The Colosseum in Rome is one of the world’s most iconic monuments, and an instantly recognisable remnant of the city’s ancient past.
But when was the giant structure built, and was it just used for gladiatorial combat?
A monument to stability
Public celebration and symbolic spectacle were central to the ideals of both the Roman Republic and its successor, the Roman Empire. Games, both gladiatorial and athletic, were a feature of life for the Roman people, just as the ancient Olympics had held a similar place in the culture of the Ancient Greeks.
By 70 AD, Rome had finally emerged from the upheaval of the corrupt and chaotic reign of Emperor Nero and the subsequent anarchy known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
The new emperor, Vespasian, sought a public works project which would both underscore his commitment to the Roman people, and serve as a grand statement of his own power.
Vespasian, emperor from 69 to 79 AD, was instrumental in the construction of the Colosseum. Credit: Vatican Museum
The Flavian Amphitheatre
He settled on building an arena, not on the outskirts of the city as convention and practicality usually dictated, but in the heart of Rome.
To make space for his vision, Vespasian ordered the levelling of the Domus Aurea – the Golden House – an opulent palace built by Nero as his personal residence. In so doing, he symbolically gave back to the Roman people a place previously identified only with royal debauchery and personal extravagance.
In approximately 72 AD, work commenced on the new arena. Constructed out of travertine and tuff stone, brick, and the new Roman invention concrete, the stadium was not finished before Vespasian’s death in 79 AD.
Initial construction was instead completed by Vespasian’s son and heir Titus in 80 AD, with later modifications added by Titus’s younger brother and successor Domitian between 81 and 96 AD. Upon completion, the stadium could hold up to an estimated 80,000 spectators, making it the largest amphitheatre in the ancient world.
Due to the involvement of all three emperors in the arena’s construction, it was known upon completion as the Flavian Amphitheatre, after the family name of the dynasty. The name Colosseum, so familiar to us today, only came into common use around 1,000 AD – long after Rome’s fall.
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Death and glory
The Colosseum’s inaugural games were held in 81 AD, after the first phase of construction had been completed. Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote that over 9,000 animals were killed during the initial celebrations, and gladiatorial contests and theatrical demonstrations were held almost daily.
During the early life of the Colosseum, there is also some evidence to suggest that on occasion the arena was flooded, to be used for mock sea battles. These appear to have ceased however by the time of Domitian’s modifications, when a network of tunnels and cells were constructed under the floor of the stadium to house animals and slaves.
In addition to the challenges of martial prowess which defined the gladiatorial bouts in the Colosseum, the space was also used for public executions. Condemned prisoners were often released into the arena during intervals in the main events, and forced to face a variety of deadly creatures.
The Colosseum hosted numerous gladiatorial bouts, and could seat up to 80,000 spectators. Credit: Phoenix Art Museum
Neglect and later life
Contemporary sources suggest that contests between gladiators continued to be held at the Colosseum until at least 435 AD, during the waning years of Roman power.
Animal fights continued for almost another hundred years, with Rome’s Ostrogoth conquerors using the arena to celebrate with an expensive show of hunting in 523 AD.
With the Roman Empire in the West vanquished however, the Colosseum became increasingly neglected. Several fires and earthquakes inflicted significant damage on the structure, while some sections were also looted for building materials.
Conservation and tourism
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During the medieval period, a group of Christian monks inhabited the Colosseum, in alleged homage to the Christian martyrs who had died there centuries before. Successive popes also attempted to renovate the building for a variety of uses, including turning it into a textile factory, but none of the plans came to fruition.
Eventually, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century some conservation was undertaken to excavate and maintain the historic site. The Colosseum as seen today is largely the responsibility of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who ordered the monument fully exposed and cleaned during the 1930s.
Today the Colosseum stands as a testament to the ingenuity and power of those who built it. But it will also always serve as a reminder of the suffering of those thousands of humans and animals who died within its walls.
Main image: the Colosseum at night. Credit: David Iliff
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