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written by Sergio Cagga, edited by  Paul Gwynne for Nerone the Insider's Guide to Rome


Despite the ravages of time the most conspicuous of the ancient monuments in the city has endured through the centuries to become a symbol of Rome's eternity.

The correct name is the Flavian ampitheatre, after the dynasty of emperors who oversaw its construction. The nickname Colosseum, or Coliseum, derives either from a colossal statue of the emperor Nero that once stood nearby which, according to the ancient historian Suetonius, was over 35 metres high (120 ft); or from the colossal dimensions of the building itself. The Colosseum stands below the slopes of the Oppian hill in a marshy valley encircled by the Coelian, Esquiline and Palatine hills.


Until the construction of the Colosseum there was no permanent structure in Rome for the increasingly popular gladiatorial games. The most important amphitheatre was the wooden structure built c.30 BC by Statilius Taurus on the Campus Martius, which perished in the terrible fire of 64 AD. Ten of the fourteen regions into which the ancient city was divided were either ruined or destroyed. When the city was rebuilt the emperor Nero decided to turn the whole valley below the Oppian hill into a part of an immense new palace, known, because of its rich and costly decoration, as the Golden House (Domus Aurea). This huge residential complex covered a quarter of the entire city of Rome, linking imperial possessions on the Esquiline and Palatine hills. The intervening depression was flooded to form an artificial lake for the emperor's private park.
When Vespasian eventually emerged victor after the year of anarchy following Nero's suicide in 68 AD the new emperor decided to eradicate the memory of his predecessor's excesses by having an ampitheatre built in stone. In 72 AD, as a conspicuous public gesture, Vespasian ordered the upper part of Nero's Golden House to be demolished, the lake drained and a permanent ampitheatre, the Colosseum, to be erected on the site. The identity of the architect is unknown. Despite Colosseum's sinister associations its construction is a memorial to Roman engineering. The first task was to drain the area and lay a thick foundation of concrete over the bed of Nero's lake. Huge blocks of travertine (over 100,000 cubic metres) were dragged from quarries at Albulae near Tivoli along a road that had been especially constructed for the purpose, to be set without mortar but clamped into place with iron bars. The organization of the work force was revolutionary, requiring four different and independent building sites.
Although still incomplete, the Colosseum was inaugurated in 80 AD by Vespasian's son, Titus. The opening was celebrated with 100 days of public feasts and games, in the course of which the Colosseum was flooded for a mock sea battle. Titus' brother, Domitian, completed the amphitheatre, adding wooden terraces for the women on the upper storey and a barracks for training gladiators. Later the central area used for fighting was enriched with spectacular moveable scenery which could be hauled into position by a system of winches and pulleys.


Once one has seen it, everthing else seems small. It is so huge that the mind cannot retain its image; one remembers it as smaller than it is, so that every time one returns to it, one is again astounded by its size.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1)

The Colosseum is massive in its proportions, covering an area of 7.5 acres: the elliptical outer circumference measures 527 metres (1,730 ft) and is c.50 metres high (187 ft). Four superimposed orders of arches articulated by pilasters with Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian capitals decorate the perimeter wall. The attic storey has sockets for wooden poles which were used to support a sailcloth awning (velarium) which shaded the seats below. At maximum capacity the Colosseum could accommodate up to 50,000 people, who entered the ampitheatre through 80 numbered arches (vomitoria) on the ground floor to their tiered seats. At the ends of the two main axes were special entrances for important spectators. The northern entrance led to the imperial stand.
The interior is divided into three parts: the cavea (seating area); podium (imperial terrace) and the central arena in which the games took place. This measures 46 x 76 metres. The word "arena" is Latin for "sand" and refers to the sand which was used to cover the floor of the amphitheatre. This would soak up the blood, prevent the combatants slipping and could be raked over between the games.


In the eighth century the Venerable Bede wrote:

As long as the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand,
When the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall,
When Rome falls, the world shall end.

That the Colosseum is preserved at all is due to the conservation and restoration policy initiated by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749 to save the last remains, which today correspond to a third of the original building.
Restoration of the building's fabric was begun as far back as 223 AD. On 23 August 217 the Colosseum was struck by lightning during a terrible storm and the wooden terraces of the upper storey caught fire. The burning timbers falling into the arena began a terrible conflagration which seven divisions of firemen helped by the sailors from the fleet at Misena were unable to extinguish. The destruction was so thorough that the amphitheatre was not able to be used for the next six years. The Stadium of Domitian (Piazza Navona), constructed in 86 AD for athletic competitions, was temporarily adapted to accommodate the gladiators. Other games were held in the Circus Maximus, which was normally used for chariot races. Restoration work on the Colosseum was finally completed by Alessander Severus in 223 AD. Traces of this work can still be seen today. The inner wall of the top storey, is composed of irregularly shaped stones salvaged from the debris.
Gladiatorial games continued until 404 when they were abolished by the Emperor Honorius. According to tradition he was moved by the fate of a certain Eastern monk Telemachus who was so horrified by the cruelty of the games, that he decided to enter the arena in order to stop the fighting, much to the surprise of the gladiators! The poor chap inadvertently became part of the spectacle himself when the spectators, annoyed at this unexpected interruption in the middle of the afternoon's entertainment, stoned him to death.


