Monday, December 19, 2011


Photo courtesy of Stuck in customs

The Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Roman Colosseum is the most conspicuous building in the Italian capital. It is one of those buildings that became symbols of a city and even a country. It is the most remarkable urban landmark from ancient Rome, visible from anywhere in the eternal city's monumental zone (although it appeared suddenly to us as we approached from the Esquiline Hill, and we were amazed by its monumentality).

Burning Rom (e). Photo courtesy of Alena Romanenko

This UNESCO World Heritage site was chosen as one of the New 7 Wonders of the world, perhaps not only because of the monument itself, but as a way to pay homage the Roman contribution to Western civilization. It was a center devoted to recreation and death, but it was primarily a effective form of political propaganda and social control of the population.


In 66 AD a revolt broke out in Judea against the Roman tyranny. Emperor Nero sent General Vespasian to subjugated it (some time before, Nero had Vespasian exiled for falling asleep in one of the insufferable performances of the emperor-artist). In 68, Nero was declared an enemy of the empire because of the abusive and unpopular taxes that he imposed to Rome, and as a result he killed himself. The political crisis that followed his death saw three emperors in one year, until the Senate looked for a respectable figure to lead the empire. Vespasian then left his son Titus in charge of the war against the Jews and took over as emperor, not by right of blood but by his great skills as a general, founding the Flavian dynasty, which gave its name to the Amphitheatre.
In taking power, Vespasian found a discontented and unemployed population, and decided to build a majestic venue to keep people entertained and away from possible riots. Faced with a nearly bankrupt state and wanting to avoid raising taxes (which had led to the debacle of Nero), Vespasian used the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem (who had finally fallen to Titus in 70) and the huge revenues from the sale of Jewish citizens as slaves in order to finance its amphitheater.

Model of the Temple of Jerusalem, whose treasures were used for the construction of the Colosseum.
The temple was sacked by the Romans before its destruction in 70 AD


In a small valley between the Palatine, Esquiline and Celio hills, Nero had built a luxurious private palace, the Domus Aurea ("Golden House"), presided by a 36 meter statue of the emperor himself and an exquisite artificial lake.

Rome before the creation of the Colosseum. The Domus Aurea and the Colossus of Nero was placed in front of an emperor's private lake.

Imperial Rome, the Colosseum and the forums built. Both maps are not in the same orientation. For reference please place both at the Circus Maximus

The Colosseum and Rome today.
See location on Google Maps

In 71 AD Vespasian planned to give that space back to the people and ordered the construction of the amphitheater that site. The lake was then drained towards the Tiber River and canals were built surrounding the area in order to divert the superficial water and rainwater. The statue of Nero, however, was kept, and the amphitheater was called the Colosseum because of its proximity to that colossal statue.

The proximity to the Colossus of Nero gave its name to the Colosseum.

However, Vespasian did not live to see his work completed. After his death in 79 AD, his son Titus came to power and finished its construction in 80 AD. It is said that on the opening day 5000 animals were sacrificed for the bloody shows. Imagine the slaughter of animals brought from all over the empire when the opening games were extended for 100 days. Some even claim that occasionally  the arena was flooded with water and that sea battles took place, but some scholars have questioned this claim for lack of  impermeable archaeological remains .

According to the poet Marcial and the historian Suetonius the arena of the Colosseum was sometimes flooded and representations naval battles were shown.


The Greeks defined their theaters based on a semicircular shape with their seats arrayed facing a stage. This form that was also appropriated by the Romans and disseminated throughout the Empire; however the amphitheater is a Roman invention consisting of a circular, oval or elliptical  set of stands arranged around an  arena.

This formal dissimilarity also involved a distinct use by a different audience. Theaters in Rome were used for plays, attended by a cultured elite. Amphitheaters were more likely to sports or fighting, and were favorites of various social strata, including slaves. In fact, one could say that the Flavian Amphitheatre represented, in its differentiated bleachers, the stratified Roman society: the imperial family was in a privileged position, then came the senators, aristocrats, soldiers, the people, slaves and, in a farer location, women.

Model of Imperial Rome Colosseum.
The oval layout measured 188 meters in its longest axis and 155 in the shortest. The arena measured 83 meters in its longest axis and 48 in the shortest.

The original design of Vespasian included three rows of semicircular arches, supported by Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns respectively.

The lower arches were made of stone, while the second and third series of arches were made of brick and concrete. They were decorated with fine marble, statues and frescoes on the walls.

Reconstruction of the facade of the Colosseum. The marble-coated arches housed monumental statues.

The study of visibility allowed all spectators to have a good overview of the games. The visual angle of the stands was varied from 30° to 35° as they were gaining height.

