The Evolution of the Colosseum, Part I
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 7/1/2019
The year I lived in Rome, 1990-91, the one ancient structure I wanted to visit but couldn’t was the Colosseum. It was overrun by cats at that time, and they just weren’t allowing visitors. Today if you go to Rome, you’ll find that tourists have replaced the cats. The Colosseum is one imperial building that was reimagined and reused over the centuries, and in this essay I want to look into that more closely.
The Romans called the Colosseum the Amphitheatrum Flavium, or the Flavian Amphitheater, because of the family that oversaw its construction. It was begun in 70 CE by Emperor Vespasian. His full name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus, from which the adjective “Flavian” derives. He died in 79 CE before it was finished, so construction was continued and finished by his sons, Titus and Domitian, in the 80s CE. The name, Colosseum, is the medieval term that refers to the arena’s proximity to a giant statue of the Sun God that stood nearby. We’ll talk about this statue later on Rome Reborn®, but of these two huge works, the statue and the amphitheater, it is the amphitheater, or “Colosseum,” that we can see, visit, and study in situ today. For convenience’ sake, we’re going to call it by this medieval term.
Some scholars call the Colosseum the finest surviving amphitheater, but it was certainly not the only one built during the Roman period. The building’s form and purpose predate the Colosseum by centuries, as we laid out in an earlier essay on this website. In many ways, the Colosseum improved upon the existing models to become the largest arena of its type in the Roman world.
It was built on an area that had previously housed Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea (“Golden House”), which he built after the great fire of 64 CE. The Flavians tore down many parts of Nero’s vainglorious palace but left his grand statue where it stood at the entrance to the palace about 175 meters to the west of the amphitheater they were constructing. The area was nice and flat, so once they filled in the large pond that was a prominent part of Nero’s palace, the ground provided a good foundation for the new arena. It also didn’t hurt the Flavians’ reputations that this placed their new structure in the heart of the city and made the area public again. The fact that its costs were paid by spoils from the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE demonstrated the might of Rome and of the future emperor, Titus.
It was built largely from travertine (a stone quarried in nearby Tivoli) with an admixture of tuff (volcanic rock). The still-surviving engraved numbers over the entryways confirm that some type of ticketing must have been involved in seating the audience for events in the Colosseum. Tickets were free, by the way. The layout of the tiers for seating and the design of the corridors, stairs, and entryways have the given the Colosseum reputation of being a good people mover, but recent by Gutierrez et al. have identified a bottleneck suggesting that the reputation may be undeserved. There is both textual and physical evidence that some type of partial awning could be deployed over the seating, but it is unclear exactly how the system worked and how much shade it could have provided. While the events of the arena were deadly, the audience was protected by both a wall topped by protective netting and a ditch, so that those fighting could not turn their attacks toward the viewers—especially the elite spectators in the lowest rows closest to the action.
If the spectators were isolated from the dangers taking place in the arena, they were also isolated from each other by a sectioning of the seats according to social status, wealth, and sex. Thus, the imperial family did not have to rub elbows with the average citizen, and, indeed, they had the use of a private tunnel that brought them from the imperial palace right to their seats. By the time of the opening of the Colosseum, women other than Vestal Virgins were allowed to attend the public shows, too. The tier of seats closest to the action (Podium) was reserved for the elite such as the imperial family, the priests (including, by the way, the Vestals), and the political leadership. The next tier up (maenianum primum) was reserved for wealthy businessmen and their sons, while other male citizens were in the third tier of seating (maenianum secundum imum). Above these were other men, subdivided by social and economic status, on the maenianum secundum summum tier. Women, girls, and foreigners were supposed to be seated on wooden stands in a colonnaded area at the very top (maenianum summum in ligneis) where they would have had to squint to make out what was happening on the arena floor. Were the women relegated here also divided by social and economic status? It wouldn’t be surprising, but we just don’t know.
The grand opening of the amphitheater in 80 CE was celebrated by events lasting over 100 days. Titus had become emperor only recently, and the empire had seen several disasters, including a plague, a fire in Rome, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The grand opening may have been Titus’s way to appease both gods and mortals after the terrible omens occurring around his assumption of authority.
The events in this Grand Opening are described by Martial (who would have been around 40 years old), Suetonius (11 years old at the time), and Cassius Dio (not yet born). First and foremost were the parades of the elites entering and taking their seats and the religious rites. In the morning was a hunt of wild animals, where ferocious beasts and either trained professionals, condemned humans, or other animals faced off to the death; women, too, may have participated in these battles in various roles. Public executions of criminals provided a break between the major attractions and were implicitly a deterrent to crime. The gladiatorial combats were the afternoon draw and the events that drew most attendance.
