Brief History of the Roman Colosseum

Nothing seems to symbolize ancient Rome like the Colosseum (also called the Coliseum). For nearly 2,000 years the Colosseum still captures the imagination and is still the subject of research. Construction of the Colosseum was begun by the Flavian emperor Vespasian in AD 72 and was opened to the Roman public by Vespasian’s son, Titus, in AD 80.

When completed and opened to the public the Colosseum was an awe inspiring structure that is thought could hold between 50,000 to 80,000 spectators. There was nothing like it in the world. In order to support the weight of over 50,000 people the Colosseum employed a unique technique, overlapping arches, which was (and in many ways still is) considered a significant Roman contribution to the field of architecture (indeed, the world ‘architecture’ contains the word ‘arch’ which is old Latin for ‘bow’).

Emperor Vespasian decided to build the Colosseum for the people of Rome in order to cover over and distract the Roman people from the outrageous extravagance, poor leadership and brutality of his predecessor, Emperor Nero. One could say building the Colosseum was the ultimate public relations project. To make his point, Emperor Vespasian ordered the building of the Colosseum on the grounds of Nero’s infamous ‘Golden House’. This required the draining of the artificial lake that Nero had built for himself and, because the natural terrain around the lake was marsh, made the building of the Colosseum that much more difficult (and that much more of an architectural marvel). The labor for this momentous task was provided by Jewish slaves who were brought to Roman after their failed rebellion in Judaea against the Roman Empire.

A massive awning, known as a velarium, was built to protect the audience from rain or sun. The emperor’s podium was situated in a prime spot to ensure he got the best views plus was visible to all the Roman citizenry. A key factor in the Colosseum’s architecture is its curvature, a technique the Ancient Romans had adopted from the Etruscans. The amphitheater itself is essentially the ‘doubling’ (building a double circumference) of the Greek-style theaters that were used for the performance of tragedies.

Roman Colosseum When Vespasian’s son Titus officially opened the Colosseum, a celebration was declared that lasted 100 days. During this time some historians say that as many as 5,000 wild animals were displayed in contests and game and were eventually slaughtered. For the next 500+ years the Colosseum would host blood sports unlike anything ever seen from gladiators to executions to battle re-enactments (where the participants literally fought to the death). There is even a report that at one time the Colosseum was filled with water and a navel battle was re-enacted (some historians dispute this and say such naval re-enactments were held elsewhere). For hundreds of years the Colosseum would be the center of Imperial Rome’s society – and the historic location of some of the world’s most barbaric events.

Although Titus opened the Colosseum in AD 80, the amphitheater was only completed between AD 81 and 96 in the reign of Emperor Domitian. The amphitheater was not initially called the Colosseum, but rather the Flavian amphitheater in honor the Flavian Emperors. Nero would eventually be honored with a gilded, bronze statue said to be 115 feet in size (unfortunately, this colossus statue was demolished on the instructions of Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century).

In approximately 230 AD, Alexander Severus began the first recorded restoration of the Colosseum. In 248 AD the Colosseum hosted the 1,000th anniversary celebration of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. Nearly a thousand years later, the classic Imperial Roman empire had vanished and was replaced by the Holy Roman Empire. Yet, the Colosseum still stood, neglected, and no longer the center of Roman society. Largely, Italy was now a place of warring clans, city states and loosely controlled by the Pope. Around 1200 AD the Colosseum was acquired by the Frangipane family who turned it into a fortress. Increasingly, the once pride of Rome fell into disrepair. The stones, marble and brass of the Colosseum was, and would continue to be, stolen for other building projects. In the early 14th century, Emperor Henry VII (who was actually the King of Germany and elected by the Vatican to be King of the Roman People) handed ownership of the Colosseum to the citizens of Rome.

In the late 1500s Pope Pius V stated his belief that the Colosseum had host the execution of early Christian martyrs and encouraged pilgrims to take sand from the Colosseum’s arena. It would not be until 1749 that Pope Benedict XIV endorsed the idea that the Colosseum was a sacred site because it was a place early Christian’s had been martyred. He forbade further destruction of the Colosseum (it was being used as a quarry) and that the entire site be consecrated. There was an ancient Christian church that had been built into the Colosseum possibly around the 6th century, HOWEVER, to date, there is NO historical evidence that early Christians had ever been ‘martyred’ in the Colosseum. Nonetheless, Pope Benedict XIV declaration stopped further, wholesale destruction of the Colosseum. Otherwise, the Colosseum would likely have become a legend and the structure lost forever.

There are few monuments that can match the Colosseum in its ability to inspire the imagination. There have been no arenas built since the Colosseum that can match what Imperial Rome created. Consider: Is there any ‘coliseum’ in the world that could be in use for 100 hundreds of years, hosting monumental events that included animals, battles warriors? … And, last a millennium? It is actually difficult to imagine any structures that are being built today that will last 1,000 years. Ancient, Imperial Rome, as brutal as it was, accomplished with the Colosseum making a statement about what ancient Romans believed: Rome is forever.

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