The Colosseum — known in Roman times as the Flavian Amphitheater — has been called "a perfect expression of the brilliance and brutality that were Rome." Begun by Vespasian, the commander who had "subdued" the Jews, and completed a decade later by his son Titus, it was erected on land once taken for private parkland by the odious and was said to have been built by thousands of Jewish slaves brought from Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and completed in A.D. 80 , it had a capacity of 50,000 to 75,000 people (depending on who's doing the counting) and was in use for almost 500 years.

The Colosseum is an egg-shaped amphitheater. When full, Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “a crowd of 50,000 Roman citizens sat according to their place in the social hierarchy, ranging from slaves and women in the upper bleachers to senators and vestal virgins — priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth — around the arena floor. A place of honor was reserved for the editor, the person who organized and paid for the games. Often the editor was the emperor himself, who sat in the imperial box at the center of the long northern curve of the stadium, where his every reaction was scrutinized by the audience."

When the Colosseum opened it must have been an even more impressive sight than it is today. It was originally covered in blocks white marble, which have been scavenged piece by piece over the centuries for the construction of other buildings, often under the auspices of the Popes, who insisted the Colosseum be preserved as symbol of Christian martyrdom.

The only original marble pieces that remain are a few scattered pedestals and pillars. What viewers see today are remains of the concrete core, the brick superstructure and with miles of vaulted corridors. After a $1.4 million renovation the hypogeum was opened to the public in October, 2010. A section of the arena floor has been reconstructed to give some sense of how the stadium looked in its day.

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Books: “The Colosseum (Wonders of the World)” by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard (Harvard University Press, 2005); “The Roman Games: A Sourcebook” by Alison Futrell (Blackwell Publishing, 2006)

Colosseum: Symbol of Rome

20120227-Coliseum_(State_1) Wenceslas_Hollar.jpg
Coliseum (State_1) by Wenceslas Hollar
Keith Hopkins of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The ordered beauty of the Colosseum is in stark contrast to the murderous encounters that took place within it. Find a seat not too close to the action, for an inkling of what Romans got up to, in ancient times. Even today, in a world of skyscrapers, the Colosseum is hugely impressive. It stands as a glorious but troubling monument to Roman imperial power and cruelty. Inside it, behind those serried ranks of arches and columns, Romans for centuries cold-bloodedly killed literally thousands of people whom they saw as criminals, as well as professional fighters and animals. [Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

“Indeed, it was the amphitheatre's reputation as a sacred spot where Christian martyrs had met their fate that saved the Colosseum from further depredations by Roman popes and aristocrats - anxious to use its once glistening stone for their palaces and churches. The cathedrals of St Peter and St John Lateran, the Palazzo Venezia and the Tiber's river defences, for example, all exploited the Colosseum as a convenient quarry. As a result of this plunder, and also because of fires and earthquakes, two thirds of the original have been destroyed, so that the present Colosseum is only a shadow of its former self, a noble ruin.” |::|

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Flavian Amphitheater is the best known of all the buildings of ancient Rome, because to so large an extent it has survived to the present day.” To truly appreciate it is worth comparing it to “its modest prototype in Pompeii. The latter was built in the outskirts of the city, in a corner, in fact, of the city walls; the Coliseum lay near the center of Rome, and was easily accessible from all directions.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

History of the Colosseum

Keith Hopkins of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The Colosseum was started in the aftermath of Nero's extravagance and the rebellion by the Jews in Palestine against Roman rule. Nero, after the great fire at Rome in A.D. 64, had built a huge pleasure palace for himself (the Golden House) right in the centre of the city. In 68, faced with military uprisings, he committed suicide, and the empire was engulfed in civil wars. [Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

“The eventual winner Vespasian (emperor 69-79) decided to shore up his shaky regime by building an amphitheatre, or pleasure palace for the people, out of the booty from the Jewish War - on the site of the lake in the gardens of Nero's palace. The Colosseum was a grand political gesture. Suitably for that great city, it was the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, capable of holding some 50,000 spectators. Eventually there were well over 250 amphitheatres in the Roman empire - so it is no surprise that the amphitheatre and its associated shows are the quintessential symbols of Roman culture. |::|

Coliseum (State 2)
“When the Colosseum opened in A.D. 80, Titus staged a sea-fight there (in about one metre of water), and recent research has shown convincingly that the amphitheatre had no basement at this time. But the rivalrous brother of Titus, Domitian (emperor 81-96), was quick to have a basement built - with ring-formed walls and narrow passages. In this confined space, animals and their keepers, fighters, slaves and stage-hands toiled in the almost total darkness to bring pleasure to Romans.” |[Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