The Colosseum continued to be used for several hundred more years. Events were paid for primarily by the imperial family, but others were required to contribute from time to time. The latest modern estimate of the number of audience members that the facilities could hold was about 50,000, so it was an ideal place for the ruling class to show off its wealth, curry public favor, and reinforce its authority. We need to be wary about using the few ancient criticisms of the inhumane events held in the Colosseum because they come from a distinct minority. The masses and the elites packed the Colosseum several times every year for shows and festivals. It is not unfair to say that the Romans loved violent entertainment as a culture. Of course, we should talk—as a glance at the summaries of your TV programs tonight or at your child’s computer games will attest. Granted, our violence is merely simulated, which represents at least a modest advance in civilization, I suppose.
The events in the Colosseum over the centuries continued to include animal and gladiatorial combat, as well as public executions. Other spectacles were added to the schedules as successive generations tried to one-up each other. The number of animals killed increased, and they were brought from around and outside the Roman Empire. Public executions and gladiatorial combats sometimes took on historical or mythological themes. It is commonly held that the arena of the Colosseum was regularly flooded to stage mock naval battles, but recent research of engineer Heinz Beste of the German Archaeological Institute has shown that this could only have happened at the opening of the facility in 80 CE before Domitian added the underground level (the Hypogaeum) where the wild animals were caged. Once the Hypogaeum was added, it would have been impossible to drain the water, so no mock naval battles could have taken place here.
Fires and earthquakes damaged the Colosseum at various times in antiquity, but even routine use of it would have required ongoing maintenance. The Empire suffered long-term ecological, economic, and military disasters beginning in the third century CE. Usually the Colosseum was repaired, but economic and political will determined how quickly it was done. By the early sixth century CE, the city of Rome became depopulated as people simply moved away in response to all the troubles. This inevitably impacted the ability of the civic authorities to continue to keep the structure in good repair.
You might think that the Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century CE would have quickly brought the closure of the Colosseum and put an end to all the gruesome spectacles staged there. Well, sometimes History is not logical—or at least the logic of History takes longer than you might think to play out. Hence, even though gladiatorial schools were supposed to have been closed in 399 CE by order of the Christian emperor Honorius, it was not until 404 CE that he got around to outlawing the gladiatorial combats. But it’s one thing for a leader to issue an order and another for it to be carried out. Despite Honorius’ wishes, there is evidence that the combats continued, and the last mention of gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum dates as late as the year 435 CE. Animal combats and the execution of criminals and prisoners continued in the Colosseum for at least another century. Counterintuitively, Christian emperors such as Theodosius II and Valentinian III are known to have repaired the building, and even after the fall of the empire in the West the son-in-law of Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic king who ruled much of Italy from his base in Ravenna, did the same thing.
Then, as Rome’s population melted away to a handful as the disastrous sixth century CE wore on, the greatest amphitheater fell out of use.
Next week we’ll look at the further evolution of the Colosseum from the sixth century until today.
Photo: an explanation of the seating in the Colosseum. Copyright 2019 by Flyover Zone Productions. All rights reserved.
Hopkins, Keith and Mary Bear. The Colosseum. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2005. This book provides a good introduction aimed at the general reader.
Mueller, Tom. “Secrets of the Colosseum,” January 2011, Smithsonian.com. This article reports on Heinz Beste’s studies of the Hypogaeum. It is available online at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/secrets-of-the-colosseum-75827047/ (seen May 25, 2019).
Gutierrez, Diego, Bernard Frischer, et al. “AI and Virtual Crowds: Populating the Colosseum,” Journal of Cultural Heritage 8(2), 2007. This article estimates the holding capacity of the Colosseum at ca. 50,000 spectators; it also identifies a possible bottleneck in the circulation system that may have slowed down the average spectator’s progress from the entrance to his seat. The article is available online at: http://frischer.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/coliseo_JCH_envio_completo.pdf (seen May 25, 2019).
Wilson Jones, Mark. “Designing Amphitheatres,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 100 (1993) 391-441. This article discusses the design of the Colosseum. Cf. also his later contribution on this topic, available online at www.academia.edu/14759164/_The_Setting_out_of_ampitheatres_Ellipse_or_Oval_Roman_Amphitheatres_and_Spectacula_a_21st-Century_perspective_papers_from_an_international_conference_held_at_Chester_16th-18th_February_2007_ed._Tony_Wilmott_BAR_International_Series_1946_Oxford_2009_5-14 (seen May 25, 2019).Join the discussion!