The Colosseum is the largest amphitheater built during the Roman Empire.
It is considered one of the greatest works of architecture and engineering in ancient Rome.
We’re going to start this tour assuming your standing outside – perhaps queuing to get inside.
This still magnificent building was paid for largely by the 50,000 kg of gold and silver taken during the sacking of Jerusalem; construction was started by Vespasian in the year 70 and completed by his son, Titus, 10 years later. Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian then made improvements and expansions up until the year 96.
These three emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian form the Flavian Dynasty and the proper name of the Colosseum is the Flavian Amphitheater.
It became known as the Colosseum thanks to the colossal statue that was next to the amphitheater, a relic from when this part of the city had been used for Nero’s opulent palace: Domus Aurae (or Golden House).
The excavated base of Nero’s colossus lies to the north west of the Colosseum.
Replacing the palace with an amphitheater effectively gave land that had been appropriated by Nero back to the people of Rome. This helped signal the Empire’s return to political stability after Nero’s unsuccessful reign and subsequent civil wars.
Standing near the entrance you will be able to see that the Colosseum includes all the ancient architectural “orders”, these are styles recognizable mainly by the columns employed. The order of the ground floor half columns is the Tuscan one (a Roman variation of the Doric order), on the second floor the semi-columns are Ionic and on the third floor Corinthian. The panels of the fourth floor – the attic – are divided by flat composite Roman-Corinthian pilaster in place of the larger half-columns of the lower arcades, with a rectangular window every second panel.
This impressive building is made from several concentric elliptical walls attached to each other through a series of arches and beams. You can see this most strikingly close to the entrance, where three of the wall layers have been stripped away by 3 major earthquakes in 847, 1349 and 1826. The south side has clearly been more impacted by earthquake because it sits on less stable alluvial land.
Other destruction has been caused through theft or state-commissioned repurposing of the marble veneer, stones, and metal.
Now, as you go into the Colosseum through the main western entrance, look for a large white marble block, it bears an inscription relating to restoration work during the 5th century. Thanks to where it was found and the remaining pattern of small holes, we believe that this sat above a major doorway as it has an earlier bronze inscription that read:
“The emperor Vespasian ordered the new amphitheater be erected from his general’s share of the booty…”
The Colosseum conveyed the power of the Empire through its size: it dominated the ancient Roman skyline.
The contests involving large and exotic animals reinforced the sense that the Roman Empire was vast and was capable of conquering and controlling all known parts of the world.
The gladiator matches echoed the military values espoused by Roman Emperors; courage in battle and triumph over death.
The Colosseum was famously used for gladiator fights, but it also served as a venue for animal contests, simulated sea battles, classical mythological dramas, and executions of criminals and prisoners-of-war by crucifixion. Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that it was used as a place of execution for Christians.
Now let’s get the core statistics out of the way.
The amphitheater held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators.
It is 189m long, 156m wide, and its outer wall, only still existing on the northern side, is 45m high. The arena is 83m x 48m.
It is ringed by 80 entrances at ground level, each numbered with a roman numeral at the top of the arch, some of which are still visible today.
76 of those entrances were used by spectators.
A spectator’s ticket into the Colosseum would be made out of pottery and be marked by their gate, level and row number. After entry through the appropriate gate, they went to their seats via passageways that opened onto a tier of seats from below or behind.
The passageways were called vomitoria, the Latin word for rapid discharge, from which the English word vomit derives. These allowed the huge audience inside the Colosseum to exit the stadium quickly and safely.
The other four entrances included one for the Emperor, two as the entries and exits for gladiators, and another for the removal of corpses.
The Aqua Claudia aqueduct was used to supply water to the area of the Colosseum. The Colosseum contained over 100 fountains and pipes were installed in the walls during the construction carrying water throughout the complex.
Evidence has been found of two very large toilets or latrines in the Colosseum and, below each of the four access tunnels there are large sewers. Communal toilets, or latrines, consisted of a row of holed seats with a flow of water passing underneath. A system of small sewers led from all parts of the Colosseum ultimately out to one great circular drain which surrounded the amphitheater. At regular intervals along this drain there were wells that reached 8 meters deep. This large drain, in turn, connected to the Cloaca Maxima, the main sewerage system of Rome.
Now make your way to one of the multiple viewpoints where you can look out over the arena.
There were various levels of seating inside the Colosseum.
Special boxes were provided at the north side where the Emperor and Vestal Virgins sat together – this is where the Christian crosses have been erected. Opposite them, on the other side of the arena would likely have been statues of the gods.
At the same level was a broad platform or podium for members of the religious orders and for senators. The names of some 5th century senators are carved into the stonework, reserving their spot. There was no subsequent Senate to replace their names since the Empire fell shortly thereafter.
The tier above the senators was available to Rome’s noble class.
The next level up was for ordinary Roman citizens (plebeians) with the wealthy at the bottom, closer to the action.
Another level, added by Domitian at the very top was for the common poor, slaves and women.
Now look down towards the center of the amphitheater.
To help get you oriented, the end of the arena which is partially recovered is east – head over that way now – feel free to pause or listen along as you go.
Originally the entire arena had a wooden floor covered with sand. This completely hid the underground structure that you can now see. You’re looking at what was another of Domitian’s enhancements…it is called the ‘hypogeum’ – a network of tunnels and cages where gladiators, animals and props were held until it was their turn in the arena. This area of the Colosseum is generally closed to the public but can be visited by hiring a tour guide.
There were 80 vertical shafts in the hypogeum which provided instant access to the arena floor through a series of trap doors. Elevators and pulleys raised and lowered animals and props through these tunnels. There is also evidence for hydraulics being used.