A fire sparked by lightning in A.D. 217 gutted the stadium and sent huge blocks of travertine plunging into the basement. In the A.D. 6th century, after about 500 years of blood and circuses, the Colosseum fell into disrepair. Later, it was used for living quarters and even as a cemetery. Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “In the late 16th century, Pope Sixtus V, the builder of Renaissance Rome, tried to transform the Colosseum into a wool factory, with workshops on the arena floor and living quarters in the upper stories. But owing to the tremendous cost, the project was abandoned after he died in 1590. In the years that followed, the Colosseum became a popular destination for botanists due to the variety of plant life that had taken root among the ruins. As early as 1643, naturalists began compiling detailed catalogs of the flora, listing 337 different species. [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

Layout of the Colosseum

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The interior of the Pompeian structure was reached through two passages and by three stairways only, while eighty numbered entrances made it easy for the Roman multitudes to find their appropriate places in the Coliseum. Much of the earlier amphitheater was below ground level; all the corresponding parts of the Coliseum were above street level, the walls rising to a height of nearly 160 feet. This gave opportunity for the same architectural magnificence that had distinguished the Roman theater from that of the Greeks. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The interior form of the Coliseum is an ellipse with axes of 620 and 513 feet; the building covers nearly six acres of ground. The arena is also an ellipse, its axes measuring 287 and 180 feet. The width of the space appropriated for the spectators is, therefore, 166 1/2 feet all around the arena. It will be noticed, too, that subterranean chambers were constructed under the whole building, including the arena. These furnished room for the regiments of gladiators, the dens of wild beasts, the machinery for the transformation scenes that Gibbon has described in the twelfth chapter of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and above all for the vast number of water and drainage pipes that made it possible to turn the arena into a lake at a moment’s notice and as quickly to get rid of the water. The wall that surrounded the arena was fifteen feet high; it was faced with rollers and was defended, like the one at Pompeii, by a grating or network of metal above it. The top of the wall was level with the floor of the lowest range of seats, called the podium, as in the circus, and had room for two, or at the most three, rows of marble chairs. These were for the use of the emperor and the imperial family, the giver of the games, the magistrates, senators, Vestal Virgins, ambassadors of foreign states, and other persons of consequence. |+|

“The arrangement of the seats with the method of reaching them is shown in the sectional plan. The seats were arranged in three tiers (maeniana), one above the other, separated by broad passageways and rising more steeply the farther they were from the arena, and were crowned by an open gallery. In the plan the podium is marked A. Twelve feet above it begins the first maenianum (B), with fourteen rows of seats reserved for members of the equestrian order. Then came a broad praecinctio and after it the second maenianum (C), intended for ordinary citizens. Back of this was a wall of considerable height, and above it the third maenianum (D), supplied with rough wooden benches for the lowest classes, foreigners, slaves, and the like. The row of pillars along the front of this section made the distant view all the worse. Above this was an open gallery (E), in which women found an unwelcome place. No other seats were open to them unless they were of sufficient distinction to claim a place upon the podium. At the very top of the outside wall was a terrace (F), in which were fixed masts to support the awnings that could be spread to give protection to those sections lying in the sun. The seating capacity of the Coliseum was said to have been eighty thousand, with standing room for twenty thousand more, but Huelsen thinks that it can have provided seats for not more than forty or fifty thousand (see note 1, page 249). |+|

Colosseum interior

Architecture of the Colosseum

Keith Hopkins of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “For all its outside trappings in once glistening local travertine stone, the Colosseum was really a triumph of brick-vaulting and cement. Structurally, the building works by a robust balance of pressures. The huge downward vertical thrust of the external walls matches the outwards thrust of the barrel vaults in the circular promenades, which was itself also relieved by the series of radial walls, built like the spokes of wheel, from the inner ring of the arena. And the sideways thrust of the high heavy stone wall is dispersed via the superimposed rows of arches and compensated by the circularity of the building. [Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

“The construction is strikingly different from most Greek and Roman public buildings. They followed the classic model of Greek temples, with their rectangular rows of columns, topped by beams and relieved by a triangular pediment. The invention of arches and vaults, made of brick-faced concrete, allowed Roman architects much greater spans - and more visual variety. Hence the Colosseum's elaborate honeycomb of arches, passages and stairways, which allowed thousand of spectators to get into and watch their murderous games in a custom-made amphitheatre. And the Colosseum's imposing exterior was then, as it still is, a marvellous monument to Roman imperial power. |::|