To facilitate the rapid evacuation of the 50,000 spectators 76 entries were implemented . The entrance of the Emperor was burred underground, communicating directly the Colosseum with the palace.

Later, in 90 AD, the emperor Domitian, Vespasian's second son, made a series of renovations to the monument in order to make it appear more imposing, to enhance its capacity and comfort and made it more affordable for most spectacular battles.

Domitian, included a brick and concrete gallery above the arches, after which the Coliseum reached a height of 50 meters.

Addition of Domitian on top the arches built by Vespasian. Photo courtesy of Mimmo photophilic

This attic also held the huge tents called "velarium", which served to protect spectators from rain or the extreme solar radiation in summer, and were operated by a thousand sailors.

Reconstruction of the Velarium.

Below the arena he ordered to install a hypogeum, a labyrinth that housed cages with animals, ramps and lifts for gladiators, which allowed the rapid entry of these in the arena, and also facilitated the rapid removal of dead animals and humans bodies. Covering the hypogeum was a wooden deck that has not preserved.

Views of the Hypogeum. Photos courtesy of Chodaboy

Reconstruction of the Hypogeum.


The Colosseum perfected and used several innovative construction elements, that have been used for many centuries, some of them are even today.

While the arch was invented in Mesopotamia and used in Egypt and Greece among others (though usually on a smaller scale and underground drains) it was the Romans who developed and enhanced its use to a monumental level. The arch is based on a simple principle: the loads are transmitted  through the rocks that form it (voussoirs) to the pillars that support it, and it holds its shape without falling due to the pressure of a center wedge called keystone .

The 80 arches of 7 meters tall that make up each of the 3 floors of the venue could simultaneously cover a great height, holding a heavy load while affording lightness to the building.

Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Larrabure

Inside, the arches are connected by another invention perfected by the Romans, the vault. The vaults generate wide, solid and elegant spaces.

Standardization of elements such as bricks, stonework and the arches themselves, allowed the construction of these repetitive elements in mass, at high speed and without the need of a very specialized labor.

Among the materials that were improved and used on a large scale include:

- Concrete, which allowed the mortar to achieve a stone-like strength, mixing volcanic ash, lime and water. It was also very malleable. By adding pumice the concrete was lighten and the ashes brought from Pozzuoli, near Mount Vesuvius, were able to provide waterproof characteristics, calling it "Pozzolanic".

-Red brick. While terracotta (terra cotta in Latin means "baked earth") had been used before by the Romans to make tiles, since the Coliseum brick started to be used in the walls and vaults


The games in the Coliseum continued until at least 523, long after the fall of Rome. However, the amphitheater was gradually abandoned and used for other purposes. The central arena was used as a cemetery, and the interior of the stands was transformed into housing and workshops, at least until the late twelfth century.

Medieval drawing of the Colosseum in 1469
Map of Medieval Rome 

In 1200 the Colosseum was fortified, being used as a castle. In 1349 the southern end of the amphitheater collapsed because of an earthquake, and the materials were reused in the reconstruction of many other buildings in Rome.
A religious order moved into the northern sector of the Coliseum and remained there until the late nineteenth century.

Piranese Gianbattista Drawings, 1772

Due to the growing vandalism that was eating away at the monument, Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the Colosseum as a place where many Christians were killed, prohibiting its use as a quarry (despite the fact that there are no evidence of massacres of Christians on a large scale in the Amphitheatre). Inside the Coliseum marble slabs detailing the restoration work carried out by various popes can be seen.

In 1807 and to solve the danger of collapse of the facade, the triangular wall we see today was built.

The Coliseum as a sacred place. Photo of the late nineteenth

In 1930 Benito Mussolini had the hypogeum excavated and left it exposed. In addition, he enhanced Amphitheatre from an urban point of view: he created a roundabout circling the Colosseum and connected it to the monument to Victor Emmanuel II through a wide avenue called Via dell'Impero (now Via del Fori Imperiali).

Before and after the creation of the Via dell'Impero by Mussolini in 1932.
The Duce wanted to return to the glory days of the Roman Empire.

In 1995 a complete restoration of the Coliseum was undertook, making it 80% accessible to the public.


The Colosseum has had an undeniable influence on the design of stadiums and sports infrastructure through the centuries and even today its basic principles of composition are repeated around the world. In the case of HispanAmerica the Coliseum has a much closer relative, both in its form and function as well as for the type of bloody shows that take place inside: the bullring.

Malaga Bullring

The epic film Gladiator (2000) contains so many fallacies and historical inaccuracies that is more a Hollywood fantasy than an academic document. However, the recreation of the Coliseum in Rome in the middle of a vibrant crowd is indeed very impressive.



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