Rome’s Ancient Icon: An Express Guide to the Colosseum

Fri 29 Jan 2021

Rome’s Ancient Icon: An Express Guide to the Colosseum

"While the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall.”

So wrote the English monk the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, and luckily  for us nearly 1,300 years later the magnificent Roman Colosseum is still standing, dominating the physical space of Rome as well as providing its most iconic image in our collective imagination. Astonishingly massive and so evocative of the ancient culture that moved heaven and earth to construct it, when you come to the Colosseum you feel as if you can reach out and touch the distant world of antiquity across the gulf of centuries. Even though we might think we know the Colosseum all too well from world of popular culture, the experience of witnessing its endless rows of massively impossible arches in the flesh can turn even the most jaded traveller into a child filled with wonder.

For so many of you, the Covid-19 pandemic has frustrated your travel plans and ensured that the iconic Colosseum remains a distant figment of frustrated wanderlust, but with vaccination campaigns swinging into top-gear we’re confident that the world will be travelling again soon. Whilst we await that happy day with bated breath, our Colosseum Virtual Tour offers the perfect opportunity to gain a fascinating sneak-peak into the fascinating world of the ancient games in the company of our resident expert archaeologist Luca. It might not be quite the same as visiting in the flesh, but we think our virtual tour is a great way to prepare you for what’s in store when you finally get here!

To set the stage, this week on our blog we’ve come up with an express primer to the story of the Colosseum. To continue the journey, be sure to book your place on our virtual tour of the Colosseum!

What exactly is the Colosseum anyway, and where is it?

 The Colosseum seen from the Roman Forum

Like many of the most interesting things in life, the Colosseum is a paradox: as both the symbol of an incredibly advanced civilisation whose skill in engineering was centuries ahead of its time and at the same time a gore-stained monument to an insatiable collective bloodlust, a visit to the Colosseum reminds us of how ancient Rome was both eerily similar to our world and totally alien to it.

The Colosseum remains the largest amphitheatre ever built, and the most immediately recognisable icon of the ancient world nearly two millennia after its construction. The structure is visible from all over the city, and is centrally situated next to the Forum and Palatine Hill, the antique centre of political power and site of the Imperial palaces respectively. 

Unlike those gravity-filled spaces, the Colosseum was designed specifically for entertainment, a place where all Roman citizens could go to let their hair down and forget about the hardships of daily life. It was begun in 70AD on the orders of the emperor Vespasian as a gift to the people of Rome and proof of his generosity. The massive stadium regularly welcomed crowds of 65,000 people and more to its events, which were open to all Roman citizens of the city (they were free, too).

To inaugurate its completion, the emperor Vespasian’s son and successor Titus celebrated with 100 days of non-stop games including exotic animal hunts, executions, music, and of course gladiator battles. The tradition of the games would continue here for fully five centuries as a key guarantor of social cohesion in the Imperial capital.

Known to antiquity as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum only gained its current title many centuries after the games had ceased. To understand why, we have to travel back in time, back to the reign of one of the most notorious villains of Roman history: Nero. 

What’s in a name? Nero’s colossal statue and the origins of the Colosseum

 The Emperor Nero as seen on a coin

Nero is remembered to history for many things. Persecuting Christians and other minorities, fiddling cheerfully as Rome went up in flames, casually assassinating his enemies, and even ordering the murder and dissection of his own mother. The egotistical Nero was convinced both of his own divinity and his artistic genius, proud of his skills as an actor, dancer, musician and orator. His dying words reflected the esteem in which he held himself right up to his last breath - lamenting his passing, the emperor wistfully reflected ‘what an artist dies with me.’ 

Nero blamed the devastating fire that gutted the city in 64 AD on the mysterious and cultish Christians who were unwilling to integrate into pagan Roman society, but they were just the scapegoats. Many historians speculate that Nero started the fire himself; at the very least, he massively profited from its destruction of two-thirds of the city. Before the ashes were even cold, he began the construction of his unimaginably massive Domus Aurea, or Golden House. The palace was so massive that Nero never even succeeded in visiting all its rooms, but the emperor was content. Here, he claimed, he could finally ‘live like a human being.’

