Ancient Roman Colosseum in Rome

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To this day the Roman Colosseum remains one the most talked about buildings from the Roman era. In fact the word "Colosseum" is the most popular search term for any building on the internet (or so Italian tourism would have us believe).

So who built the Colosseum, when did they build it, and why?

The original name of the ancient Roman Colosseum was in fact Amphitheatrum Flavium, often referred to in English literature as the Flavian Amphitheater, the present day Italians refer to it as il Colosseo. The name Flavium is the family/dynasty name of the Roman Emperors who built the Colosseum.

The present day name "Colosseum", or rather "Colosseo", is said to have come from the colossal 35m (115 feet) high bronze statue of Nero, The Colossus, that stood between the stadium and the Roman Forum. The stadium was referred to as "the Amphitheater by the Colossus", and it is thought that this was corrupted to Colosseum. This is certainly probable after the bronze statue fell (probably in the 4th Century, used for its bronze content) and was largely forgotten.

Why was the Colosseum built? The building of the Ancient Roman Colosseum was widely regarded as a political move of the time, intended for entertaining and, possibly more importantly, distracting Rome's population from more serious issues of the time such as oligarchy, nepotism and corruption in the senate and church (hmmm, some things don't change).


Me attempting a kind of stunt maneuver on my bicycle while taking a video of the Colosseum. Was ok until I hit the huge cobble stones at the end, tell me there's an Oscar category for this!

History of the Roman Colosseum

When was the Colosseum built? Construction of the Ancient Roman Colosseum was started by Emperor Vespasian in 70 A.D. After Vespasian's death in 79 A.D. his son Titus completed and inaugurated the Roman Colosseum in 80 A.D. The opening ceremony is documented to have lasted 100 days and between 5000 and 11000 wild animals were killed.

Further alterations and improvements were made to the Roman Colosseum by Emperor Titus' younger brother, Emperor Domitian, who included a series of underground passages and rooms (the hypogeum) to lodge the slaves and wild animals. A gallery was also added to the top of the Colosseum to increase its seating capacity to around 65 000 people.

During its use the ancient Roman Colosseum was damaged by two events: a fire in 217 A.D. and an earthquake in 443 A.D., but was repaired both times. The Colosseum was used for gladiatorial combat until about 435 A.D. and wild animal hunts continued until the early 6th Century.

Beyond the 6th Century the Roman Colosseum was abandoned until craftsmen were allowed to rent some of the spaces underneath and between the many arches. Around the beginning of the 13th Century the Italian Frangipani family took possession of the ancient Roman Colosseum and converted it into their personal castle/fort.

In 1244 A.D. Pope Innocenzo IV and the Catholic church took possession of the Colosseum.

In 1349 A.D. there was a massive earthquake that inflicted severe damage and most of the fallen masonry was used in the construction of other Roman buildings (including the Vatican and the outer walls of Rome), and what hadn't quite fallen was helped on its way as stone robbers removed the marble facades, the exterior walls and even the bronze couplers that were used to join the marble facades to the perimeter walls.

After some schemes that fell through by previous Popes (a wool factory for Rome's prostitutes, and even a bull ring) Pope Benedict XIV declared the site a place were Christians had been martyred (even though there is no documentation of this and historians negate this supposition) and thereby consecrated the building to the Passion of Christ and installed the Stations of the Cross.
(To this day on Easter Friday the Pope leads the Stations of the cross, and a meditation is read at each of the fourteen stages of Christ's passion situated around the Perimeter of the Roman Colosseum.)

Since the consecration by Pope Benedict XIV the Catholic Church have initiated many restoration projects and clean ups of the Roman Colosseum, including the stabilization of the perimeter walls, removal of vegetation, and the excavation of the tunnels and chambers of the arena structure (the central area).

The last restoration project was effected between 1993 and 2000. The financing of over 20 million Euros was raised by a private bank.


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Roman Colosseum Architecture and Engineering

The amphitheater was mastered by the Greeks and was usually built into a hillside(s) thereby taking advantage of the natural slope of the banks to create seating which overlooked the lower arena - as was done with the Circus Maximus which sits in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills. The ancient Roman Colosseum was the first free-standing amphitheater.

It has an elliptical (oval) plan with a length of 189m (620 feet), height 48m (158 feet) and width 156m (512 feet). The central area of the arena is 88m (287 ft) long and 55m (180 ft) wide. The wall surrounding the Arena and protecting the spectators was 5m (15 ft) high.

The ancient Roman Colosseum was designed (as with so many other ancient Roman buildings) using the principle of the Arch. There are 80 entrance arches that run along the perimeter of the external and internal walls and many more also run to the center (like spokes from a bicycle wheel) creating the internal corridors and tunnels that run around the structure.

