One of Rome’s most impressive monuments is the Coliseum. Located next to the ancient Roman Forum, the Coliseum draws around five million visitors in the course of the year. It is almost always crowded inside and out with tourists. I confess that when I pass by the Coliseum I usually take a path of least resistance, a street just above it, which offers a great view of this impressive monument, but not so intertwined in the madding crowds.
The Coliseum lies on a valley between the Palatine, Esquiline and Caelian Hills, three of Rome’s seven hills, and is considered the emblem of Rome. Over the course of the centuries it has endured fires, earthquakes and looting, but remains an extraordinary testimony to its designers and builders. Built between the years 72 and 80 AD, the Coliseum could hold over seventy thousand spectators to watch gladiatorial contests, animal hunts and mock naval battles. Its name might seem to come from its size, “colossal,” a word we have, with its Latin root. In fact, the name “Colloseo” only got applied to the building in the Middle Ages, centuries after it was finished. This appellation actually came from the “colossal” statue of Nero, some 66 feet high, which was close by the monument.
The Emperor Vespasian began the construction of the Coliseum, the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire, on the site of an artificial lake that had once been in the valley. The completion and dedication of the oval shaped edifice under the Emperor Titus, son of Vespasian, was marked by festive games lasting one hundred days, when some five thousand animals were killed. What remains of the Coliseum today is about two-thirds of the exterior marble surface. The walls are four stories tall and each of the three lower stories consists of eighty exterior arcades and half columns. The fourth or top storey acted as a kind of attic to the structure. Holes are still visible that once held poles for the canvas awning that could be stretched over the uncovered building. This allowed some shade for spectators and protection against the rain. Rome remains to the present a city of blistering sunlight and torrential rains!
I know the outside of the Coliseum better than the interior and happy to see that in the years since I studied here in the 1980s that car, scooter, bus and trolley traffic have been moved farther away from the Coliseum than was the case previously. No doubt the jostling of the earth by cars, buses and trolleys was finally deemed to be detrimental to the Coliseum’s preservation.
Access to the inside of the Coliseum was carefully regulated when it was used as an amphitheater for games in ancient times. There were four main entrances reserved exclusively for the privileged. Peoples’ tickets, called “tesserae,” a term still used for bus passes and other such items in Italy, had numbers on them to indicate which entrance to take. The system of entrance and exit was carefully designed so that the stadium could be filled and vacated rapidly. A system of passages running around the building, with flights of stairs and ramps also helped in quick access to the correct level and row of seats for attendees at the Coliseum.
Inside the auditorium, and still clearly visible today, are five elliptical or oval-shaped circles, one above the other. This allowed for optimum viewing of the area where the action took place. All of this, of course, is not unlike modern sport stadiums around the world.
Entrance into the games at the Coliseum was free, but which level you would be allowed to would depend on which group of the population, according to class structure of ancient Rome, you belonged to. The senatorial class was closest to and directly in front of the arena, on level one. The emperor and his family, officers of state, Vestal Virgins and priests were place at either end of the axes or ends of the ellipsis on level one. The second level of the Coliseum was for knights and the third and fourth levels for the lower classes. The top level was reserved for women. The rows of seats of the first four levels were made of stone and the top level seats were of wood. Frankly, I would prefer the wood to the stone!
The arena in the center of the auditorium was covered with wooden planks and under that was a basement with underground passages. The equipment needed for the games: dressing rooms, stage machinery, weapons for fighting, as well as cages for wild animals, such as leopards, lions and bears, were all part of the basement complex. An elaborate system of cables, pulleys and counterweights could raise the gladiators and wild beasts onto the arena. This also was used for bringing up scenery, so that a landscape setting of hills or woods could be created for the animal hunts.
Anyone who has seen such films as Spartacus or Gladiator, new or older versions, can picture some of what is being described here, which included human sacrifice, usually in the form of throwing human beings to wild beasts to be killed and eaten. This was not considered uncivilized, but more along the lines of “theater of reality.” Christians were also martyred at the Coliseum, but more actually died before the building of the Coliseum, in the center of the nearby Circus Maximus arena. The Circus Maximus was especially the place where chariot races were held. Think here of the film Ben Hur, either the older or more recent version. Circo Massimo is still a huge open field and it is easy to imagine the chariot races there.
The Romans were able to satisfy their hunger for “blood and gore” until the year 523 AD. The last known games were held around that time and the Coliseum abandoned during the Middle Ages. Saint Benedict made his sojourn for studies in Rome about the year 500, so he would have known about the games at the Coliseum and perhaps this was instrumental in his decision to get out of town for a more Christian environment. This led to his settling at Subiaco and later at Montecassino, where he died in 547.
During the Middle Ages a noble family, called the Frangipani, converted the Coliseum into a fortress and in later centuries it became a “come and get it” stone quarry, like many of the ancient buildings of the Roman Empire. It was only when the Coliseum was turned into a memorial to Christian martyrs in 1744, with a bronze cross placed in the middle of the former arena, that it was preserved from further pillaging. Perhaps one day, as it is sometimes rumored, the underground passages of the arena will no longer be exposed, and will be covered by a wooden floor as was the case in ancient Rome.
However you look at it, literally or figuratively, the Coliseum is an extraordinary structure that never ceases to amaze me when I walk past it. It is definitely a “must see” for anyone coming to Rome, like the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Miss those and you have missed Rome.