The Roman Empire

The Roman Colosseum

I have posted a little essay about gladiatorial combat, including some information about the thumbs up and thumbs down gestures, here.

The Roman Colosseum is still considered a masterpiece even by modern designers. The enormous stadium was 679 feet long, 512 feet wide, and 160 feet tall at its highest point. It had four seating levels and 80 entrances, and its seating capacity may have been as many as 80,000 spectators.

The Colosseum had features that were state-of-the-art for the time, and would still be considered useful and up-to-date today.  It had retractable sunscreens to protect the spectators from the hot Mediterranean sun, and it had elevators and tunnels under the floor which allowed gladiators and animals to "miraculously" appear where needed on the floor of the amphitheater.

The Colosseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater. It began being called the Colosseum centuries later, obtaining the nickname from a huge statue of Nero in front of the building. 

Many wooden amphitheaters had been previously built throughout the Empire, but the first known stone amphitheater was built in Pompeii in 70 BCE.

By around 70 AD, there were almost a million inhabitants in Rome, which was nearly twice the population of Alexandria, the next largest city in the Roman empire. The Emperor Vespasian decided to build the large amphitheater to provide entertainment for this huge mass of people. Because of the large population and the large number of spectators in the Colosseum, the stadium was designed for efficient traffic flow. There has been evidence found of two very large lavatories in the Colosseum, as well as some 110 drinking fountains.

The building of the Colosseum took ten years. Quarries outside of the city yielded 115,000 cubic feet of travertine for the facade of the structure. There was a special road built just to get stone from the quarry to the building site. Little is known about the equipment actually used in the building process, although a scene from a contractor's gravestone shows a crane being driven by wheels manned by slaves. It is also known that iron clamps were used to clamp the structural stone blocks in place.

The large underground beneath the Colosseum was built by the emperor Domitian. There were some 32 elevators which ringed the arena. Probably with the assistance of a system of counterweights, these elevators lifted animals in cages, which would then miraculously appear on the floor of the arena through trapdoors. Larger hinged floors in the center of the arena used counterweight systems to lift larger items, such as elephants or large pieces of scenery.

In addition to the underground levels, Domitian was responsible for the Colosseum's retractable roof, called the valorium. The roof used canvas to cover approximately 2/3 of the arena's seats. Archaeologists are still not completely certain of the workings of the valorium, but some believe it used a system of ropes and pulleys to lift or let down wooden beams which supported the canvas.

The Colosseum opened in 80 AD with 100 days of gladiatorial combat. On one day, more than 5000 people died in the arena. Admission to the games was free, although the free ticket might not get a spectator very good seats. The closeness to the arena floor was based on the spectator's social status. The ticket itself was a pottery shard on which was written a number indicating the door through which the person was to enter. Exiting the Colosseum was very efficient: The entire stadium could be emptied of people in about 12 minutes.

The gladiators who fought in the Colosseum trained and lived in another large arena near the Colosseum. Called the Ludus Magnus, this smaller arena was essentially a smaller scale model of the Colosseum, and included barracks, storerooms, and smithies where gladiatorial weapons were made. An underground tunnel linked the Ludus with the Colosseum. This tunnel allowed the gladiators to be escorted back and forth without being allowed to mingle with the general population, which helped with security. In addition, it allowed the gladiators to make a more dramatic entrance, since the public would not see them walking in through some back door or service entrance. They would just suddenly walk out onto the Colosseum floor.

In addition to being a gladiator barracks and training facility, the Ludus Magnus was a stadium in its own right which could allow some 12,000 spectators to watch the gladiators practicing and fighting. This size made it larger than the main amphitheater of many cities in the empire.

It is likely that the gladiatorial games had their origins with funerary games held by the Etruscans. Rome inherited many of its early practices from the Etruscans, who controlled much of the region to the north of Rome during the early days of the city's history. There is also the possibility that Rome borrowed the practice from games that were held in Lucania and Campania. No precise evidence exists to point definitely to one or the other as the source.

There were two different terms for gladiatorial games. The munus was a funerary game to honor the memory of a deceased individual. These games were typically held in honor of wealthy or prominent citizens.

The ludus was a game for entertainment purposes. These games were typically sponsored by public officials for the entertainment of the public, and these are the type that would have been most prominent in the Colosseum.

During the games, the morning hours would typically be occupied with the execution of criminals and similar proceedings. The actual gladiatorial combat was the main event of the day, and typically took place after a lunch break. There were around twenty different styles of gladiatorial fighters, often representing stylized versions of Rome's enemies, including Gauls, Thracians, Samnites, and more.

The majority of gladiatorial matches held did not result in death. The matches were closely refereed, and when one gladiator had obtained a clear advantage over the other, perhaps by wounding or disarming him, the defeated man would lay down his weapons and raise his hand to ask for mercy. At that point, the crowd would voice its opinion, but the Emperor (or the other individual sponsoring the games) would make the actual decision of life or death. If the man had fought well, he would likely be spared. The classic "thumbs down" to kill the defeated man is actually a fallacy, as the killing gesture was more to move the thumb inward toward the throat, in imitation of the killing stroke which would be used to dispatch the defeated gladiator. The thumbs down gesture actuall was an indication that the victor should drop his sword, letting the defeated man live to fight again. If a fighter fell in the actual course of battle and was thought to be dead, slaves would come in with a branding iron or an iron mallet to be sure he was actually dead and was not just feigning.