Venationes, (games involving both domestic and wild animals) continued until c.523 AD. Countless numbers of animals lost their lives in the Colosseum. For the inaugural games about 5,000 beasts were slaughtered over 100 days. In order to celebrate his triumph over the Dacians, the emperor Trajan organized games involving 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 wild animals. Such numbers give an idea of organization required to hold these events. The wild beasts (horses, crocodiles, bears, lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, hippos, ostriches, bulls, hyenas, gazelles, camels, giraffes) were imported from north Africa and Asia minor. Over the centuries, the number of animals slaughtered to entertain the mob is said to have almost exterminated certain species from the Roman world. It is claimed that the elephant disappeared from North Africa, the hippopotamus became extinct in Nubia and the lion in Mesopotamia.
The animals were kept in cages beneath the arena, the remains of which can still be seen today. These were then winched to the surface in lifts by a system of ramps and pulleys, to release the animals suddenly into the arena through a series of concealed trapdoors.
Not all the animals were killed. Both the bullfight and the circus has its origins in the arena. It seems that the crowd was often thrilled by watching animals perform tricks in the arena and animal shows became increasingly popular. Seneca describes a Negro dwarf who had trained his elephant to walk the tightrope.


The programme of the games was published on the city walls. The variety and creativity involved was as enormous as the cruelty. The spectacle would last all day, beginning with animal hunts in the morning and climaxing with the arrival of the gladiators in the late afternoon. Between events there would be other entertainments such as mock or comic fights and music. Food and drink was also served throughout the day and perfume was sprayed into the crowd to mask the stench of blood and ordure.


Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant! (Hail, Caesar, those about to die salute you). 

Gladiators were prisoners of war, condemned criminals, slaves bought for the purpose, or even volunteers. They trained in gladiatorial schools under a lanista, who was often a retired gladiator. There were four types: the Samnite, heavily armed with an oblong shield, visored helmet and a short sword; the Mirmillo, similarly armed but distinguished by a fish crest on his helmet; the Retiarius who was lightly clad and who fought with a net and trident; and the Thracian who fought with a a round shield and a curved simitar.
The Emperor Domitian liked to watch women gladiators in an arena illuminated by torches at night. He also liked to see the classical myths retold in the arena. Once he turned the arena into the setting for the story of Orpheus. Elaborate scenery recreated Mount Rodope, the Garden of the Hesperides and the rock on which Orpheus sang. Birds flew across the scene and wild beasts ran into the arena while the criminal representing Orpheus was mauled to death by a bear. Another condemned criminal was forced to impersonate Daedalus escaping from the island of Crete with his newly-invented wings, but the hapless victim crashed to his death on the arena floor. One woman fought against a lion and actually won! Elephants and rhinos fought against bulls, and machines were constructed on which to hang gladiators and beasts so that they could literally fly across the arena. Sometimes even the Emperors themselves participated in the spectacle. Commodus (180-192 AD) descended into the arena no less than 635 times, much to the embarassment of the senators, who considered such behaviour beneath the imperial dignity.


With the fall of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum was abandoned and gradually became overgrown. Despite a series of earthquakes in the Middle Ages, which caused structural fractures, the Colosseum must still have been reasonably intact in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as two Roman families, the Frangipani and the Annibaldi, fought for possession of it. In 1349, however, a terrible earthquake caused part of the external ring to collapse. The structure continued to crumble whilst the roots of plants and trees which had grown up among the ruins began to work their way between the travertine blocks. Henceforth the site became a quarry of ready hewn stone. Cartloads of masonery were removed for the construction of new buildings around the city such as the Palazzo Venezia, the Palazzo della Cancelleria, Palazzo Barberini and the new Basilica of St Peter's.

Exotic plants grew for centuries in the amphitheatre. Seeds had been brought to Rome from Africa and Asia together with the animals and their foodstuff. Such was the variety of plant life that in 1813 Antonio Sebastiani published Flora Colisea, listing 261 different species. In 1855 the English botanist Richard Deakin claimed to have identified over 420 species in his book Flora of the Colosseum.


Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) forbade the use of the Colosseum as a quarry and consecrated the building to the Passion of Christ and declared it sanctified by the blood of the Christian martyrs who were thought to have perished there. The stations of the cross were set up round the arena and a cross was placed in its centre. These were dismantled during excavations at the end of the nineteenth century. The amphitheatre's blocked drainage system was cleared and the soil and rubble which had reached the level of the ancient wooden floor was removed.
Both Christians and Jews regarded the Colosseum as a site of martyrdom. The Christians held that early believers had been thrown to the lions there while the Jews believed that 15,000 Hebrew slaves had been used for its construction. There are no records, however, of religious martyrdom ever having taken place in the arena; indeed, the only Imperial edict on the subject seems to have been one forbidding the sacrifice of Christians in the arena! It would also appear that the people who worked on the construction of the Colosseum were very specialized, thus excluding the other hypothesis.
Popes Leo XII (1823-1829), Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and Pius IX (1846-1878) decided to build walls to reinforce the northern external side of the structure, thus preserving this part of the Colosseum. The vegetation that covered the amphitheatre was also removed to prevent further damage to the monument, although the vines, fig trees and other exotic plants had given the ruins a wonderfully romantic look, which inspired many writers over the centuries, such as Emile Zola, Stendhal, Byron, Mark Twain, Dickens, Henry James. They would wander through the monument's arches in the moonlight and stand in the centre of the arena, watching the stars and feeling the breeze whispering through the ancient stones.


But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air
The garland-forest, which the gray walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar's head;
When the light shines serene but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot - 'tis on their dust ye tread.


Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, (1818).