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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Colosseum in Rome

What is the Colosseum?

the Colosseum

The Colosseum in Rome is the largest and most impressive amphitheatre from the ancient world, built in the 1st century AD by Emperors Vespasian and Titus.

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History of The Colosseum in Rome

Pageant and performance were central to Roman culture, and nothing typified this more than the gory spectacle of the gladiatorial games. These were originally held in the Forum amidst temporarily erected stands, however, due to their growing appeal and the increasing population of the city, the stands eventually became overcrowded and prone to collapse, ironically killing the spectators who had come to revel in the bloodshed. This gave rise to the construction of permanent amphitheatres, the greatest and most impressive of which is the Colosseum.

Begun by Emperor Vespasian in AD 72 and dedicated by his son Titus in 80, the Colosseum played host to roughly twelve games a year, often in conjunction with religious festivals. The amphitheatre was an imperial showpiece, boasting an unparalleled capacity of 50,000 and including an elaborate substructure of ramps and cages that enabled exotic animals to enter the arena via trapdoors, catching both gladiator and audience unawares.

Games were advertised via billboards and were held thanks to the wealth of private individuals rather than the state. For enthusiasts, a program was distributed on the day of the games displaying the finer details of proceedings, including match records of gladiator pairs and a full schedule of fights, should anyone wish to study the form before placing their bets.

the Colosseum interior

Gladiators were drawn from both the poor – who sought regular food and potential fame – and slaves, either prisoners of war, condemned criminals, or individuals purchased for the arena, as depicted in Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator. In the early days of the games, the gladiators were styled after Rome’s enemies, such as Thracians or Gauls, however in the 1st century BC they began to wear all sorts of unconventional outfits, wielding specially designed weapons that bore little resemblance to real military equipment. Some were furnished with nets and tridents, whilst others had visored helmets and arm padding.

Huge crowds meant quick entry and exit was vital. The architects, adopting the same principles used in modern stadiums, built the amphitheatre with 80 entrances at ground level, three of which were reserved for the more senior state officials, and one for the emperor himself. Many of these entrances have perished throughout the ages, however a selection still remain, denoted by their Roman numerical inscription above each archway. For tickets the Romans used pottery shards and spectators accessed their seats by means of the vomitoria, or arched passages, via which they could swiftly pour out of the stadium.

Despite the damage caused by earthquakes and perpetual looting over the last two millennia, the Colosseum, for good reason, still remains an iconic symbol of the vast power of imperial Rome.

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