“The ordered beauty and formal regularity of the Colosseum's exterior is created by three storeys of superimposed arches with engaged (ie semi-circular) columns. These columns are of different orders on each storey (Tuscan at the bottom, then Ionic, with Corinthian columns in the third storey). The fourth higher blind storey is punctuated by pilasters, decorated with Corinthian capitals. In between the pilasters, are small rectangular windows. Above and between the windows there are stone socles (plinths), which once held the masts used to support the awnings, designed to shade about one third of the spectators (the length of the horizontal poles was limited by the length of Mediterranean pines and the weight of the awnings). If you look upwards, you can still see the holes through which these vertical masts slotted. |::|

“The exterior was decorated at the top with glistening gilded bronze shields, and the arches were filled with painted statues of emperors and gods. Two grand entrances, one at each end of the minor axis, were used by the emperor, as well as by official presenters of shows and no doubt by other grandees. |The entrances were marked by giant porticoes, each topped by a gilded horse-drawn chariot. The emperor also had a private entrance, which went under the seats, and emerged in the imperial box.” |::|

Colosseum in 1896

Construction Planning of the Colosseum

Keith Hopkins of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The Colosseum was opened in A.D. 80 by Vespasian's son and successor, Titus. Given the scale of the enterprise it was built remarkably quickly. And given the site, in a valley where there was previously a lake, it had to be planned carefully. For example, drains were built 8 meters (26 feet) underneath the structure, to take away the streams that flow from the surrounding valleys and hills. Then foundations, roughly in the shape of a doughnut, made of concrete: under the outer walls and seating, they are 12-13 meters(39-42 feet) deep, while under the inner ellipse of the arena, they are only 4 meters (13 feet) deep, and designed in strips beneath each of the concentric walls. Even in this grand design, costs were carefully controlled. [Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

“I cite these figures to illustrate the scale of the enterprise and the forethought that went into the design. Over-engineered perhaps, but it has stood the test of time. The spoil from the huge hole dug for the foundations was used to raise the surrounding ground level by almost 7 meters (23 feet), on top of the 4 meters (13 feet) from the debris of Nero's fire, so that the new amphitheatre stood up higher in its valley site. The design advantage of looking up at, rather than down on, the amphitheatre is obvious. |::|

“The name of the architect is unknown, but by analogy with what we know from elsewhere in the ancient world, the design process would have involved floor plans drawn to scale, 3-dimensional scale models, perspective drawings, and for the artisans some full-size design sketches. The basic point being emphasised here is that in this building of huge scale and complexity, much of the detail was worked out before the building started. Indeed the building was created according to a set of architectural principles, or a set of conventions developed in the construction of other amphitheatres.” |::|

Design Details of the Colosseum

Keith Hopkins of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The basic design units were multiples of 20 Roman feet (the Roman foot varied, but was around 29.6 centimeters). These conventions were adjusted according to the demands of each site, but the basic pattern is repeated, and much of it is not easily visible to the naked eye. Our unknown architect apparently began with the idea of building an arena measuring 300 x 180 Roman feet. The ideal ratio of the period was considered to be 5:3. By convention also, the width of the auditorium equalled the width of the arena, and in the Colosseum, it also surprisingly equalled the height of the external facade. These symmetries probably impressed both architect and emperor. [Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

“So the total length of the Colosseum was originally planned, according to one convincing reconstruction, as 660 Roman feet long (300 + 360) and 540 Roman feet wide The perimeter can be roughly calculated as (L + W) x /2 or 1,885 Roman feet (or more precisely, using trigonometry). Did the perimeter size matter? Yes, because the perimeter had to be split up among a grand number of equally sized entrance arches (both Capua and the Colosseum had 80 entrance arches, Verona and Puteoli 72 etc). Entrance arches in grand amphitheatres were 20 Roman feet wide, with 3 Roman feet extra for the columns in between. So the Colosseum received a perimeter of 1,835 Roman feet (80x 23 =1840), and the arena was adjusted to 280 x 168 (still 5:3). |::|