The large perimeter wall structure is made up of 3 sets of columns, Doric (at the bottom) then Ionic and then Corinthian. The uppermost section of the perimeter wall is referred to as the attic and was constructed with Corinthian pilasters, every second span receiving a window.

Running the circumference of the top perimeter wall were 240 wooden beams which supported the Valerium (awning), this was used to shield the crowds from from the rain and heat. The Valerium was anchored to bollards on the ground and supported by corbels built into the upper perimeter wall. The canvas, ropes and netting which made up the Valerium were operated by hundreds of sailors employed from the Roman naval headquarters. When fully deployed the Valerium could cover most of the seating, leaving just the arena exposed to the elements.

Estimates put seating capacity at anywhere between 60.000 and 85.000 people, but around 65.000 seems to be the generally accepted figure. With a crowd this enormous the ancient Roman Colosseum experienced similar logistics to modern stadiums, one of them was how quickly people could be seated or evacuated. The Romans had a similar system of numbered entrances and staircases to modern stadiums (or is it rather the other way around) this ensured rapid entry and exit.


Seating was strictly according to social class, the closer to the central arena, the higher your rank in society. The emperor and Vestal Virgins occupied boxes at the central narrowest points of the stadium, while the senators would sit at the same level at the ends of the stadium. Next up were the nobel men and knights, then the wealthy citizens and then the poorer plebeians (citizens).

The arena had a wooden floor and was covered by sand - the latin word Arena means sand, and is still used in the Spanish language. Below the arena floor was the hypogeum, an ingenious system of tunnels and chambers for slaves, gladiators, wild animals and hoists and pulley houses.
Various underground tunnels connected the stadium with stables and the gladiator barracks. The emperor also had his own private tunnel to enter the stadium.


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Facts about the Roman Colosseum:

  • Who were the gladiators and where did they come from? There was no shortage of gladiators to perform at the Colosseum. The majority were slaves (servi), either descended from debtors or prisoners of war from military campaigns in Italy, Spain, Carthage, Gaul, Britain, North Africa and the Middle East. Slaves were sometimes given the chance to fight for a short time for their freedom.
    In addition some gladiators were also common citizens (plebeians) who dreamed of fame and female attention. Of course victors received massive sums of money too!

  • Adventurous Roman women paid large sums to spend the night with victorious gladiators, said to bring good luck (of course that was the only reason).

  • Where does the word 'Gladiator' come from? It is a derivation of the word Gladius which was a short sword worn by the Roman Legionnaires.

  • If a gladiator was killed, servants dressed as Charon the mythological ferryman of the dead, would collect the body with a stretcher. Sand would then be raked over the blood.

  • Thumbs up, or thumbs down? Actually the movies have it all wrong. Thumbs up meant death to the gladiator and thumbs down meant life. Which is why you'll struggle to get a lift hitchhiking in Italy via veneto smiley

  • It is estimated that over 500 000 people and more than a million animals died in the ancient Roman Colosseum throughout its history of gladiatorial and hunting events.

  • The ancient Roman Colosseum was just one of many Roman Amphitheaters built throughout the Roman empire. Others are in El Djem in Tunisia, Nimes and Arles in France, Verona in Italy, and even Pula in Croatia, where the road leading up to the Amphitheater is called "Gladijatorska"!

  • What is the correct English spelling of the word Colosseum? Colosseum is the most commonly used spelling however Collosseum and Coliseum are also commonly used and not incorrect.

  • "Ave Cesare, Morituri te Salutant!" is how the gladiators would have addressed the Emperor before combat. It means "Hail Caesar, those who are about to die salute you!"
    Seeing as though there were many other Emperors the traditional saying "Ave imperator, morituri te salutant! meaning "Hail Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!" would have been more accurate.

  • The Ancient Roman Colosseum is one of the New 7 wonders of the world, a list that includes Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Christ the Redeemer, the Great Wall of China, Petra and The Taj Mahal.

  • Vomitorium (plural - Vomitoria) was the name given to the passages which led to the entrance of each numbered division of the Colosseum seating. The latin definition for Vomitoria means rapid expulsion or discharge, which is where the English language adopted their colorful word "Vomit" from. (Don't say you don't learn interesting stuff on this web site!)

  • There are also tales about the ancient Roman Colosseum being flooded to stage mock sea battles but historians believe this to be incorrect and would probably have taken place in the Naumahia of Augustus, in the Tevere area.


Where is the Colosseum located? This street map shows the ancient Roman Colosseum and other popular Rome tourist attractions in the vicinity.

Street Map of the Ancient Roman Colosseum Area

See interesting historical articles on the Roman Colosseum.

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