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In the year 70, the Roman Emperor Vespasian commissioned what would become the world’s largest amphitheater.
Approximately ten years later, it opened to great fanfare and 100 days of games.
No greater amphitheater has ever been built in the nearly 2000 years since its construction.
Learn more about the Flavian Amphitheater, aka the Colosseum, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before I go into how and why the Flavian Amphitheater was built, I should probably explain what an amphitheater is.
In the Greek world, a theater was a semicircular venue with tiered seating, with all of the seats facing a central stage at the bottom. The Romans, as they did with many things, stole the idea of the greeks. Theaters were where music, dancing, and dramatic performances took place.
There are many well-preserved Roman and Greek theaters around the Mediterranean, and many of them are still actually in use today as theaters.
Amphitheater comes from the Greek word “amphi,” which means on both sides or to surround, and theater. So if a theater is a semicircle, then an amphitheater is a complete circle.
An amphitheater served a totally different purpose than a theater. For starters, it was mostly a Roman innovation, not a Greek one, despite the Greek name.
Amphitheaters were used for games and gladiatorial contests. They were the predecessors of modern-day sports arenas.
So with that, the story of the Colosseum really begins during the reign of Emperor Nero. Nero had nothing to do with the construction or planning of the Colosseum, but he did build the thing that came before it: the Domus Aurea.
If you remember back to the episode on did on the Domus Aurea, it was a fantastically large palace that Nero built for himself in Rome. After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero used the opportunity to raize a huge swath of land in the city to build his palace.
Part of this palace was an enormous artificial lake, and standing alongside the lake was an enormous statue of Nero, known as the Colossus of Nero.
When Nero died, the land where the Domus Aurea was located was simply too valuable to remain a palace, so it was torn down. The colossus was kept, but the head was changed, so it was now a statue of the Roman sun god Sol, and it became known as the Colossus Solis.
The new emperor, Vespasian, decided to use this land to create a massive amphitheater that could be used by everyone in Rome. This was totally a public relations maneuver by Vespasian to curry favor with the Roman people after so much money and land was used on a building for a single man.
This amphitheater was to be the largest in the world by a wide margin. Also, unlike most other amphitheaters, which were built on the outskirts of cities, this was to be built right in the center of Rome.
A project like this would require a lot of money, and there wasn’t a whole lot of money left over from Nero’s spending. However, in the year 70, Rome had just finished the siege of Jerusalem, where they sacked and looted the Jewish Temple.
It was loot taken from Jerusalem, in particular the Jewish Temple, which paid for the Colosseum. In fact, an inscription found at the Colosseum said, “the emperor Vespasian ordered this new amphitheater to be erected from his general’s share of the booty.”
It isn’t known exactly when construction on the Colosseum began, but it is believed to have started between 70 and 72.
Building a structure of this size was an enormous undertaking. Even building something like this today would require enormous investment, and that would be with machinery. The Romans had to do everything by hand.
It is believed that it required somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 workers to build the colosseum. Given the conditions at the time, many, if not most of these workers would have been slaves. However, there would also had to have been skilled craftsmen involved with the construction as well.
One long-standing theory was that Jewish slaves captured during the Sack of Jerusalem were used in the construction. This might have happened, and it would be consistent with Roman norms at the time, but there is no evidence to support it.
The Colosseum is elliptical in shape. The exterior is 189 meters or 615 feet long by 156 meters or 510 feet wide.
The interior arena is 83 meters or 272 feet long by 48 meters or 157 feet wide.
There are roughly four different seating tiers. The tier closest to the area was reserved for Senators, with a box on the north end reserved for the Emperor and a box on the south end reserved for the Vestal Virgins.
The next tier was reserved for the Equites, which was the Roman equivalent of a knight. They were a rank below Senators.
Above that were two sections for plebians. The closer tier was for more wealthy plebians, and the upper tier was for the poor and women.
On the top ring above the colosseum were 240 wooden corbels which extended into the colosseum. These are long gone, but you can see the holes where they once were installed. These wooden poles had cloth attached which could be extended to serve as a sun shade when it was hot out.
The arena floor was also unlike anything which had been built before. The floor was made out of wood, and it was covered with sand. In fact, the word arena comes from the Latin word “harena” which means sand.
Underneath the arena floor was a network of tunnels known as the hypogeum. This was not part of the original design and was added by Emperor Domitian a few years after it opened.
