The Roman Colosseum: History & Facts

Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

The Colosseum in Rome was the largest and most advanced amphitheatre the ancient world had ever seen. Even today, it stands as one of the architectural wonders of history. In this lesson, learn the history of the Colosseum, including its construction and uses, and discuss the unique features of the arena.


Colosseum Exterior

In ancient Rome, pleasing the public was an essential part of any politician's life, even the emperor himself. Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasian's play to gain the favor of the masses gave history its greatest amphitheatre, the Colosseum. Because Vespasian came from a line of emperors known as the Flavian dynasty (his family name was Flavius), the original name of the Colosseum was the Flavian Amphitheatre.

Vespasian chose the location of the Colosseum, the center of Rome just east of the Forum, because it was close to the religious and commercial areas of the city. This was also the site where Emperor Nero had built his gardens. Symbolically, Vespasian was giving back to the people by building an amphitheatre for their entertainment, while Nero had only built the gardens for himself. The only monument left from Nero's rule was a large bronze statue of the emperor. This was left on the grounds, but the inscription that identified it as Nero was removed and it was rededicated as a sun god. It is believed that the name Colosseum was derived from this statue, also known as the 'Colossus of Nero.'


Originally, the gladiator games were held near the tomb of the man being honored or on his property. As the events became more popular and attracted large crowds, they were held in town squares or at the Roman Forum. The first instance of a permanent arena constructed for the purpose of munera (gladiator games) occurred in the first century B.C. Construction on the Colosseum began in 74 A.D. The work included both the amphitheatre and the surrounding area. The structure was not completed until 80 A.D. By that time, Vespasian had passed away (79 A.D.) and his successor Titus was in power.


The hypogeum as it appears today
Colosseum Interior

The Colosseum, like other Roman amphitheatres, was shaped like an elliptical oval. This shape functioned as a way to allow the editor of the games to see everything and be seen by everyone in attendance, giving him a place of importance and public recognition.

The word 'arena' comes from a Latin word for sand. The arena was covered with sand for two purposes: to soak up the blood from the fights and to give the gladiators good footing. The area of the Colosseum was a massive 620 feet by 510 feet with walls that rose 157 feet. The floor level consisted of 80 archways with numbered entrances. Key innovations included a pulvinar, or royal box for the emperor; numbered seats, similar to the seating in modern stadiums; numbered clay pieces that served as tickets for guests; and a velarium, a huge sunshade that was deployed on very hot days.

The Colosseum had a hypogeum (Latin for 'underground'), a structure of tunnels and cages that housed gladiators and animals. Impressively, workers used a system of pulleys to raise cages and release animals into the arena suddenly. The tunnels were built with separate access for the emperor. The Colosseum was damaged and repaired several times after construction was finished.


The Colosseum was used for many different events. While the gladiator fights are the most well-known today, other entertainment kept the ancient crowds occupied throughout the day. Mornings were reserved for opening acts, such as comedic interpretations and animal shows. Often, the games would feature trained hunters who would kill animals imported from various exotic places like Africa. These shows were elaborate displays that involved human-made sets created to simulate the animal's natural habitat. Animals were also placed into the arena and prodded until they attacked each other.

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