorded his amazement at the wonderful handout of food raining down from overhead and the servants bringing wine and bread to the spectators:
Biscuits and melting pastries, Amerian fruit not over-ripe, must-cakes, and bursting dates from invisible palms were showering down ... Behold, another multitude, handsome and well-dressed, makes its way along the rows. Some carry baskets of bread and white napkins and more luxurious fare; others serve languorous wine in abundant measure ... O generous lord you feed so many multitudes ... and now everyone, be he rich or poor, boasts himself the Emperor's guest.
- Statius, Silvae - 1.6.9-50
The Colosseum experience was all-encompassing - it dazzled you with gifts, food, drink, perfumes, and violent games. It was the ultimate expression of the proverbial Roman "bread and circuses" that kept the people happy and content.
And for the Editors, who paid the enormous costs for the games and snacks, it was an effective way to sway public opinion, to promote themselves, to increase their power, their influence and point of view.
It was smart politics being practiced many centuries before the existence of today's social media and mass media.
It was also a form of redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor through the tremendous amounts of money spent on providing not only the food and drink but also the games themselves - the gladiators, animals, props, musicians, and salaries for the non-slaves.