History of the Colosseum in Rome

Undoubtably one of the greatest example of Roman architecture and engineering, the very symbol of Ancient Rome stands on a plain at the feet of the Palatine, the Esquiline and the Caelian Hills. Even though today we can see only ⅓ of the original building, the Colosseum still survives the test of time as one of the most important evidence of Rome’s troubled history. Keep reading to learn about Colosseum History and most interesting Facts of this landmark in Rome.

The Colosseum in Rome, front view of the monument
Credits: image by @kirkandmimi

When was the Colosseum built?

According to several sources, works to build the Colosseum started in 72 A.D. and lasted nearly 8 years. Vespasian chose the area the Emperor Nero had previously used for his Domus Aurea, the fabulous imperial palace graced with gardens, artificial lakes and grooves. Everything was demolished to start building the Colosseum.

By the time of its completion in 80 A.D, the impressive monument looked nothing like today. Indeed, it was covered with splendid white travertine marble, embellished with arches and columns finely decorated. It had four floors with more than 80 arches featuring impressive statues.

The Colosseum and the Flavian Dynasty

The Colosseum was built more than 2,000 years ago by the Emperor Vespasian, founder of the Flavian Dynasty, as a gift to the people of Rome. For this reason it was originally known as The Flavian Amphitheater. Indeed, the name “Colosseum” originated only later during the Middle Age, probably because the monument was built next to a colossal statue of Nero Emperor, who preceded Vespasian.

Thanks to several sources we know that Vespasian impressively valued culture. He supported many artists, poets and men of culture such as the latin rhetorician Quintilian with great donations and created professorships also in the most remote provinces of the Roman Empire. He promoted the construction of major public works such as the rebuilding of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and the Temple of Peace, also known as Forum of Vespasian.
However, his greatest work was without doubt the Colosseum, destined to house mass spectacles and shows featuring gladiators, hunting scenes, naval battles and wild animals brought to Rome from Africa.

While the Coliseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Coliseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall. (a prophecy by Beda il Venerabile, VIII century)

Area of the Colosseum in Rome Italy
Credits: image by @Roma_Wonder

What was the Colosseum used for?

The Colosseum was used to host a variety of shows and games with the political aim to entertain the people of Rome.

The spectacles followed a very precise schedule:

– usually, during the morning there were the so-called venationes, which involved wild animals. Therefore, if you were an Ancient Roman, you could have witnessed hunting scenes,  animal fights, and armed warriors known as gladiators fighting against lions, bulls, leopards or bears. These shows were really cruel and full of tensions;

– the Colosseum was also a place of public executions. Prisoners and convicts sentenced to death were thrown to wild animals during the shows for everyone to see.

The Colosseum in Numbers

The elliptical building, which is 48 meter-high (157 ft) and 189 meter-long (615 ft) with a base area of 24,000m2 (nearly 6 acres), counts 80 entrances and three floors characterized by impressive arcades. Each floor counts 80 arches and the ones at the street level were used as entrances! The arena was as large as a soccer football field and it could host more than 60.000 spectators.

An intricate queries of stairs and galleries allowed people to enter and leave the amphitheater in just few minutes. The first floors, the ones most close to the arena, were reserved to VIPs, such as priests, vestals, magistrates and, most of all, senators. At the top floors were the seats for common people, with a separated area for women.
On top of the Colosseum there was a crown of poles, which served to support an awning offering protection from sun. However, it is still not clear how it was opened and closed.

What happened to the Colosseum?

After the 6th century A.D. the Colosseum was essentially abandoned. Later, during the Middle Ages the monument was basically turned into a cave. Popes started using it to extract precious marbles for palaces and churches such as Barberini Palace and even St. Peter’s Basilica.
Earthquakes caused even more damages to the amphitheater so that what we see today is just the skeleton of one of the most stunning buildings ever built.