Il Colosseo Romano (The Roman Colosseum)
“In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword.” Seneca, Moral Epistles
Sure, this is a given when you’re in Rome, but there’s more to the Colosseum than cool panorama pictures and tales of brave gladiators. No other place embodies the best and the worst of Rome so perfectly. This architectural marvel, featuring multiple innovations and incredible feats of engineering, was made to serve the most cruel blood sport. As you walk through it, imagine 50,000 to 80,000 cheering Romans gambling, drinking, and eating under the velarium, a large sail that provided shade for the spectators. The Colosseum came alive with theatrical stage sets, exotic animals, public executions, and, of course, gladiators.
The Colosseum’s correct name is the Flavian Amphitheater 70 – 80 CE. This, the most monumental amphitheatre in the Roman empire, was built by Vespasian and Titus over an artificial lake created by Nero. The Flavian dynasty (Vespasian was the first of this family) desired to symbolically return Rome to the people after the extravagant excesses of Nero. Vespasian’s motivations were political⏤remove a hedonistic, Nero indulgence, and replace it with an arena of free bloodsport games for the people. While appreciating the beauty of the Colosseum it is important to remember that its raison d’etre was political⏤please the people by providing them the most savage display of violence. Cue Russell Crowe screaming “Are you not entertained?”
Cabeza Tip: Make a reservation online to visit the Colosseum and avoid the lines. If time permits, reserve an underground tour. Arrive at least 45 minutes early to allow yourself time to enjoy different views of the Colosseum and to visit the Gladiator School.
By far the easiest (and most recognizable) place to get to in Rome. Take the Line B to the Colosseo metro station.
BEST THINGS TO SEE
As you arrive at the Colosseum, take a few minutes to simply absorb the audaciousness of the Romans. Find a good viewing point, usually along the fence of the Roman Forum between the Colosseo metro station and the Arch of Constantine. The Romans brought 100,000 cubic meters of travertine stone from Tivoli and used 300 tons of iron make the clamps to hold the stone together. And they did this without electricity (No power tools!), without computer models, and without fossil fuels (No trucks to bring stone! No gas cranes!). Despite its horizontal design, the Colosseum still moves your eyes upwards. This visual effect is achieved by the variation in the columns. There are three column orders (from bottom to top): Tuscan (similar to Doric), Ionic, Corinthian, and a longer simplified Corinthian. Note that the top columns are nearly 1.5 times taller than the bottom Tuscan.
Vomitorium and Numbered Archways
Now walk to the east side of the Colosseum, in the direction of Via Labicana. As you walk through the throngs of people, remember that this contemporary chaos would be a quiet day at the Colosseum compared to a day in the Roman era. The Colosseum currently allows 3,000 visitors at once. In the Roman era, historians estimate that between 50,000 to 80,000 people attended a day at the games! They managed this by assigning each attendee a numbered seat. The most prominent existing vestige of the seating system are the Roman numerals above the ground floor archways. These numbers marked an entrance/exit called a vomitorium. Thanks to these, the entire mass of people could be “vomited” out in a short time.
Ludus Magnus Gladiator School
If you survive the crossing of the street east of the Colosseum, you will be looking down into a partially excavated site. This is the remaining section of the Ludus Magnus Gladiator School, which was connected to the Colosseum by an underground passage. This school had an arena for training, and those sessions were open to the public. The excavation of a gladiator cemetery in Turkey revealed that most gladiator fights were not to the death. “The audience and the organizer of the games decided whether gladiators would live or die, but if two brave gladiators put up a good fight, they often both got out alive,” Fabian Kantz told National Geographic.
Romans were master engineers. The ancient Greeks built theatres into the sides of mountains, but they did not have knowledge necessary to make these stand alone structures. The Romans invented concrete and a new vaulting system, which enabled them to create free standing theatres. Then they came up with the idea of putting two theatres face-to-face to create the structures that are the model for existing stadiums. An essential part of the engineering and aesthetics of the Colosseum is the widespread use of the groin vault. The second floor passageways are one of the finest examples of the Roman architectural feature of merging two barrel vaults at right angles to form a groin vault.
For an additional €11.00, you can take a tour of the Colosseum Underground (book tour online well before your visit). This provides the opportunity to walk in the halls in which the condemned and animals were kept before entering the arena. Gladiators also walked from a tunnel connecting the Ludus Magnus Gladiator School to the west Door of Life to enter the arena. One can also see a reconstruction of the trapdoors and elevation mechanisms that enabled Romans to surprise those in the arena with wolves and bears. Based on archeological finds, bears were the most common animals used in the games.
Usually when we imagine the Colosseum, we need to reconstruct it. Now, let us actually deconstruct a part of it. The arena (from the Latin word harena, meaning “sand”) was built on wooden pillars. These were removable. The underground structures you now see were built 10 years after the opening of the Flavian Amphitheatre, so visually remove them…and fill the arena with water. Now imagine 80,000 Romans jeering wildly as ancient naval battles were reconstructed in smaller versions of ships. On an Underground tour, you can see the storage areas for these ships.
The Romans left their mark on the world in monumental ways, as well as in small, humanly relatable manners. On the upper level of the Colosseum, there is an exhibition area that displays sections of marble seats. Some of these display the names of the wealthy owners of the seats; others have simple depictions of the most popular gladiators. There are also coins and dice, as we can only imagine the gambling between acts.
There were two main doors to enter the arena—the Gate of Life on the East and the Gate of Death on the West. Gladiators, the condemned, and animals all entered the arena through the Gate of Life. Victorious gladiators exited through the same door, but the dead were taken through the Gate of Death. Attendants then brought out sand to cover the blood and the next game would begin.
The history of the Colosseum in relation to Christianity is complex. Although ample historical evidence is lacking, Christians believed their own were executed in the Colosseum. The neglect of the structure of the Colosseum after the Roman empire is therefore understandable. Why preserve the location of persecution? The Colosseum became a quarry, a cemetery, and then had people living in it. After the classical revival of the Renaissance, though, how could such a monumental structure be allowed to be destroyed? Eventually the Catholic Church forbade the quarrying of the site and declared the Colosseum a monument to Christian Martyrs. Find the small plaque placed on the back of the cross by Pope John Paul II in 2000, which reads, “The amphitheater, one consecrated to triumphs, entertainments, and the impious worship of pagan gods, is now dedicated to the sufferings of the martyrs purified from impious superstitions.”
Class Segregation in Seats
The seating of the Flavian Amphitheatre reflected the divisions of Roman society. At the level of the arena sat the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins. The next level (at which the incorrectly reconstructed marble seats are today) was reserved for the Senators. Then the knights (equites) and then the Roman citizens (plebeians), as well as any soldiers with permission to sit away from their unit. On the highest level there was a wooden standing room only for the poor, slaves, and women.
Marble Block – Inscribed with, “The Emperor Vespasian ordered this new amphitheatre to be erected from his general’s share of the booty.”
Claridge, Amanda. Rome (Oxford Archaeological Guides).
Book your Colosseum tickets online through the official website.
AUTHOR(S) AND LAST UPDATE
Stephanie Sepulveda, Corey Ryan, and John William Bailly, 21 May 2016
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