The Colosseum or Coliseum, originally known as
the Flavian Amphitheatre (Latin: Amphitheatrum Flavium), is the largest
amphitheatre built in the Roman empire. Originally capable of seating
50,000 spectators, it was once used for gladiatorial combat. It was
built in the 70s AD by Jewish slaves captured at the end of the Great
The Colosseum is located just east of the Roman Forum.
Construction of the Colosseum began under the rule of Emperor Vespasian in
AD 72. It was completed by his son, Titus, in 80, with later
improvements by Domitian. It was built at the site of Nero's lake below
his extensive palace, the Domus Aurea, which had been built covering the
slope of the Palatine after the great fire of Rome in 64. Dio Cassius
recounts that 10,000 wild animals were killed in the one hundred days of
celebration which inaugurated the amphitheatre opening.
History of the name Colosseum
The Colosseum's name has long been believed to be derived from a colossus
(a 130-foot or 40-metre statue) of Nero nearby. This statue was later
remodeled by Nero's successors into the likeness of Sol or Apollo, the
sun god, by adding the appropriate solar crown. Nero's head was also
replaced several times by the head of succeeding emperors. At some time
during the Middle Ages, the statue disappeared; experts suspect that,
since the statue was bronze, it was melted down for reuse. Evidence of
its base may still be found between the Colosseum and the nearby Temple
of Roma and Venus.
After the colossus' disposal, the link to it seems to have been forgotten
over time, and the name was corrupted to Coliseum during the Middle
Ages. Both names are frequently used in modern English, but Flavian
Amphitheatre is generally unknown. In Italy, it is still known as il
colosseo, and other Romance languages have come to use similar forms
such as le colisée and el colise.
The inner layers of the Colosseum, showing the construction of the
The Colosseum measures 48 metres high, 188 metres long, and 156 metres
wide. There are 80 arches on each of the first three levels, totaling
240. The wooden arena floor was 86 metres by 54 metres, and covered by
sand. Its elliptical shape kept the players from retreating to a corner,
and allowed the spectators to be closer to the action than a circle
would allow. Over 100,000 cubic meters of travertine stone was used in
The Colosseum was ingeniously designed, and most modern stadiums share
important features with the Colosseum's structure. Seating (cavea) was
divided into different sections. The podium, the first level of seating,
was for the Roman senators (many of the last senators of the empire
still have their names carved into some of the seats); the emperor's
private, cushioned, marble box was also located on this level. Above the
podium was the maenianum primum, for the other Roman aristocrats who
were not in the senate. The third level, the maenianum secundum, was
divided into three sections. The lower part (the immum) was for wealthy
citizens, while the upper part (the summum) was for poor citizens. A
third, wooden section (the maenianum secundum in legneis) was a wooden
structure at the very top of the building, added by Domitian. It was
standing room only, and was for lower-class women.
After the Colosseum's first two years in operation, Vespasian's younger
son (the newly-designated Emperor Domitian) ordered the construction of
the hypogeum (literally meaning "underground"), a two-level subterranean
network of tunnels and cages where gladiators and animals were held
before contests began. Numerous trap doors in the floor provided instant
access to the arena for caged animals and scenery pieces concealed
underneath; larger hinged platforms, called hegmata, provided access for
elephants and the like.
Today the arena floor no longer exists, though the hypogeum walls and
corridors are clearly visible in the ruins of the structure. The entire
base of the Colosseum covers an area equivalent to 6 acres (160,000 m²).
There are also tunnels, still in existence, configured to flood and
evacuate water from the Colosseum floor, so that naval battles could be
staged prior to the hypogeum's construction. Recent archaeological
research has shown evidence of drain pipes connected to the City's sewer
system and a large underground holding tank connected to a nearby
Another innovative feature of the Colosseum was its cooling system, known
as the velarium, which consisted of a canvas-covered, net-like structure
made of ropes, with a hole in the center. This roof covered two-thirds
of the arena, and sloped down towards the center to catch the wind and
provide a breeze for the audience. Sailors, standing on special
platforms, manipulated the ropes on command. The Colosseum incorporated
a number of vomitoria — passageways that open into a tier of seats from
below or behind. Each vomitorium was designed so that the immense venue
could fill in 15 minutes, and be evacuated in as little as 5 minutes.
Each entrance and exit was numbered, as was each staircase.
