The Evolution of the Colosseum, Part II

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 7/8/2019


This week we continue our look into the evolution of the Colosseum by leaving the ancient world behind. Today, you can pay to go inside or have your photo taken outside with actors posing as Romans or gladiators. Fourteen centuries separate us from the last time the Colosseum still operated with its intended use. Let’s look at what we know happened in, around, and to the Colosseum during the first thirteen centuries, leaving the last hundred years or so to a third installment.

Once the Colosseum was abandoned as a center for violent sports, Christians began using it for other purposes. The Church seems to have exercised a good deal of control over much of the space. A small chapel was built into the walls in the late sixth century, and the arena floor served as a cemetery, something that gives me a creepy feeling when I remind myself of the violence of the arena’s heyday. Throughout this period, sections of the structure no longer in use were quarried and reused as building materials.

Archaeological research in the Colosseum reveals that it became a sort of miniature forum for the medieval residents, who may have paid rent to the Church. The arched entryways, hallways, and even seating tiers were turned into shops, stables, and housing by no later than the ninth century. The nature of the artifacts found are really disparate. They range from everyday items such as cooking pots and sewer pipes to luxury items such as a monkey figurine carved in ivory. The central arena may have been an open public space, but it if had once been a cemetery, that meant those living around it were walking upon the dead, suggesting that the burials were not well marked.

In the early 12th century, the Frangipane family took control of the Colosseum and turned it into a castle that gave it dominance over that section of the city for a short period of time. This conversion was in keeping with the times, which was characterized in central Italy by many examples of noble families converting sites into castles (a process historians call “incastellamento”). The Frangipane claimed that they were descended from a plebian family called the Anicia, which is attested in literary documents from the late fourth century BCE; however, there is no confirmation of this claim. They used the Colosseum to exercise control over the northern and western roads to the papal residence called the Lateran Palace. They also built underground tunnels that connected the castle to other holdings of theirs in the city, allowing for safe and secret movement. The family was engaged in papal politics for at least 300 years, but their power did not last, and their control over the Colosseum lapsed. The family moved on to Croatia, where it was renamed Frankopan and would exercise political influence for the next 500 years.

The Annibaldi family made no claims to an ancient past but tried to use their political alliances with various popes to rise from country barons to major players in Rome by the late Middle Ages. As papal politics changed, the baronial family took control of the Colosseum from the Frangipane in the early 14th century and continued to use it as a castle. Their rivals had their own fortresses in other ancient Roman buildings. Examples I would cite include the Colonna in the Mausoleum of Augustus or the Orsini in parts of the Roman Forum. Compared to these, the castle in the Colosseum may have been the most defensible, but the Annibaldi’s authority over the structure lasted for only about half a century, after which the Church demanded the property be turned over to it. This restoration of monuments to the civil government after being seized by noble families was also characteristic of the time, which saw a continual seesawing of control over Rome between the central, papal government and the nobility. This struggle came to a head in 1308 when things got so bad for the papal government that it fled the city and moved to Avignon in southern France. This so-called “Babylonian Captivity”, or exile of the popes from Rome, was to last until 1376.

An earthquake in the mid-14th century resulted in a great deal of collapse; the rubble was used for other building projects, and soon builders were coming inside to take stones from the intact sections. In 1382 the Church, now back in control in the city, established the Arciconfraternita del SS. Salvatore ad Sancta Sanctorum to further their humanitarian works and gave a third of the Colosseum to this organization. Another third of the Colosseum was given to the Senate of Rome, while one third remained firmly in the hands of the financial offices of the Pope. All three entities controlled the structure and its grounds and sold parts of the Colosseum for profit during these centuries.

By the 17th century, the Church tried to use the Colosseum as a staging ground for its own events. Ideas ranged from economic to entertainment to religious, but most never came to fruition until Pope Benedict XIV declared the structure a sacred site in 1749. Its claim to this status derived from the martyrdoms that had supposedly occurred here in ancient times. He also installed Stations of the Cross and banned quarrying in the entire area. By the way, other than this pope’s claims, there is no evidence that Christians were ever killed in the Colosseum of Rome.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Colosseum became an obligatory stop on the Grand Tour. Some aristocratic Grand Tourists had their portraits painted standing before the building by Roman artists such as Pompeo Battoni. Others, like Goethe, Byron, and Stendhal, visited the building at night when it was best able to conjure up feelings of melancholy or communion with the spirits of the ancient Romans.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Romans began excavating and then restoring the Colosseum as they embraced more of their ancient past. Popes had the walls and seating areas reinforced. This gave us the famous contrasting restorations of sections of the façade by Giuseppe Valadier and Raffaele Stern that we still see today. Valadier—true to his practice elsewhere (notably at the Arch of Titus), prophetically developed the principle that modern restorations should be “compatible with but distinguishable from” the ancient remains (figure 1). This principle became enshrined in the UNESCO 1964 Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites. Stern took the opposite approach of freezing the slipped blocks of the façade in place just as he found them in an almost zany fashion, defying logic and gravity but demonstrating the current state of the building before his intervention (figure 2).

















Figure 1. Giuseppe Valadier’s restoration (1815-1823) of the south and southwest section of the Colosseum. He used brick to distinguish the modern materials from the ancient travertine, but the forms given to the brick echo those of the lost ancient original.


Figure 2. Detail of Raffaele Stern’s restoration of the northeastern section of the façade of the Colosseum (1806). Note how he has frozen the blocks of travertine in their current position, even if they had slipped out of their original alignment.


As the century advanced, archeologists started to undertake serious studies of the complex. Two such studies, dating to 1813 and 1855, even identified 420 different plants growing in and around the ruins.  Such studies, however impressive, cannot, of course, protect an ancient building from natural disasters, vandalism, weather, or war, but at least the historians and archeologists documented much before any more was lost.

Ironically, one of the greatest archaeologists in this period unintentionally wreaked great damage to the Colosseum. Starting in the early 1870s, Pietro Rosa was tapped to be the superintendent of antiquities in Rome by the new Italian state, which now held power in the city after the overthrow of the papal government and the merging of the old Papal States into the new secular state of a reunified Italy. Rosa excavated beneath the arena floor, exposing Hypogaeum (the underground chambers added by Domitian beneath the arena floor), which were thought to be medieval remains of the Frangipane fortress. True to the Risorgimento mentality of the times, he also removed the Christian shrines as an implicit slap in the face to the old papal government. Rosa’s work was roundly criticized by his colleagues in Rome and by the press around Europe. But the worst was yet to come. Rosa neglected to provide adequate drainage for the water that would inevitably collect in his great trench whenever it rained. And rained it did in torrential fashion on June 26, 1875, leaving a messy and mosquito-ridden swamp that no one was able to drain for several years. Rosa was summarily fired from his position as superintendent of archaeology. The mess he left behind may have inspired Henry James to write his famous novella, “Daisy Miller” (1878). It recounts the ill-fated tryst of the heroine one night in the Colosseum where, sure enough, she was bitten by a mosquito and infected with malaria. She died a few days later. So, Rosa’s disaster had a happy ending for James the writer, even if it killed off poor Daisy!



Goldman, Norma. “Colosseum,” in Nancy Thomson De Grummond, editor. Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology. Routledge, London and New York, 1996, pages 311-314. The history of the Colosseum in post-antique times is usefully narrated here.

Schingo, Gianluca. “Spazio antico e imagine moderna dell’arena del Colosseo,” Bullettino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma 100 (1999) 115-128. Schingo tells the story of Rosa’s ill-fated excavation in the 1870s at pages 122-124.


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