The unmistakable outline of Rome’s Colosseum has become one of the abiding symbols not just of the Eternal City but of Italy itself; a truly colossal remnant of the empire that once stretched from Hadrian’s Wall to the Persian Gulf, it has watched over Rome for two millennia. Begun on the orders of the Emperor Vespasian in AD 70, it was completed just ten years later, and witnessed everything from gladiatorial combats to wild animal fights and public executions over the following centuries. Voted one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ in a 2007 poll, it is today one of Rome’s biggest tourist attractions, and even appears on the Italian 5 cent coin.
Officially known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, named in honour of Rome’s then ruling dynasty, the Colosseum was built on the site of Nero’s infamous Domus Aurea (‘Golden House’), a vast and opulent pleasure palace surrounded by parkland, which was partially demolished to make way for this new public entertainment venue. One notable survival from Nero’s complex was a 30-metre-high bronze statue of the emperor, which was altered and rededicated as an image of the sun god, Sol Invictus, after Nero’s death. Known as the ‘Colossus Neronis’, it was later moved nearer the amphitheatre, and it is thought that this towering statue subsequently lent its name to the Colosseum.
Nobody had seen anything quite like it before. The Colosseum was a huge, freestanding, elliptical structure built of travertine stone and concrete, rising to a height of 48 metres and enclosing an oval arena measuring 87 metres long by 55 metres wide. It was the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world. The structure was roofless, although on especially hot days, a huge, retractable canvas awning, called the velarium, could be pulled over the top to protect spectators from the sun. There were 80 entrances and four tiers of seats, accommodating more than 50,000 spectators, who were segregated according to their social position. The emperor, along with his family and immediate entourage, watched proceedings from a private box, while the front rows were reserved for Rome’s leading citizens: the senators, magistrates, priests and wealthy elite. Behind them sat the lower-class male citizens, and the topmost rows of seats accommodated the poorer plebeians, slaves and women. Entrance to the Colosseum was free for all, but numbered tickets were still required, to prevent overcrowding.
The new amphitheatre was inaugurated by the Emperor Titus, Vespasian’s son and successor, in AD 80, and there followed more than one hundred days of celebrations, featuring traditional Roman games: wild animal fights, gladiatorial contests and public executions of criminals. The 1st century poet Martial described the lavish and often gory scenes in his collection of epigrams, De Spectaculis (‘On the Spectacles’) including mortal battles between an elephant and a bull, and a rhinoceros and a bear, as well as animal ‘hunts’ and theatrically-staged executions where criminals receiving the damnatio ad bestias (‘condemned to the beasts’) sentence wereexposed to wild animals, who tore them apart for the entertainment of the crowds. There are no precise figures, but it has been estimated that several thousand animals, brought from the far corners of the Empire, were slaughtered during the Colosseum’s inaugural games.
The hypogeum – the complex network of subterranean tunnels, passages and chambers – was constructed soon after, during the rule of Titus’s brother Domitian. Much of this still survives, presenting an evocative insight into the ‘backstage’ life of the Colosseum; this was where the wild animals, convicted criminals and gladiators needed for the shows were held, and where teams of slaves toiled away in the cramped, swelteringly hot gloom, operating the rope-and-pulley lifts, stage props and trapdoors to the arena above. No expense was spared in devising ever more elaborate games by emperors keen to entertain and gain favour with the Roman mob. The emperor Commodus (177-192) even performed in the arena himself, fighting as a gladiator and slaughtering animals, while ‘novelty acts’ involving female gladiators, dwarves and acrobats were popular, alongside the brutal combats, tortures and executions. Some early Christian martyrs also met their ends here, shot with arrows, savaged by dogs or burnt alive, although most would have been executed in the Circus Maximus. The Colosseum continued in use for almost fi ve
centuries; the last known gladiatorial fights to be held here were in 435 and the final animal hunts took place in 523.
Earthquakes, neglect and the quarrying of its stone for use elsewhere during the Middle Ages caused a great deal of damage to the Colosseum. The building became home to ramshackle houses and workshops, a religious order and even a cemetery over the years, while an especially strong earthquake in 1349 caused a large section of the amphitheatre to collapse.
Various uses were suggested for the building in succeeding centuries, including a bull-fi ghting arena and a wool factory, but it was the Colosseum’s reputation as a place of Christian martyrdom that saved it. In 1749 Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the building as a sacred site, dedicated to the Passion of Christ, and installed the Stations of the Cross around the arena, forbidding any more destruction of its fabric. These were removed in 1874, but the link with the Catholic Church has continued to this day, and every Good Friday the Pope leads a torch-lit Via Crucis procession at the Colosseum.