Colosseum today

“Similar numerical patterns can be seen in the Colosseum's famous façade. For example, the height of the two middle stories is twice the inter-columnar width. Or seen another way, the horizontal gap between the piers (15 Roman feet) equals the vertical height from the pier to the springing of the arch. So we are confronted visually with a series of squares within the framing of the arches. These are not accidents, but details of design, which reflect the architect's preoccupation with principles of number, and provide the viewer (however unconscious he or she may be) with a steady and harmonious rhythm in the façade.” |::|

Colosseum Arena and Hypogeum

The maze of structures in the middle of the Colosseum's arena today are the remains of the hypogeum, a complex of rooms, stalls, lifts, tunnels and chambers that were once covered by a wooden floor that has since disappeared. Some of stalls held wild animals, lions and gladiators. The word hypogeum comes from the Greek word for “underground." Today they are home to some of the hundred of alley cats that now call the Colosseum home.

Keith Hopkins of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “The arena itself was probably covered by a good 15 centimeters of sand (harena), sometimes dyed red to disguise blood. And, as is evident in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator (2000), the arena was dotted with trap-doors designed to let animals leap dramatically into the fray. The arena was also sometimes decorated with elaborate stage scenery, so that the ritual murder could be varied with theatrical tales.

“When the Colosseum opened in A.D. 80, Titus staged a sea-fight there (in about one metre of water), and recent research has shown convincingly that the amphitheatre had no basement at this time. But the rivalrous brother of Titus, Domitian (emperor 81-96), was quick to have a basement built - with ring-formed walls and narrow passages. In this confined space, animals and their keepers, fighters, slaves and stage-hands toiled in the almost total darkness to bring pleasure to Romans. A series of winches and the capstans would have allowed teams of slaves to pull in unison and hoist heavy animals from the basement to the main arena, and this machinery has been reconstructed, in part, from ancient drawings - aided by the bronze fittings that still survive in the basement's floor. The rope-burns of the hoists are still visible in the stone of the lift-shafts. |::| [Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The floor of the colosseum, where you might expect to see a smooth ellipse of sand, is instead a bewildering array of masonry walls shaped in concentric rings, whorls and chambers, like a huge thumbprint. The confusion is compounded as you descend a long stairway at the eastern end of the stadium and enter ruins that were hidden beneath a wooden floor during the nearly five centuries the arena was in use, beginning with its inauguration in A.D. 80. Weeds grow waist-high between flagstones; caper and fig trees sprout from dank walls, which are a patchwork of travertine slabs, tufa blocks and brickwork. The walls and the floor bear numerous slots, grooves and abrasions, obviously made with great care, but for purposes that you can only guess. [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

The leading authority on the hypogeum is Heinz-Jürgen Beste of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome. Beste has spent much of the past 14 years deciphering the hypogeum. On working in the hypogeum, Beste said, “It was as hot as a boiler room in the summer, humid and cold in winter, and filled all year round with strong smells, from the smoke, the sweating workmen packed in the narrow corridors, the reek of the wild animals...The noise was overwhelming — creaking machinery, people shouting and animals growling, the signals made by organs, horns or drums to coordinate the complex series of tasks people had to carry out, and, of course, the din of the fighting going on just overhead, with the roaring crowd."

Colosseum interior, panorama from Level 2

Components of the Hypogeum

Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “At the peak of its operation, Beste concluded, the hypogeum contained 60 capstans, each two stories tall and turned by four men per level. Forty of these capstans lifted animal cages throughout the arena, while the remaining 20 were used to raise scenery sitting on hinged platforms measuring 12 by 15 feet. “See where a semicircular slice has been chipped out of the wall," Beste told Smithsonian magazine, resting a hand on the brickwork. The groove, he added, created room for the four arms of a cross-shaped, vertical winch called a capstan, which men would push as they walked in a circle. The capstan post rested in a hole that Beste indicated with his toe. “A team of workmen at the capstan could raise a cage with a bear, leopard or lion inside into position just below the level of the arena. Nothing bigger than a lion would have fit." He pointed out a diagonal slot angling down from the top of the wall to where the cage would have hung. “A wooden ramp slid into that slot, allowing the animal to climb from the cage straight into the arena," he said. [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

Beste also identified 28 smaller platforms (roughly 3 by 3 feet) around the outer rim of the arena — also used for scenery — that were operated through a system of cables, ramps, hoists and counterweights. He even discovered traces of runoff canals that he believes were used to drain the Colosseum after it was flooded from a nearby aqueduct, in order to stage naumachiae, or mock sea battles. The Romans re-enacted these naval engagements with scaled-down warships maneuvering in water three to five feet deep. To create this artificial lake, Colosseum stagehands first removed the arena floor and its underlying wood supports — vertical posts and horizontal beams that left imprints still visible in the retaining wall around the arena floor. (The soggy spectacles ended in the late first century A.D., when the Romans replaced the wood supports with masonry walls, making flood- ing the arena impossible.)

