The Colosseum of Rome (82 AD)

Colosseum has long been one of Rome’s major tourist attractions. Also called Flavian Amphitheatre, is located just east of the Palatine Hill.

Sunrise at the colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre); Rome
Sunrise at the colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre); Rome

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The Colosseum,  built in Rome under the Flavian emperors, was the scene of thousands of hand-to-hand combats between gladiators, between men and animals, and of many larger combats, including mock naval engagements. It is uncertain whether the arena was the site of the martyrdom of early Christians.


It was built in Rome under the Flavian emperors: Vespasian (69-79 CE), Titus (79-81 CE) and Domitian (81-96 AD). Construction of the Colosseum was begun sometime between 70 and 72 ce during the reign of Vespasian. It is, on the grounds of what was Nero’s Golden House. Vespasian, whose path to the throne had relatively humble beginnings, chose to replace the tyrannical emperor’s private lake with a public amphitheatre that could host tens of thousands of Romans. The structure was officially dedicated in 80 ce by Titus in a ceremony that included 100 days of games. Later, in 82 ce, Domitian completed the work by adding the uppermost story.

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Colosseum Model
Colosseum Model

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Later in History

In 404 CE, with the changing times, the games of the Colosseum were abolished by Emperor Honorius. It was damaged by earthquake in 422 CE and was repaired by the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III. Colosseum continued to be used for wrestling matches and animal hunts up to the 6th century CE but it began to show signs of neglect.
The great earthquake of 1231 CE caused the collapse of the southwest facade and the Colosseum became a vast source of building. Pope Alexander VI actually leased the Colosseum as a quarry, it was still used for the occasional religious procession and play during the 15th century CE.
In 1744 CE Pope Benedict XIV prohibited any further removal of masonry from the Colosseum and consecrated it in memory of the Christian martyrs who lost their lives there. This, however, did not stop locals using it as an animal stables.

The Colosseum in a 1757 engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

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The 19th century CE did, though, begin to see the fortunes of the once great amphitheatre improve. The Papal authorities sought to restore parts of the building. In 1871 CE the Italian archaeologist Pietro Rosa removed all of the post-Roman additions to reveal a still magnificent monument, an enduring testimony to both the skills and the vices of the Roman world.


Unlike earlier amphitheatres the Colosseum is a freestanding structure of stone and concrete, measuring 18 by 156 metres. Several materials
were employed for the building of the Colosseum, all of them easily found or produced in the Roman area: first of all there is the travertino, a limestone, then tuff for the other pillars and radial walls, tiles for the floors of the upper storeys and the walls; finally, concrete for the vaults.

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Three of the arena’s stories are encircled by arcades framed by decorative half-columns in the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders; the structure’s rising arrangement of columns became the basis of the Renaissance codification known as the assemblage of orders.

Colosseum Classic Orders
Colosseum Classic Orders

The amphitheatre seated some 50,000 spectators, who were shielded from the sun by a massive retractable velarium (awning). Supporting masts extended from corbels built into the Colosseum’s top, or attic, story, and hundreds of Roman sailors were required to manipulate the rigging that extended and retracted the velarium. The Colosseum was damaged by lightning and earthquakes in medieval times and, even more severely, by vandalism. All the marble seats and decorative materials disappeared, as the site was treated as little more than a quarry for more than 1,000 years. Preservation of the Colosseum began in earnest in the 19th century by Pius VIII, and a restoration project was undertaken in the 1990s.

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Map of medieval Rome depicting the Colosseum

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The ordered beauty and formal regularity of the Colosseum’s exterior is created by three storeys of superimposed arches with engaged columns. These columns are of different orders on each storey:

  • the first floor carried Doric columns;
  • the second carried Ionic;
  • the third Corinthian.
  • The top floor had Corinthian pilasters and small rectangular windows.

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There were eighty entrances:

  • seventy-six of these were numbered and tickets were sold for each;
  • two entrances were used for the gladiators;
  • the final two entrances were reserved for the Emperor.
The exterior of the Colosseum

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Encircling the arena was a wide marble terrace protected by a wall within which were the prestigious ring-side seats or boxes from where the Emperor would watch the events. Beyond this area, marble seats were divided into zones: for richer private citizens, middle class citizens, slaves and foreigners and finally standing room for women and the poor.

Colosseum Section Seating
Colosseum Seating Hierarchy

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Games & Shows

The shows in the Roman arenas were designed simply to entertain, they also demonstrated the generosity of the Emperor and provided an opportunity for ordinary people to actually see their ruler in person.
Spectacles often lasted from dawn till nightfall and the gladiators usually kicked-off the show with a chariot procession accompanied by trumpets and even a hydraulic organ and then dismounted and circled the arena, each saluting the emperor with the famous line: Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!

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During the shows the arena covered with yellow sand taken from the hill of Monte Mario; on special occasions the arena was covered with specially coloured sand, or mixed with speckles of glittering minerals.

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The Colosseum was also the scene of many executions during the lunch-time lull, for example the killing of Christian martyrs. Seen as an unacceptable challenge to the authority of Pagan Rome and of the Emperor, Christians were thrown to lions, shot down with arrows, roasted alive and killed in a myriad of cruelly inventive ways.

Pollice Verso<br /> *oil on canvas<br /> *97,4 x 146,6 cm<br /> *1872
Jean-Léon Gérôme , Pollice Verso (1872)

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What’s the Colosseum today?

The Colosseum today is a major tourist attraction in Rome. There is now a museum dedicated to Eros located in the upper floor of the outer wall of the building. The Colosseum is also the site of Roman Catholic ceremonies in the 20th and 21st centuries. Pope Benedict XVI led the Stations of the Cross called the Scriptural Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on Good Fridays.

Cross dedicated to the Christian martyrs, placed in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

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