Monday, August 28, 2006

The Rise And Fall Of The Colosseum

Geoffrey Morgan
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006



The Colosseum is perhaps the most famous monument in the world and is the most popular place in all of Rome because it remains as standing proof of the grandeur, cruelty and genius of the ancient Roman world. Amphitheaters were invented specifically to give spectators a better view of gladiatorial games. Wooden amphitheaters first appeared as early as the third century B.C. while the first stone amphitheater was built in Pompeii around 70 B.C. This was a fairly simple structure that had four entries, and could hold 12,000 people. Rome, the world’s largest city with a population of one million, 140 years later still did not have a large stone amphitheater to entertain its inhabitants and in 70 A.D. Emperor Vespasian thought it time to build one. He wanted to build an arena that was able to support Rome’s growing population and demand for entertainment. In order to do this his arena would need to be enormous. In terms of size and scale, this 2000 year old giant with its four levels and 80 entrances would be impressive if it were built today. With a capacity that some experts put as high as 80,000, the Colosseum is still one of the largest stadiums in the world, a structural wonder, built nearly 2000 years ahead of its time. The Colosseum has lasted so long and is beloved by so many that it has become the emblem of Rome and many believe the verse made by Venerable Bede in 700 A.D. when he stated:

Quandiu stabit coliseus, stabit et Roma (As long as the Colosseum stands, so shall Rome);
Quando cadit coliseus, cadet et Roma (When the Colosseum falls, so shall Rome);
Quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus (When Rome falls, so shall the world).


In A.D. 64 a terrible fire ripped through the heart of Rome for nine days before it was finally put out. When Emperor Nero began to rebuild the city, he saved a huge area in the center for a new palace, called the Golden House. The Golden House was hated by the people of Rome. At night, they would write rude comments about their emperor and his palace on the walls of the city. One such comment read, “The palace is spreading and swallowing Rome!” Nero was already unpopular with many Romans because he was known to have murdered his mother, his wife, and his stepbrother. Now, when people saw how well he had done due to the fire, many wondered if he had started the blaze himself.


Nero had barely moved into his palace when he learned of widespread uprising against his rule. The generals commanding Rome’s greatest armies refused to obey Nero’s orders, saying that they would make better emperors themselves. The Roman legions in Spain proclaimed their commanding general, Galba, as emperor and soon afterwards the Senate in Rome accepted this decision and declared Nero an enemy of the people. Abandoned by everyone and fearing torture and execution, Nero killed himself.

Nero’s death was followed by 18 months of war as rival generals fought each other for power. The four generals vying for power were Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian who during the year 69 A.D. had each proclaimed themselves emperor. Because five men had claimed the imperial office in little more than a year, 69 A.D. became known as “the year of many emperors.” After this power struggle Vespasian came out the victor and was then proclaimed the true emperor of Rome. The way was now clear for Vespasian’s establishment of the Flavian dynasty, whose chief contribution would be the Colosseum.


Vespasian did not want to become the fifth dead emperor, so for his own safety he needed to become popular with the people. Knowing of the Roman people’s hatred of Nero’s Golden Palace, he decided to pull down most of it and open the grounds as a public garden. One of the things Vespasian did not tear down was a 120 ft bronze statue of Nero portrayed as the sun god called the Colossus because it was just too impressive. It was actually this statue that gave the Colosseum its current name, because for several centuries it was known as the Flavian Amphitheater after the Flavian family who presided over its construction. On the site he also planned to build something for the people to increase his popularity. A huge amphitheater for public shows would let everyone know that he was not going to be a selfish ruler like Nero. An amphitheater, a place for the people, would be a wonderful contrast to Nero’s private palace. To make an even more powerful point Vespasian drained Nero’s man made lake and used the hole as a foundation for the great Colosseum. Sadly Vespasian never lived to see the end of the construction and in A.D. 80 his son Titus opened the Colosseum with 100 days of games for the people.

Although amphitheaters had been built before, no one had ever built one as big as the Colosseum. Emperor Vespasian wanted a building that could hold at least 50,000 spectators, a number that would rival many sporting arenas of today. The architects had many problems facing them when they began work on the designs. To accommodate so many people it would need to be tall rather than wide, so that everyone would be close enough to see the gladiators. The problem with a tall building is that the weight of the seats pushes outward, so the outer walls had to be strong to keep the building from collapsing.