Beste says the hypogeum itself had a lot in common with a huge sailing ship. The underground staging area had “countless ropes, pulleys and other wood and metal mechanisms housed in very limited space, all requiring endless training and drilling to run smoothly during a show. Like a ship, too, everything could be disassembled and stored neatly away when it was not being used." All that ingenuity served a single purpose: to delight spectators and ensure the success of shows that both celebrated and embodied the grandeur of Rome.

Spectator Experience at the Colosseum

Keith Hopkins of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “Spectators found their way to their seats through arches numbered I - LXXVI (1-76). The four grand entrances were not numbered. The best seats were on or just behind the podium, raised for safety's sake two metres above the arena; animals and gladiators were kept out by a further fence just inside the arena, which helped to ensure that the action was in everybody's view. [Source: Keith Hopkins, BBC, March 22, 2011 |::|]

“Inside the amphitheatre, but at its outer rim, there were, at the first three levels, grand circular promenades, though as you went upwards the dimensions became smaller and the decoration less grand. At the first level, the floors were of marble or Travertine (the stone from which the outside walls were made), while the walls were of polished marble slabs and the ceilings of painted stucco. Their present grim decoration does not do them justice - and the exterior, pockmarked with holes made by medieval robbers looking for iron clamps, gives no real indication, either, of what the building looked like in antiquity. |::|

“Inside the auditorium, except for the front rows on the podium, spectators were packed like sardines in a tin. Evidence from other amphitheatres suggests an average of 40 centimeters width per spectator and 70 centimeters legroom, which makes an economy class airline seem generous. The entrances and staircase were arranged with the help of marble and iron dividers - to keep different classes of clientele separate. Indeed, the very top section of the Colosseum is separated from other spectators by a 5m- (16ft-) high wall. |::|

“Modern scholars often say that the hierarchy of seating mirrored the social hierarchies of Roman society. But we should be cautious. The five sections of the auditorium, from bottom to top, would have contained only about 50,000 predominantly adult males out of an adult male population in the city of Rome of close on 300,000. The lower class population of Rome was seriously and systematically under-represented. And the two lowest (ie most prestigious) sections of the auditorium accommodated, respectively over 2,000 and almost 12,000 spectators, numbers which do not coincide with any known social groups, such as senators (600) or knights (perhaps 5,000). Those in the top rows had shade, while nobles sweated in the sun; but those at the very top, which would have included women and the poor, were a good 100m from the centre of the arena. The myopic presumably just sat and heard the crowd roar.” |::|

Colosseum Spectacles

In Roman times, spectators gathered in the Colosseum to watch gladiators battle each other to the death and unarmed men duel starved lions. In the latter the odds were tipped in favor of the lions, which were more difficult to replace than people. The wooden floor of the Colosseum was covered with sand so the combatants wouldn't slip on the blood. Contrary to the popular misconception almost all of the men who perished in the bloody battles were pagan slaves not Christians.

Sometimes the floor of the Colosseum was filled with wild animals for staged hunts or was flooded for mock sea battles complete with galleys and navies. One grand 100-day celebration in A.D. 2nd century left 5,000 wild animals dead. When Rome became christianized around the A.D. 5th century bloody spectacles were banned and replaced with church dramas and passion plays.

Some scholars have said that descriptions of a flooded Colosseum for these mock battles were exaggerations because no evidence of large waterworks capable of bringing enough water to stage such events had been discovered. Then in 2003, archeologists and spelunkers found that below the simple drains used to drain off rain water that predated the Colosseum were large conduits constructed by Emperor Nero to change the water in the artificial lake in his gardens. The conduits bore signs of having been originally used at the Colosseum, perhaps to pipe large quantities of water in and out for water spectacle like mock naval battles.

Gladiator Fights at the Colosseum

Crowds 45,000-strong showed up to watch gladiator battles at the Coliseum. An event hosted by Caesar contained 320 separate contests. Some bloody spectacles lasted for months.One bloody circus during Titus's rule lasted for 123 straight days and between 5,000 people and 11,000 were killed. Under Augustus eight large gladiator events were held, each with around 1,250 gladiators.