Animal "acts" typically wound up the day of entertainment. Some of the animals killed criminals who had been sentenced to die. Others were slaughtered in recreations of hunting scenes. Certain species, including the north African elephant and the Caspian tiger, were driven to extinction because so many were killed in the Colosseum and other arenas around the empire.

There is no conclusive evidence that Christians were ever actually put to death in the Colosseum. It is possible, as Christians certainly were persecuted at times in Rome. And there is definite evidence that they were sometimes put to death in other amphitheaters in the Empire.

The Roman Colosseum remained in regular use for nearly 500 years. A fire in 217 AD melted much of the limestone facade on the building. The damage took twenty years to fully repair. Earthquakes also caused damage to the building while it was in use.

By the late 4th century, the Colosseum's use was in decline. Mostly, this was just because the Empire itself was in decline and the Emperors could simply not afford to produce the games which the crowds desired. Christianity may have had some effect on the decline, but it was probably a minimal effect.

The story of the monk Telemachus ending the gladiatorial games is probably apocryphal. According to the story, the monk journeyed to Rome from the East in the early 5th century AD. He followed the crowd to the Colosseum, and upon seeing the gladiators fighting, he attempted to stop them. Depending on the version of the story, he was either slain by one of the gladiators, or he was stoned to death by the crowd for attempting to interfere with their entertainment. In either version, the Emperor Honorius was so impressed with the martyr that he issued a decree outlawing the games. The date of the martyrdom is traditionally put at January 1, 404 AD. Regardless of the truth of the story and the reason behind the end of the games, this was the date of the last known gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum.

There is little corroborating evidence, and in fact the only known telling of this story comes from the church historian Theodoret, the Bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria. Even in his telling of it, the Bishop does not specify that the event told even happened in the Colosseum, as he simply states that it occurred in "the stadium," and there were other locales in or near Rome which may have been the site, if the event actually occurred at all.

The Colosseum continued to be used for other entertainments for another hundred years, and the last reenactment of an animal hunt occurred in 523 AD.

Following the fall of the Empire, there is evidence that a church was built into the structure of the Colosseum, and parts of it were rented out as living spaces or used as workshops and storerooms. Parts of the vaulted underground of the building were also used as a cemetery.

Around 1200 AD, the Colosseum was turned into a fortress by the private army of the Frangipani family. The earthquake of 1349 collapsed much of the south facade of the building, which put its use as a fortress to an end.

Following the abandonment of the amphitheater as a fortress, people began to scavenge parts from the building. Much of the limestone and travertine were used to build other buildings, including many churches. People also scavenged many of the iron clamps that had been used to hold the travertine blocks together.

In addition to becoming a source for building resources, there were plans drafted by the Vatican to turn the building into a wool factory to employ the prostitutes of Rome in a productive way. The Colosseum was also used at various times as a gunpowder plant and as a dumping ground for manure. Eventually, the Vatican considered turning the building into a church, after a shrine was put up in honor of the Christians who were supposed to have been martyred there. By the 1700s, it had become a stop on the European tours. It was supposed to be a very romantic stop, even though it was in quite bad shape by that point.

An earthquake in 1826 nearly finished the job started in 1349, damaging and nearly collapsing the eastern facade of the COlosseum. Engineers erected several buttresses to keep the walls from collapsing.

By the 18th century, the Colosseum had become overgrown with so many different types of plants that botanists from all over Europe came to write about it. An excavation undertaken in 1870 unearthed a number of underground passages, but a side effect was that it uprooted most of the plant life in the building. A plus to the excavation was that many inscriptions were found, including a large number which established who had reserved seating in the theater, confirming that proximity to the floor of the arena was based on social status and wealth.

Before and during the Second World War, Mussolini held rallies in the Colosseum. He desired the return of Italy to the greatness of the Roman Empire, and he preferred to use existing Roman buildings as a backdrop for his showmanship. He also sponsored a number of excavations throughout Italy, but a number of these were done in a hurried fashion, seemingly looking more for artifacts of the ancient Roman's greatness than looking for actual knowledge about the period.

After World War II, excavations were continued in the Colosseum. Archaeologists found human skeletons and the skull of a bear which had been pierced by the sword of a gladiator.

In 2003, a stage was being built in the Colosseum which would cover approximately half of the underground sections of the building. The stage, although not fully completed, was used to stage a performance of Oedipus Rex in 2000.

Despite being such a huge structure, and despite having lasted nearly two millenia, the Colosseum is a very fragile structure in some way. Another large earthquake could well destroy the entire structure. The Colosseum was built to withstand huge vertical loads, but most seismic events cause horizontal movement, which it was not designed to handle. The effects of tourism and pollution have also taken their toll on the building. Even the vibrations cause by the rumble of trains and traffic cause small tracks which continue to cause structural problems with the building.

More excellent information about gladiatorial combat can be found here.

Back to Rome

Back to Main Page

Created on ... September 24, 2003

Last updated ... March 10, 2009