There were 80 entrances at ground level; 76 of these were used by ordinary
spectators. The northern main entrance on the secondary axis was the
entrance for the Emperor and his aides, whilst the other three cardinal
entrances were most likely used by the elite. Spectators were given
tickets in the form of numbered pottery shards, which directed them to
the appropriate section and row. The vomitoria quickly dispersed people
into their seats and, upon conclusion of the event, disgorged them with
abruptness into the surrounding streets (giving rise, presumably, to the
The Colosseum and its activities made for a rather large industry in the
area. In addition to the amphitheater itself, there were many other
buildings built nearby that supported its gladatorial games. Immediately
to the east is the remains of the Ludus Magnus, a training school for
gladiators, with its own miniature training arena. Other training
schools were in the same area, including the Ludus Matutinus, where
fighters of animals were trained.
Also nearby was the Castra Misenatium, where the sailors from Misenum who
handled the ropes were posted; the Armamentarium, comprising an armory
to store weapons; the Summum Choragium, where complex machinery used in
a scene was stored; the Saniarium, which had facilities to treat wounded
gladiators; and the Spoliarium, where bodies of dead gladiators were
stripped of their armor and disposed of.
The Colosseum was in continuous use until 217, when it was damaged by fire
after a lightning strike. It was restored in 238 and gladiatorial games
continued until Christianity gradually put an end to those parts of them
which included the death of humans. The building was used for various
purposes, mostly venationes, until 524. Two earthquakes (in 442 and 508)
caused massive damage to the structure. In the Middle Ages, it was
severely damaged by further earthquakes (847 and 1349), and was then
converted into a fortress and a Christian church erected in one small
The marble that originally covered the façade was reused in constructions
or burned to make quicklime. During the Renaissance, but mostly in the
16th and 17th centuries, the ruling Roman families (from which many
popes came) used it as a source of marble for the construction of St.
Peter's Basilica and the private palazzi of Roman families such as the
Barberini: Quod non fecerunt Barbari, Barberini fecerunt; "What the
Barbarians didn't do, the Barberini did"
The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735) wrote:
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
Quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus (When Rome falls, so shall the world).
Note the use of coliseus, i.e. which made the name a masculine noun. This
form is no longer in use.
A view of the Colosseum at night.
In 1749, in a very early example of historic preservation, Pope Benedict
XIV forbade the use of the Colosseum as a quarry. He consecrated the
building to the Passion of Christ and installed Stations of the Cross,
declaring it sanctified by the blood of the Christian martyrs who were
thought to have perished there. Later popes initiated various
stabilization and restoration projects. Every Good Friday the pope leads
a procession within the ellipse in memory of Christian martyrs.. It
is presumed that the majority of Christian martyrdom in Rome took place
at the Circus Maximus.
In 2000 there were protests in Italy against the use of the death penalty
in countries all over the world (in Italy it was abolished in 1948).
Several demonstrations took place in front of the Colosseum. Since that
time, as a gesture against capital punishment, the local authorities of
Rome change the colour of the Colosseum's night time illumination from
white to gold whenever a person condemned to the death penalty anywhere
in the world gets their sentence commuted or is released. 
According to the current political division of the center of Rome, the
Colosseum is placed in rione Monti.
Hollywood and the Colosseum
The Colosseum has a prominent place in many motion pictures. In 1954's
Demetrius and the Gladiators Emperor Caligula sentences the Christian
Demetrius to fight in the Colosseum. In the Science Fiction film The
Core, the Colosseum is destroyed by intense lightning strikes, which
blast it to bits. In director Ridley Scott's 2000 film Gladiator, the
Colosseum was re-created via computer-generated imagery (CGI) to
"restore" it to the glory of its heyday in the 2nd century. However,
many of the buildings in the film depicted surrounding the colosseum
never existed, and its proximity to the Tiber is also inauthentic.
Plants on the inner walls of the Colosseum
The Colosseum has a wide and well-documented history of flora ever since
Domenico Panaroli made the first catalogue of its plants in 1643. Since
then, 684 species have been identified there. The peak was in 1855 (420
species), and there are 242 today. Of the species first identified by
Panaroli, 200 remain.
The variation of plants can be explained by the change of climate in Rome
through the centuries. Additionally, bird migration, flower blooming,
and the growth of Rome that caused the Colosseum to not be on the
outskirts of the city, as well as deliberate transport of species, are
also contributing causes.
Coarelli, Filippo, Guida Archeologica di Roma, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore,
Milano, 1989, ISBN 8804118962.
Claridge, Amanda, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Oxford University
Press, New York, 1998, ISBN 0192880039.