On large shows at the Colosseum: “Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Following the executions came the main event: the gladiators. While attendants prepared the ritual whips, fire and rods to punish poor or unwilling fighters, the combatants warmed up until the editor gave the signal for the actual battle to begin. Some gladiators belonged to specific classes, each with its own equipment, fighting style and traditional opponents. For example, the retiarius (or “net man”) with his heavy net, trident and dagger often fought against a secutor (“follower”) wielding a sword and wearing a helmet with a face mask that left only his eyes exposed.

“Contestants adhered to rules enforced by a referee; if a warrior conceded defeat, typically by raising his left index finger, his fate was decided by the editor, with the vociferous help of the crowd, who shouted “Missus!” (“Dismissal!”) at those who had fought bravely, and “Iugula, verbera, ure!” (“Slit his throat, beat, burn!”) at those they thought deserved death. Gladiators who received a literal thumbs down were expected to take a finishing blow from their opponents unflinchingly. The winning gladiator collected prizes that might include a palm of victory, cash and a crown for special valor. Because the emperor himself was often the host of the games, everything had to run smoothly. The Roman historian and biographer Suetonius wrote that if technicians botched a spectacle, the emperor Claudius might send them into the arena: “[He] would for trivial and hasty reasons match others, even of the carpenters, the assistants and men of that class, if any automatic device or pageant, or anything else of the kind, had not worked well." Or, as Beste puts it, “The emperor threw this big party, and wanted the catering to go smoothly. If it did not, the caterers sometimes had to pay the price." [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

“To spectators, the stadium was a microcosm of the empire, and its games a re-enactment of their foundation myths. The killed wild animals symbolized how Rome had conquered wild, far-flung lands and subjugated Nature itself. The executions dramatized the remorseless force of justice that annihilated enemies of the state. The gladiator embodied the cardinal Roman quality of virtus, or manliness, whether as victor or as vanquished awaiting the deathblow with Stoic dignity. “We know that it was horrible," says Mary Beard, a classical historian at University of Cambridge, “but at the same time people were watching myth re-enacted in a way that was vivid, in your face and terribly affecting. This was theater, cinema, illusion and reality, all bound into one."”

Proper and Legitimate Gladiator Show at the Colosseum

Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The official spectacle, known as the munus iustum atque legitimum (“a proper and legitimate gladiator show”) at the Colossuem, began, like many public events in Classical Rome, with a splendid morning procession, the pompa. It was led by the editor's standard-bearers and typically featured trumpeters, performers, fighters, priests, nobles and carriages bearing effigies of the gods. (Disappointingly, gladiators appear not to have addressed the emperor with the legendary phrase, “We who are about to die salute you," which is mentioned in conjunction with only one spectacle — a naval battle held on a lake east of Rome in A.D. 52 — and was probably a bit of inspired improvisation rather than a standard address.) [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

“The first major phase of the games was the venatio, or wild beast hunt, which occupied most of the morning: creatures from across the empire appeared in the arena, sometimes as part of a bloodless parade, more often to be slaughtered. They might be pitted against each other in savage fights or dispatched by venatores (highly trained hunters) wearing light body armor and carrying long spears. Literary and epigraphic accounts of these spectacles dwell on the exotic menagerie involved, including African herbivores such as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and giraffes, bears and elk from the northern forests, as well as strange creatures like onagers, ostriches and cranes. Most popular of all were the leopards, lions and tigers — the dentatae (toothed ones) or bestiae africanae (African beasts) — whose leaping abilities necessitated that spectators be shielded by barriers, some apparently fitted with ivory rollers to prevent agitated cats from climbing. The number of animals displayed and butchered in an upscale venatio is astonishing: during the series of games held to inaugurate the Colosseum, in A.D. 80, the emperor Titus offered up 9,000 animals. Less than 30 years later, during the games in which the emperor Trajan celebrated his conquest of the Dacians (the ancestors of the Romanians), some 11,000 animals were slaughtered.

“The hypogeum played a vital role in these staged hunts, allowing animals and hunters to enter the arena in countless ways. Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air. “The hypogeum allowed the organizers of the games to create surprises and build suspense," Beste says. “A hunter in the arena wouldn't know where the next lion would appear, or whether two or three lions might emerge instead of just one." This uncertainty could be exploited for comic effect. Emperor Gallienus punished a merchant who had swindled the empress, selling her glass jewels instead of authentic ones, by setting him in the arena to face a ferocious lion. When the cage opened, however, a chicken walked out, to the delight of the crowd. Gallienus then told the herald to proclaim: “He practiced deceit and then had it practiced on him." The emperor let the jeweler go home.”