The hypogeum was connected by underground tunnels to nearby stables where animals were kept, and with the gladiators’ barracks and training school called the Ludus Magnus which can still be seen today just east of the Colosseum across the street.
If you’ve made it over to the east side you can look out over the street below and across to the largest gladiatorial barracks and training facilities in Rome; and, if you’re interested, there is a short separate podcast describing that location.
The other tunnels allowed the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins to visit the Colosseum without them needing to pass through the crowds.
Due to the intense summer heat in Rome there was a huge canvas awning called the velarium that could be extended over the grandstands of the Colosseum to give shade to the spectators.
The velarium was supported by 240 wooden beams that sat in sockets around the top of the Colosseum. Ropes from the canopy went through pulleys on top of the beams and down to the ground where they were attached to small pillars anchored 18m from the outer wall of the Colosseum. Five of these pillars remain on the east side of the Colosseum today. The ropes were controlled by sailors of the Roman fleet who re-positioned the velarium to most effectively shade the crowd.
The holes in the outer walls and columns that look like woodpecker marks, especially on that southern side, are from the iron pins that attached the wall sections to each other; but the iron was valuable and stolen or repurposed for other building projects.
A connection to an aqueduct allowed the arena to be flooded for the re-enactment of naval battles during the early years of the Colosseum, although it’s unclear how this worked in practice and there isn’t a consensus of just how they managed to make the whole area water tight.
Now work your way over to the opposite end of the Colosseum.
Looking out from the upper west level you have a great view of the Arch of Constantine and the Temple of Venus and Roma. Large chambers under the Temple were used to store machinery and props used in the contests and fights.
The inaugural games in the Colosseum sponsored by Titus and lasted over 100 days. Accounts of these refer to the arena being filled with water for a display of swimming horses and bulls as well as a reenactment of a major sea battle.
The entertainment in the arena was extraordinary – albeit often sickeningly gruesome.
Move back towards the central arena and find a place to look out while I tell you more about life as a gladiator.
Firstly, its important to know that state-sanctioned gladiatorial combat had been a major part of society in Rome for over 150 years prior to the building of the Flavian Amphitheater. Also, they weren’t just used as a public spectacle but rather could be privately hosted by wealthy Roman’s looking to entertain house guests.
The name Gladiator comes from the word Gladius which refers to a short sword used by Celts living in Spain. The term gladiator can be translated as simply swordsman.
Nearly all gladiators were slaves owned, or managed, by a lanista. The Emperor had his own Imperial gladiators managed for him and housed in barracks such as the Ludus Magnus.
The lanista hired out gladiators for contests and paid a tax to the state on his profits. As well as those properly trained to fight in gladiatorial schools there were countless noxii (condemned men) to be executed in the arena – their deaths by fighting each other or by trying to fight wild animals provided lunchtime entertainment between the morning and afternoon main events. That said, not all willing gladiators where slaves and not all were men – freelance fighters and women could also choose to compete.
When a gladiator entered into one of Rome’s four training schools they were given a class or style of fighting. They stayed within that class for their entire careers and trained with instructors, weaponry and equipment applicable to that class.
Gladiators ate an essentially vegetarian diet of beans, barely, fruits and berries and were accordingly nicknamed the hordearii (which can be translated as ‘barley boys’). To avoid calcium deficiency, it is believed they ate a special mixture of ashes from burnt plants.
Gladiators enjoyed a relatively high standard of living as well as specialist healthcare – all of this investment being made to ensure they were in good shape and ready to perform.
That said, life expectancy was short, not many survived more than 10 fights. Given that they would perform 2-3 fights annually their gladiatorial careers often lasted just a couple of years.
Evidence from a study of 1st century gladiator headstones, gave an average age at death of 27, and mortality “among all who entered the arena” at roughly 1 in 5. That said it has been argued that many would have died early in their careers, at 18–25 years of age, and not established themselves with a status or connections to warrant headstones. With over 400 arenas throughout the Roman Empire at its greatest extent, it is thought that there would have been roughly 8,000 deaths per annum from executions, gladiatorial contests and accidents. The risk of death for defeated gladiators rose from 1/5 to ¼ in the later part of the empire because clemency was granted less often.
In addition to the human carnage, historians have estimated about 10,000 animals were slain in a single day during some celebrations in the Colosseum. Indeed, there are various records giving accounts of rhinos, hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, panthers, leopards, bears, tigers, crocodiles and ostriches fighting or being hunted in the amphitheater.
Originally anyone could commission gladiatorial fights however Domitian regulated that only emperors could put on these contests. This provided an imperial monopoly on garnering the affections of the populace and reined-in the more exuberant and expensive excesses of some of his potential rivals.
Gladiatorial contests are last reported in the Colosseum in 434 CE but animal contests continued for another 90 years.
With the collapse of the empire the logistical and financial infrastructure that supported this form of entertainment disintegrated too and the amphitheater was re-purposed to meet other needs.
In the 6th Century a church was constructed within the Colosseum and the arena used as a cemetery.
By the 11th Century the multitude of arches and walkways were a mass of workshops whereas other parts were used for housing.
During the 12th century it became a fortress of the Fragipane family.
The south-side collapse during the 13th Century earthquake meant that there was readily available stone and marble for many other buildings including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Palazzo Farnese.
By the end of the 18th Century the removal of stone was halt by the Pope and attention shifted to focus on restoration and repair.
Our tour ends here but there are several exhibits and models of the amphitheater that are worth viewing these can be found in the upper levels on the north side.
Other adjacent tours in this series include the Gladiatorial barracks Ludus Magnus and The Arch of Constantine.