What can I write about the Colosseum that hasn’t yet been written? After all, it’s the Colosseum. This enormous stone ampitheatre really does stand alone, in so many respects. With its imposing structure (that you can’t help but gaze at in awe, from up close or afar) and distinctive exterior (around 75 arches, all supported by Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns) despite the ‘scars’ on its walls, it’s easy to understand whilst this is Rome’s top attraction.
Invasions, wars, earthquakes and bombings…the ampitheatre survived. Today, it is a distinct reminder of the triumph that was Rome. And whilst it was not the largest structure of the city (that honour went to the Circus Maximus) it was the arena that was most feared.
Built by the Emperor Vesaspian and his son Titus, it took less than a decade to complete (that’s relatively short by engineering standards) and was finally opened in 80 AD in a lollapalooza of a festival which lasted 100 days (and in which more than 200 gladiators lost their lives and around 5,000 animals were slaughtered).
Working on the premises that the masses wished only for ‘Bread and Circuses’ the Colosseum, (which measured 188 metres high and 57 metres wide) opened its doors to ferocious animal hunts, brutal gladiator fights and public executions of criminals and Christian martyrs,
Whilst it’s certainly possible to buy a ticket online then wander the grounds at leisure, my friend and I decided to take a guide - partly since we both have a fascination with ancient history and because we had two kids with us, who we thought might benefit from some facts (and trivia).
Visiting with an expert at our side was a smart move - because this Flavian ampitheatre truly came alive with her stories. I learned from Cristina that spectators had assigned doors from which to enter (76 entrances, which allowed in up to 50,000 people - and the entire process took only 20 minutes, that was how efficient it was).
Spectators walked to their seats through arches numbered I - LXXVI. One amazing detail I learned, from our talented guide, was that the reason the stairs in the ampitheatre were built so steeply was to aid crowd control! (If you don’t believe me, try bounding up the stairs and see how quickly you become out of breath).
Inside, the tiered seating covered a huge underground area in which cages and machinery were based. The floor of the arena itself was wooden but covered in sand, which served a dual purpose - to stop gladiators from slipping, but also to soak up blood spilt after a gruesome fight.
In the passageways beneath (which led to the Gladiator Schools), lions and tigers were hoisted up by winches, through some 36 different trapdoors. Slaves operating the machinery would open the doors, letting the animals leap out into the arena - very dramatic and extraordinarily good theatre! (Many of these animals, by the way, were transported in barges along the Nile, a labour-intensive and costly exercise if ever there was one).
We walked around the space on a chilly day but, in Rome’s long summers, to prevent spectators from sunburn a huge canvas awning could be pulled over the seating area, to provide shade for the most prestigious visitors. Seating was tiered, with Emperors and Senators in pride of place, then nobles and knights and finally the plebs, high high up
With no entry fee (the Emperor footed the bill), endless entertainment and free food handed out periodically, it’s not hard to see why these bloodthirsty acts were so popular. After a gladiator had lost his fight, he was allowed to beg for mercy or die with honour. The crowds would then make the appropriate sign with their hands (thumbs up for mercy, and an outstretched palm for death).
Something else that can’t be disputed is the amount of thought that went into the building of this ampitheatre - the Romans were master engineers, and dug drains underneath the arena, to take away water from the rivers and streams that surrounded the city. The Colosseum contained both fountains and latrines! Using the basic design principle of the Roman foot, it is wonderfully symmetrical and harmonious.
With its three stories of superimposed arches, filled with statues of Gods and Emperors, the two entrances were both marked by grand porticoes and a horse-drawn chariot.
After the invasions of the Barbarians, and the fall of Rome, the Colosseum fell into disrepair, Plundered by thieves, aristocrats and Popes, its stone was used to construct churches and palazzos. Today, only a third of it still stands…the ultimate symbol of Imperial Roman power.
Truly impressive and a noble landmark if ever there was one.