 Domus Aurea pianta generalePlan of Nero's Golden House, with central lake. Wikimedia commons

The centrepiece of this gargantuan testament to Nero’s prodigious ego was a massive artificial lake surrounded by elegant columns – in order to supply the lake with water Nero had to divert the course of the Claudian aqueduct, a vital cog in the city’s infrastructure. For good measure the emperor marked the entrance to his palace with a bewilderingly large statue of himself in bronze. All of 120 feet tall, the effigy was intended to rival the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world. 

Unsurprisingly this didn’t go down too well with the populace, many of whom had been evicted from their homes to make the Domus Aurea possible, and Nero didn’t get to enjoy his pleasure-palace for long. Amidst plummeting popularity ratings and whispers of insurrection, he committed suicide in 68 AD. And with that ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty. As founder of the new Flavian dynasty his successor Vespasian unsurprisingly sought to make a clean break from his wicked predecessor, and so the palace was pulled down and its lake drained and filled in. 

The Colosseum seen from the Colle Oppio, former site of Nero's Domus Aurea

On the site of the private lake that so vividly symbolised the contempt Nero held for the city’s populace, Vespasian erected a fundamentally public monument, a gift to the people whose support he desperately needed if he wasn’t to go the same way as Nero. It is more than a little ironic, then, that  in the 11th century the abandoned structure started being referred to as the Colosseum in reference to the colossal statue of Nero that once stood there.

How was the Colosseum Built?

 The interior of the Colosseum, seen from the upper levels

The massive oval-shaped Colosseum bucked an ancient trend for circular amphitheatres, the Roman engineers reasoning that the compressed oval shape would better provide a better view of the arena for its huge audiences. It was originally nearly 190 metres in length and 160 in breadth, and was constructed from enormous travertine stone blocks riveted together with massive iron clamps.

To construct just the exterior, 240,000 cartloads of stone were brought to the city from the quarry of Tivoli 20 miles east of Rome. Other building materials employed were tufa stone, vast amounts of masonry bricks and cement. The seats meanwhile were made from valuable and hard-wearing marble.

The classical orders of the Colosseum's rows of arches

The façade was a design classic that was hugely influential in subsequent architectural history: arcades of travertine arches on top of each other, each framed by a different classical order of columns – Doric on the ground floor, Ionic in the middle register, and Corinthian in the upper level and attic.

Some historians maintain that four separate building contractors were each responsible for one quadrant of the building project, which was amazingly completed in just 10 years; when you consider that the great cathedrals of the medieval world often took centuries to complete, it puts the achievement of the Roman architects and engineers into perspective.

 Depiction of the Sack of the Temple in Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus

But it is testament too to the limitless man-power they could count on from the legions of Jewish slaves forcibly brought to Rome from Jerusalem in the wake of the Jewish Revolt in 72AD, and the massive cash-injection to the Imperial coffers from the riches pilfered during the Sack of that city’s temple (a pillage immortalised on the contemporaneous Arch of Titus nearby). Most likely, skilled tradesmen worked side-by-side with forced labour to bring the project to fruition.

Just what took place at the Colosseum? A Day at the Games

 The arena floor of the Colosseum

The spectacular games that took place at the Colosseum were all-singing, all-dancing propagandistic showpieces. Although gladiatorial combat and choreographed animal hunts had become increasingly popular entertainments in the Roman Empire as the Republican era reached its peak, it wasn’t until the dawn of the Imperial age that they would become the pre-eminent form of public spectacle in the ancient world.

As the democratic institutions of Rome receded in importance and power become centralised on  the figure of the Emperor alone, it became increasingly incumbent on the incumbent despot to remain in the good books of the unruly disenfranchised masses. As Russell Crowe’s Maximus puts it in Gladiator, win the crowd…What better way to demonstrate the astonishing might of the Roman Empire and the empathetic concern of its all-powerful figurehead than free, high-octane entertainment? If TV was the 20th century’s opiate of the people, then the games were Imperial Rome’s equivalent. For the ancient satirist Juvenal, to keep the masses satisfied all you need to do was ensure a plentiful supply of panem et circenses - bread and circuses.