To support the theater’s heavy stone superstructure and seating, the builders employed two of the three most important basic trademarks of Roman construction – the arch and the vault. A typical Roman arch began with two vertical supports, called piers. Curving inwards from the top of each pier was an arc of wedge-shaped stones, known as Voussoirs, which met the other arc at the central keystone at the top.
A Roman vault was a three-dimensional version of an arch – in effect, a curved ceiling. These elements had been used before in constructing grand theaters, such as in Augustus’s Theater of Marcellus. However, the main difference between the Colosseum and the grand theaters of old is that the Colosseum would carry these elements around the full perimeter of an ellipse, so that the theater’s hemisphere would be doubled to form a full sphere. In fact, the Latin word amphitheatrum translates literally as “double theater.” The idea of having a double theater was certainly not new, for all stone amphitheaters since the first, in Pompeii, had employed this design. What made the Colosseum unique was its tremendous size – specifically a seating capacity twice as large as any amphitheater yet built.

The measurements of the Colosseum are amazing especially considering the time in which it was built. Its oval ground area is 617 feet long by 513 feet wide, and enclosed an arena 282 feet by 177 feet. The surrounding walls rose to a grand height of 187 feet. The mighty exterior wall, which supports the complicated interior, is comprised of four stories. The first three floors have rows of arches decorated with three different types of columns: Tuscan Doric on the lowest, Ionic in the middle and Corinthian on the top. Each of the three stories had 80 arches going around the perimeter. Statues originally occupied the arches of the second and third stories. All 80 arches on the ground floor were numbered and served as entrances to the masses. However, only 76 were for the common people, the other four were reserved for the emperor, the vestal virgins, senators, and the upper class. Spectators entered the arch which corresponded to their ticket number, ascended the appropriate staircase and found their seat in the cavea by means of one of the numerous passages. Recent excavations at the southern end of the Colosseum have revealed an entrance constructed by Commodus (Emperor/Gladiator) who ruled from 180 – 192 A.D.


The uppermost level, the fourth, was the only one without arches in its outer faƧade. However, there hung large bronze shields, reminding people that this building was a place of combat. At the very top of the fourth storey there was the velarium, a great awning that would be rolled out over the crowd on hot days, to make sure the spectators would not be in discomfort or get terrible sunburns during the day’s events. Raising andlowering the great canopy was accomplished through an ingenious system of ropes, pulleys, and winches. The ropes, which ran over poles jutting from the top of the forth level to winches located outside of the building, formed a web-like lattice across the arena. The lattice held up the individual canvas straps that when rolled down into place one beside the other created the full velarium. The highly specialized work of operating the velarium was entrusted to sailors from Misenum, a naval port on the western Italian coast south of Rome.


In the center of the Colosseum sits the arena, whose name comes from the sand (arena) which covered the floor in order to prevent combatants from slipping and to absorb the blood spilt from men and beasts. The fine white sand that covered the arena floor was not native to Italy but was actually imported from the deserts of Egypt. Below the arena was a two-storey labyrinth of rooms, passageways and mechanisms vital for the changing of the scenery and other apparatus that could be hoisted to the arena floor using man-powered elevators. There were 32 elevators in all and if everything was going well they could be raised simultaneously so that it appeared as though “magically” the arena was filled with animals or new scenery. Many of the animals and gladiators that fought at the Colosseum would make their entrance through these passages onto the arena floor.

The arena was surrounded by a five meter high wall that protected the spectators from the animals and aided in the flooding of the amphitheater. At the top of this wall was the podium, a broad parapet on which was set the emperor’s couch, or pulvinar. The rest of the terrace was reserved for senators, pontiffs, Vestals, and foreign ambassadors. Above the podium was the vast cavea which was divided into three tiers (moeniana), with seats (now missing) for all the other spectators. The lowest tier was reserved for the middle class, the middle one for the poor, and the top one, which was standing room only, was for the very poor, slaves, and women. The custom of making women sit farthest away from the arena floor may have originated with Augustus’s edict, designed to shelter them from seeing (and presumably being disturbed by the sight of) the blood and brutality of the spectacles. The tiers were separated by landings (proecinctiones), reached by several staircases. Each tier was intersected at intervals by passages left between the seats, 160 in all.