The hypogeum was how the gladiators and animals came to the arena floor. There were smaller openings and a large slopped opening where even elephants could come to the floor.
These tunnels connected to gladiator barracks and pens for animals outside of the Colosseum.
Supposedly, the arena could also be flooded so that mock naval battles could be held as well.
The total seating capacity of the Colosseum was between 50,000 to 87,000, depending on which estimates and sources you use.
There were 80 entrances to the Colosseum, 76 of which were used by the general public. Of the remaining four, one was used exclusively by the Emperor, and the others were used by senators and other elites.
These entrances were known as vomitoria. Many people have confused the meaning of the Roman vomitoria thinking that Romans would vomit after their meals. This is false. Vomitoria comes from the Latin word to expel quickly. Hence the exits were vomiting people out.
Vespasian didn’t live long enough to see construction finalized. It was his son and successor, the Emperor Titus, which opened the Colosseum in the year 80.
As Titus and Vespasian were part of the Flavian Dynasty, it is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater.
There were 100 consecutive days of games held to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum.
The Colosseum was actively used for about 400 years. There were fires and earthquakes which damaged the Colosseum and repairs that were made periodically over time.
The last gladiatorial fights took place in 425, and the last games that included animals were known to have occurred in 525.
It has been estimated that as many as 400,000 people might have been killed inside the Colosseum throughout its history, including gladiatorial games, criminal executions, and Christian persecutions.
With the fall of the Western Empire and the dramatically reduced significance of Rome as a city, this enormous thing was still sitting in the middle of Rome, even though it was no longer used for public events.
A church was built inside the Colosseum. The area under the seats was converted into homes and shops. The interior was converted into a cemetery.
In the 12th century, the Roman Frangipani clan took ownership of the Colosseum and may have converted it into a fortress.
In 1349, a large earthquake hit Rome and toppled half of the exterior wall. This is why half of the exterior looks like it is missing today and why it looks like there is a diagonal rip across it. One of the reasons why it fell in the earthquake was because the iron supports that attached many of the stones together had been removed over the years.
It was about this time that we have the first evidence of it being referred to as the Colosseum. In the 12th century, it was known as the “amphitheater of the colossi,” referring to the Colossus of Nero. The term Colosseum appeared in the year 1600.
Another thing that began happening in the middle ages was the use of the Colosseum as a quarry. It was an easy source for travertine limestone, which made up most of the structure. People who needed stone found it more convenient just to take some from the Colosseum than to buy it or quarry it.
This is why so much of the interior seating is missing and why all of the marble, which clad the exterior, is gone.
In the 15th century, much of the stone which fell was taken to be used in other construction projects, including St. John’s Lateran and the walls of the Vatican.
In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV, recognizing the significance as a sacred Christian site, forbade the use of the Colosseum as a stone quarry. The Colosseum remains a place of significance for the Catholic Church today. Every Good Friday, the pope traditionally leads the stations of the cross in the Colosseum.
However, it should be noted that there really is no direct evidence of any Christian executions in the Colosseum. There is ample evidence of Christians being killed in Rome, but nothing points to the Colosseum being the place where it happened.
That being said, there were so many executions that took place at the Colosseum that it would be surprising if no Christian executions didn’t take place there.
For the last 200 years, efforts have been made to preserve what remains of the Colosseum. Several times during the 19th and early 20th centuries, efforts were taken to support the exterior wall facade.
Several major restorations were taken in the last 30 years One project went from 1993 to 2000, and another cleaning project went from 2013 to 2016. This was the first time the exterior of the Colosseum was cleaned in history.
As of today, only about ? of the original structure, both internal and external, is still there.
Future plans, as of the time I am recording this, are for a new retractable wooden floor to be installed in the arena. This would give visitors a feel for what the original Colosseum was like.
Today the Colosseum is one of the top tourist attractions in Rome and one of the most iconic ancient structures in the world. In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, the Colosseum had 7.6 million visitors.
…and yes, you can rent a Vespa scooter and drive around it just like Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck did in Roman Holiday.
The ruins of the hypogeum have been open to the public since 2010. There are also now nighttime tours of the Colosseum, which are available.
In 2007, the Colosseum was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
If you haven’t been to Rome or the Colosseum, it is an incredible experience. Few things in the world are that old and that big and that played such a central role in history.