 Numbering above one of the Colosseum's entrance arches

Upcoming games were advertised well in advance, and were eagerly anticipated by the city’s populace, who probably betted on the games just as they avidly gambled on the chariot-races in the Circus Maximus. On the morning of the games spectators flooded in through 80 different entrance arches and up countless stairways and passages to their allocated seats to await the procession that marked the inauguration of the games to the sound of trumpets and fanfares. At the end of the procession out came the gladiators, the star attractions that the masses of spectators had come to see. Their turn in the arena would only come later, though.

Mosaics detailing ancient wild animal hunts

Most scholars agree that the festivities usually began with elaborate wild-animal hunts in the morning. For the lowdown on these orgies of bloodletting that drove a number of species to the verge of extinction, check out our stand-alone article explaining the tradition of animal hunts in the Colosseum.

Ludi Meridiani

During the midday interval, the ludi meridiani took place, where condemned criminals were thrown to the surviving beasts or made to re-enact grisly ancient myths, and burlesque comedies were staged to break up the rhythm of slaughter. 

The climax of the day came during the afternoon, when the stage was cleared for the main event: gladiator combat. The most famous kind of entertainment that unfolded in the Colosseum was of course the gladiator battles that pitted armed combatants against one another in brutal but often highly choreographed duels to the death.

Mosaic depicting gladiatorial combat

Gladiatorial combat was immensely popular during the Imperial period, and gladiators often enjoyed astonishing public acclaim. For a detailed explanation of gladiator combat in the Colosseum, including who the combatants were, how they trained, how the fights unfolded according to strict protocols and what happened to the victors and the vanquished, check out our in-depth guide to gladiators in the Roman Colosseum!

When did the Colosseum stop hosting games, and what happened to the amphitheatre after it was abandoned? 

As the empire declined it became increasingly unfeasible to maintain such a gargantuan building, and the Christian emperors of the 4th and 5th centuries were markedly less keen on gladiatorial combat than their pagan predecessors. The last known games were held in 404 AD, and blood-sports were officially prohibited in the year 438. The Colosseum was finally abandoned after a devastating earthquake in the sixth century. Some fairly inept restoration attempts failed, and the amphitheatre was left to the looters for centuries to come, who stripped it of its valuable materials and turned it into the shell.

The damaged southern facade of the Colosseum

A series of natural disasters including devastating fires and earthquakes continued to undermine the edifice over the centuries. The powerful medieval family of the Frangipani converted the abandoned amphitheatre into a residential fortress in the opening decades of the 13th century, but pope Innocent IV expropriated it for the church not long afterwards in 1244. A particularly powerful earthquake sent the southern façade tumbling in 1349, and the rubble filled site became something like a glorified quarry thereafter, its massive stones carted off for other building projects in the city. 

Pope Sixtus V attempted to exploit the building to kick-start the city’s economy by opening a woollen mill there to provide women with a way out of prostitution in the late-16th century, but his ambitious plans fell through. Finally Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the space as testament to Christian martyrs who were believed to have been thrown to the lions here.

Dedicatory inscription detailing the Colosseum's consecration by Benedict XIV

As with so many other pagan buildings in Rome, its Christianisation paradoxically ultimately proved its salvation, protecting it from further looting and damage and ensuring progressive restorations over the coming centuries. These days more than 5 million visitors  flock to the Colosseum each year, paying their respects to the place Mark Twain so evocatively described as 'the monarch of all European ruins,' a place which 'more vividly than all the written histories tells the story of Rome's grandeur and Rome's decay.' Indeed, perhaps nowhere else on earth paints a richer portrait of the fascinating and enigmatic face of a civilisation lost to time.

If you'd like to embark on an in-depth discovery of the world's greatest ancient monument, then be sure to check out our virtual Colosseum tour with archaeologist and expert guide Luca! 

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