Intermissions and Executions at the Colosseum Shows

Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “During the intermezzos between hunts, spectators were treated to a range of sensory delights. Handsome stewards passed through the crowd carrying trays of cakes, pastries, dates and other sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine. Snacks also fell from the sky as abundantly as hail, one observer noted, along with wooden balls containing tokens for prizes — food, money or even the title to an apartment — which sometimes set off violent scuffles among spectators struggling to grab them. On hot days, the audience might enjoy sparsiones (“prinklings”), mist scented with balsam or saffron, or the shade of the vela, an enormous cloth awning drawn over the Colosseum roof by sailors from the Roman naval headquarters at Misenum, near Naples. [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

“At the ludi meridiani, or midday games, criminals, barbarians, prisoners of war and other unfortunates, called damnati, or “condemned," were executed. (Despite numerous accounts of saints’ lives written in the Renaissance and later, there is no reliable evidence that Christians were killed in the Colosseum for their faith.) Some damnati were released in the arena to be slaughtered by fierce animals such as lions, and some were forced to fight one another with swords. Others were dispatched in what a modern scholar has called “fatal charades," executions staged to resemble scenes from mythology. The Roman poet Martial, who attended the inaugural games, describes a criminal dressed as Orpheus playing a lyre amid wild animals; a bear ripped him apart. Another suffered the fate of Hercules, who burned to death before becoming a god.

“Here, too, the hypogeum's powerful lifts, hidden ramps and other mechanisms were critical to the illusion-making. “Rocks have crept along," Martial wrote, “and, marvelous sight! A wood, such as the grove of the Hesperides [nymphs who guarded the mythical golden apples] is believed to have been, has run."”

Colosseum Painted with Bright Colors And Covered by Graffiti Phalluses

20120227-Colosseum Christian_Martyrs_in_.jpg
Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum
Tom Kington wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Archaeologists scraping away centuries of grime covering the walls of the Colosseum in Rome have discovered that the massive amphitheater was once painted with riotous colors. Experts working on the walls of one of the corridors that once led Romans to their seats to watch bloody gladiatorial shows have discovered traces of brilliant reds, light blue, green and black, proving the drab gray stonework of the Colosseum was once a Technicolor feast. [Source: Tom Kington, Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2013]

“Graffiti celebrating gladiatorial triumphs and scrawled phalluses also can be found on the plasterwork, which has been painstakingly revealed by scraping off dirt and dust. “We have long suspected this range of colors was used. I have wanted to do this for 20 years,” said Rossella Rea, director of the Colosseum. The discoveries were made in a corridor closed to the public, 60 feet above the level of the arena. Rea said that the newly revealed colors were painted in the corridors that circled the arena, while the seating area was bright white, apart from the emperor’s luxury box, which was decked out in richly colored marble.

“Rea’s team also found symbols representing palm fronds and crowns painted on walls in the corridor, daubed by spectators to mark the victory in battle of a favorite gladiator. Experts have previously found images of gladiators scratched into the stone seating by spectators. Graffiti now exposed from that period include scribbled names and phalluses — “lots of phalluses,” said Rea. More recent signatures are dated 1826 and 1892, as curious visitors returned to the Colosseum.

Frescoes Discovered in the Colosseum

In 2013, Italian restorers cleaning the Colosseum discovered the remains of frescoes indicating the interior of the Colosseum may have been decorated with murals as being colorfully painted .Naomi O'Leary of Reuters wrote: “Working in a passage closed to the public for decades, restorers scraped off years of limescale and black pollution from car exhaust to discover remains of the frescoes, their vivid red, blue, green and white colors still visible. “This is a beautiful archaeological surprise,” Mariarosaria Barbera, Rome’s archaeological superintendent told Reuters. “Even in a monument as well known as this one, studied all over the world, there are still new things to discover.” The team also discovered ancient sketches by spectators who painted crowns and palm trees, symbols of victory celebrating the success of gladiators they supported. The Latin word “VIND”, referring to victory or revenge, was also found. [Source: Naomi O'Leary, Reuters, January 19, 2013 ***]