As late as the early first century B.C. many leading Romans frowned on the idea of staging big public shows on a regular basis, blaming such entertainments for promoting public laziness. The Romans already observed many public holidays (at least fifty-seven by the mid-first century B.C.). Because most work was suspended on these days, large numbers of poor urban Romans were idle for significant periods of time. Many senators and other leaders harbored the paranoid fear that the so-called mob, hungry and having too little to occupy its time, might protest, riot, or even rebel. Especially dangerous was allowing large numbers of commoners to congregate in one place, which might lead to civil disturbances and the erosion of state authority; consequently the Senate long refused to approve the construction of large, permanent theaters and amphitheaters.


In 69 A.D. the new emperor Vespasian’s first task was to reconstruct the ceremonial center of Rome from the damage of the fire of 64 A.D. and to stamp his name on the city of Rome forever. To do this he challenged the Senate’s theory of having huge public shows for the people by building an amphitheater in the heart of Rome large enough for at least 50,000 spectators. By building the Colosseum Vespasian was able to prove to the people that he would be a better emperor than Nero because he was employing large numbers of the populace in its construction and he was giving lands that had previously belonged to Nero back to the public so that they could be entertained.


Once the Colosseum was finished and public games became increasingly popular, the Senator’s fears were proved groundless as thousands of Romans flocked to the amphitheater to see the shows without major incident. Roman leaders found, in fact, that public spectacles, controlled by aristocrats and/or the state, could potentially be potent tools for maintaining public order. To try and gain as much influence with the people the aristocrats made the games part of a two fold policy. First, give the people what they need, food to survive and second, give them what they want: blood and gore. Between gaming events in the Colosseum, bread would be given out to the masses in large quantities in order to appease them. Also, the emperor as part of the entertainment would stand up every now and then and throw colored balls into the crowd. People who caught these could exchange them for prizes such as baskets of food or gold coins. To fill the crowd’s lust for blood Senators, military generals, and emperors spent large sums subsidizing public festivals, shows and games. One expensive show in particular was a mock naval battle, where the Colosseum was flooded and huge warships filled with gladiators fought to the death. This policy of appeasing the masses through free food and entertainment eventually became known as “bread and circuses” in reference to a famous sarcastic remark by the satirist Juvenal when he said, “There’s only two things that controls the masses, bread and circuses.” With this one two combination, many political leaders were able to make the most out of their seat of influence.

After the games ended in 404 A.D., the Colosseum had a multitude of other functions. In 1144 it was turned into a fortress by a Roman family. From the 1200s to the 1400s, the Colosseum was used at various times to stage religious plays. In the 1400s there were bullfights in the arena. From the 1700s Catholics came to see the Colosseum as a holy place because of all the Christians who died there for their faith and a cross was set up in the center of the arena for the Catholics to go and pray there. By the 1800s, the Colosseum had become completely overgrown by strange and exotic plants and after extensive research the botanist Richard Deakin found 420 different species growing there. And now the Colosseum has become the tourist attraction that we see today.


It is now more than 1,500 years since the last gladiators fought and died inside the walls of the Colosseum. Since then, it has been shaken by seven earthquakes and even used as a quarry since it was a wonderful source of stone and other building materials. Bits of the Colosseum are now spread all over Rome, in palaces, churches, and walls. Yet the amphitheater still stands, reminding us of the power of the Emperor Vespasian who built it and the thousands of people and animals who died within its walls. As Thomas Cole once said on a visit to the Colosseum, “It was once a crater of human passions; there their terrible fires blazed forth with desolating power…. But now all is still [in the ruined arena]… In the mourning the warbling of birds makes the air melodious; in the hushed and holy twilight, the low chanting on monkish solemnities soothes the startled ear.”


Colosseum Bibliography
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Hopkins, Keith. Beard, Mary. The Colosseum. Great Britain: Profile Books Ltd, 2005.

Macadam, Alta. Blue Guide Rome. London: Somerset Books, 2006.

Nardo, Don. The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome. San Diego, California: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2002.

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Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “When a Stadium Makes a Statement.” The New York Times. 19 June 2005: Section 4; Column 1; Week in Review Desk; Ideas and Trends; Pg1.

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