Visitors to Rome flock to the Colosseum (or Colosseo in Italian), knowing that it is one of the most important and recognizable structures in the world. This ruin of the largest ancient Roman amphitheatre is so familiar to us that we feel as though we already know this building when viewing it for the first time. The building attracts approximately three million visitors each year.
The Colosseum was built between 72 and 80 AD as a place for Romans to gather to view spectacles involving gladiatorial combat, animals being hunted and killed, condemned prisoners being mauled by various animals and other gory entertainment. The structure could hold up to 87,000 spectators, whose seating was arranged based on rank in Roman society. The emperor had the most prominent and closest seating, while the poor sat high above in the nosebleed section.
All the facts in this article come from the book Colosseum by University of Cambridge classical scholars Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, published by Profile Books of London in 2005. This is a meticulously researched and carefully written survey of everything that is known about the Colosseum’s context, design, and construction, deterioration and rebuilding, archaeology, and mystique.
Even though there are huge gaps in our collective knowledge of the history of the Colosseum, there are many fascinating facts that are known. Here is a sampling:
Fascinating Fact #1
The Colosseum was not designed by a single prominent designer/architect as it would be if built today. During medieval times it was said to have been designed by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Now we know that Virgil died well before the Colosseum was conceived.
Fascinating Fact #2
Despite its brutal pagan origins, the Colosseum has been used as a worship space by Christians over the centuries. A large cross twas removed in the 1870’s during a frenzy of secular archaeology funded by the new Italian state. That cross was replaced by Mussolini in 1926 in a cynical effort to placate Catholics. In modern days, the Pope comes to the Colosseum every year to celebrate mass on Good Friday. Thiere is little or no evidence, however, that significant numbers of Christians were martyred as part of the Romans’ spectacles at the Colosseum.
Fascinating Fact #3
Gladiators were marginalized persons in Roman society, without the rights of citizenship, and essentially (or literally) slaves. Nonetheless, there are quite a few tales of Roman high-born women falling for gladiators because of their physiques and raw sexuality. (We saw this depicted in Gladiator, the Ridley Scott film.) Gladiators wore some armor, but they also revealed a lot of skin. This may have been to accentuate their vulnerability. The gladiators were both admired and reviled by the Romans.
Fascinating Fact #4
Two authors who have written famous passages about the Colosseum are Lord Byron and Mark Twain. Victorian era visitors to the site often visited at night as rapturously depicted in Bryon’s poem “Manfred”:
“The gladiators’ bloody Circus stands,
A noble wreck in ruinous perfection!”
In Innocents Abroad, Twain writes a “playbill” for a gladiatorial spectacle that includes:
“The whole to conclude with a chaste and elegant GENERAL SLAUGHTER!”
Fascinating Fact #5
Although the Romans’ gladiatorial spectacles petered out in about 432 AD, it was not because of any Christian edict. It was primarily due to the cost of procuring animals and gladiators and maintaining the expensive facility, which by this time was badly deteriorating.
Visiting the Colosseum Today
Visiting the inside of the Colosseum requires standing in lines and purchasing tickets. It is possible to purchase tickets by phone or on line. Viewing the outside of the building is also very rewarding, and completely free of charge.
The interior of the Colosseum looks very strange, with the wooden floor of the arena gone and the subterranean passageways revealed. None of the seats are left. It takes a vivid imagination to look at the current ruins and see the facility in use. The ravages of time, plundering, archaeology, amateurish restoration, and pollution in the center of modern Rome have left the Colosseum rather the worse for wear.
The Colosseum is located adjacent to the huge arch dedicated in AD 315 to the emperor Constantine.
Personal visit to the Colosseum in 2008
Hopkins, Keith and Mary Beard, The Colosseum, London: Profile Books, 2005