“Restorers discovered the frescoes in a passage leading to the highest level of seating, a wooden gallery reserved for the lowest classes and furthest from the action in the arena. Senators had seats on the first floor, while the emperor and Vestal Virgin priestesses had special boxes with the best views. Blue pigment was a costly luxury at the time, so its use in a corridor leading to the cheap seats indicated the rest of the stadium’s interior may have been intricately decorated too, Barbera said. ***

“The frescoes likely date from after 217 AD, when a fire destroyed the wooden gallery that topped the Colosseum. The frescoes were discovered during the monument’s first comprehensive restoration in 73 years, a 25 million euro ($33.39 million) project to clean the entire building by 2015. Restorers have cleaned only a small part of the monument so far, and hope to reveal the detail of what the frescoes depict underneath marks left by centuries of visitors. Written in a modern script, the name “Luigi” was scratched into a well-preserved red section of fresco. Nearby was scrawled the date “1620”, and “J. Milber from Strasbourg, 1902”. ***

Archaeological Work at the Colosseum

Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “By the early 19th century, the hypogeum's floor lay buried under some 40 feet of earth, and all memory of its function — or even its existence — had been obliterated. In 1813 and 1874, archaeological excavations attempting to reach it were stymied by flooding groundwater. Finally, under Benito Mussolini's glorification of Classical Rome in the 1930s, workers cleared the hypogeum of earth for good. [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

Christian Martyr's Last Prayer

“Beste and his colleagues spent four years using measuring tapes, plumb lines, spirit levels and generous quantities of paper and pencils to produce technical drawings of the entire hypogeum. “Today we'd probably use a laser scanner for this work, but if we did, we'd miss the fuller understanding that old-fashioned draftsmanship with pencil and paper gives you," Beste says. “When you do this slow, stubborn drawing, you're so focused that what you see goes deep into the brain. Gradually, as you work, the image of how things were takes shape in your subconscious."

Unraveling the site's tangled history, Beste identified four major building phases and numerous modifications over nearly 400 years of continuous use. Colosseum architects made some changes to allow new methods of stagecraft. Other changes were accidental;a fire sparked by lightning in A.D. 217 gutted the stadium and sent huge blocks of travertine plunging into the hypogeum. Beste also began to decipher the odd marks and incisions in the masonry, having had a solid grounding in Roman mechanical engineering from excavations in southern Italy, where he learned about catapults and other Roman war machines. He also studied the cranes that the Romans used to move large objects, such as 18-foot-tall marble blocks.

Tom Mueller wrote in Smithsonian magazine, When Beste and a team of German and Italian archaeolgists first began exploring the hypogeum, in 1996, he was baffled by the intricacy and sheer size of its structures: “I understood why this site had never been properly analyzed before then. Its complexity was downright horrifying." [Source: Tom Mueller, Smithsonian magazine, January 2011]

The disarray reflected some 1,500 years of neglect and haphazard construction projects, layered one upon another. After the last gladiatorial spectacles were held in the sixth century, Romans quarried stones from the Colosseum, which slowly succumbed to earthquakes and gravity. Down through the centuries, people filled the hypogeum with dirt and rubble, planted vegetable gardens, stored hay and dumped animal dung. In the amphitheater above, the enormous vaulted passages sheltered cobblers, blacksmiths, priests, glue-makers and money-changers, not to mention a fortress of the Frangipane, 12th-century warlords. By then, local legends and pilgrim guidebooks described the crumbling ring of the amphitheater's walls as a former temple to the sun. Necromancers went there at night to summon demons.

By applying his knowledge to eyewitness accounts of the Colosseum's games, Beste was able to engage in some deductive reverse engineering. Paired vertical channels that he found in certain walls, for example, seemed likely to be tracks for guiding cages or other compartments between the hypogeum and the arena. He'd been working at the site for about a year before he realized that the distinctive semicircular slices in the walls near the vertical channels were likely made to leave space for the revolving bars of large capstans that powered the lifting and lowering of cages and platforms. Then other archaeological elements fell into place, such as the holes in the floor, some with smooth bronze collars, for the capstan shafts, and the diagonal indentations for ramps. There were also square mortises that had held horizontal beams, which supported both the capstans and the flooring between the upper and lower stories of the hypogeum.

To test his ideas, Beste built three scale models. “We made them with the same materials that children use in kindergarten — toothpicks, cardboard, paste, tracing paper," he says. “But our measurements were precise, and the models helped us to understand how these lifts actually worked." Sure enough, all the pieces meshed into a compact, powerful elevator system, capable of quickly delivering wild beasts, scenery and equipment into the arena.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018


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