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The Colosseum at dusk.

Inside the Coloseum


The Colosseum was built with giant travertine blocks, layered with soft stones and concrete. Originally, it was overlaid with marble but over the years robbers stole this. Its columns were made of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. It measures six hundred and twenty feet by five hundred and thirteen feet, one third of a mile around. The six acre building contained three tiers of seats, eighty entrances, seated forty-five to fifty-five thousand spectators.

  • Exterior

The Colosseum is a free-standing structure. It is one hundred and eighty-nine meters long and one hundred and fifty-six meters wide, with a base area of six acres. The height of the outer wall is forty-eight meters; the perimeter originally measured five hundred and forty-five meters. The central arena is an oval, two hundred and eighty-seven feet long and one hundred and eighty feet wide, surrounded by a wall fifteen feet high. The outer wall is estimated to have required over one hundred thousand cubic meters of travertine stone which were held together by three hundred tons of iron clamps. The outer wall comprises three stories of arcades surmounted by a podium on which stands a tall attic, both are pierced by windows. The arcades are framed by half-columns of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, while the attic is decorated with Corinthian pilasters. Two hundred and forty mast corbels were positioned around the top of the attic. They supported a retractable awning that kept the sun and rain off spectators; it consisted of a canvas-covered, net-like structure made of ropes, with a hole in the center. It covered two-thirds of the arena, and sloped down towards the center to catch the wind and provide a breeze for the audience.

The amphitheatre was ringed by eighty entrances at ground level, seventy-six of which were used by ordinary spectators. Each entrance and exit was numbered, as was each staircase. The northern main entrance was reserved for the Roman Emperor and his aides. All four axial entrances were richly decorated with painted stucco reliefs. Spectators accessed their seats by passageways that opened into a tier of seats from below or behind.

  • Surrounding Buildings

In addition to the amphitheatre itself, many other buildings nearby were linked to the games. Immediately to the east is the Ludus Magnus, a training school for gladiators. This was connected to the Colosseum by an underground passage, to allow easy access for the gladiators. The Ludus Magnus had 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 were the Armamentarium, comprising an armory to store weapons; the Summum Choragium, where machinery was stored; the Sanitarium, which had facilities to treat wounded gladiators; and the Spoliarium, where bodies of dead gladiators were stripped of their armor and disposed of.

Around the perimeter of the Colosseum was a series of tall stone posts. Various explanations have been suggested for their presence (ex. religious boundary, an outer boundary for ticket checks, an anchor for the awning). Right next to the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine.

  • Inside

The Colosseum is said to have accommodated eighty-seven thousand people, but modern estimates put the figure at around fifty thousand. Spectators were seated in a tiered arrangement. Special boxes were provided at the north and south ends for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins, providing the best views of the arena. Flanking them at the same level was a broad platform or podium for the senatorial class. The tier above the senators was occupied by the non-senatorial noble class or knights. The next level up was reserved for ordinary Roman citizens and was divided into two sections. The lower part was for wealthy citizens, while the upper part was for poor citizens. Specific sectors were provided for other social groups (ex. boys with their tutors, soldiers on leave, foreign dignitaries, scribes, heralds, priests). Stone, and later marble, seating was provided for the citizens and nobles. Inscriptions identified the areas reserved for specific groups. Another level was added at the very top of the building during the reign of Domitian. This comprised a gallery for the common poor, slaves and women. Some groups were banned altogether from the Colosseum (ex. gravediggers, actors, former gladiators). Each tier was divided into sections by curved passages and low walls, and was subdivided into wedges by the steps and aisles. The arena itself was eighty-three meters by forty-eight meters. It comprised a wooden floor covered by sand, covering an elaborate underground structure called the hypogeum. It consisted of a two-level underground network of tunnels and cages beneath the arena where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Eighty vertical shafts provided instant access to the arena for caged animals and scenery pieces concealed underneath. Larger hinged platforms provided access for elephants and the like. The hypogeum was connected by subterranean tunnels to a number of points outside the Colosseum. Animals and performers were brought through the tunnel from nearby stables, with the gladiators' barracks at the Ludus Magnus to the east also being connected by tunnels. Separate tunnels were provided for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins to permit them to enter and exit the Colosseum without needing to pass through the crowds.


The Colosseum's original Latin name was Amphitheatrum Flavium. It was constructed by emperors of the Flavian dynasty, hence its original name. This name is still used frequently, but it is generally unknown. Romans may have referred to the Colosseum by the unofficial name Amphitheatrum Caesareum, but this name was not exclusive to the Colosseum. The name Colosseum has long been believed to be derived from a colossal statue of Nero. The name was corrupted to Coliseum during the Middle Ages. In Italy, the amphitheatre is still known as il Colosseo.


  • Ancient

The construction of the Colosseum began under the rule of the Emperor Vespasian around 70¬72B.C. The site was a flat area on the floor of a low valley between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine Hills. By the 2nd century B.C. the area was densely populated. However, it was devastated by the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D. Following which Nero seized much of the area to add to his personal domain.

The area was transformed under Vespasian and his successors. Gladiatorial schools and other support buildings were constructed nearby. According to a reconstructed inscription found on the site, "the emperor Vespasian ordered this new amphitheatre to be erected from his general's share of the booty." This is thought to refer to the vast quantity of treasure seized by the Romans following their victory in the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 B.C. The Colosseum can be interpreted as a great monument built in the Roman tradition of celebrating great victories. In contrast to many other amphitheatres, which were located on the outskirts of a city, the Colosseum was constructed in the city centre; in effect, placing it both literally and symbolically at the heart of Rome.

The Colosseum had been completed up to the third story by the time of Vespasian's death in 79 B.C. The top level was finished and the building opened by his son, Titus, in 80 B.C. Dio Cassius recounts that over 9,000 wild animals were killed during the opening games of the amphitheatre. The building was remodeled further under Vespasian's younger son, Emperor Domitian, who constructed the hypogeum, a series of underground tunnels used to house animals and slaves. He also added a gallery to the top of the Colosseum to increase its seating capacity.

In 217 A.D. the Colosseum was badly damaged by a major fire which destroyed the wooden upper levels of the amphitheatre's interior. It was not fully repaired until about 240 A.D. and underwent further repairs around 250 A.D. and again in 320 A.D. An inscription states that the restorations of various parts of the Colosseum were done under Theodosius II and Valentinian III, possibly to repair damage caused by a major earthquake in 443 A.D. The arena continued to be used for contests well into the 6th century, with gladiatorial fights mentioned around 435 A.D. Animal hunts continued until at least 523 A.D.

  • Old

The Colosseum underwent several radical changes of use during the medieval period. By the late 6th century a small church had been built into its structure, though this apparently did not influence any particular religious significance on the building as a whole. The arena was converted into a cemetery. The vaulted spaces in the arcades under the seating were converted into housing and workshops, and are recorded as still being rented out as late as the 12th century. Around 1200 the Frangipani family took over the Colosseum and fortified it, using it as a castle.

Severe damage was inflicted on the Colosseum by the great earthquake of 1349, causing the outer south side to collapse. But most of the tumbled stone was reused to build palaces, churches, hospitals and other buildings elsewhere in Rome. A religious order moved into the northern third of the Colosseum in the mid-14th century and continued to inhabit it until as late as the early 19th century. The interior of the amphitheatre was extensively stripped of stone, which was reused elsewhere. The bronze clamps which held the stonework together were pried or hacked out of the walls, leaving numerous pockmarks which still scar the building today.

During the 16th and 17th century, Church officials sought a useful role for the hulk of the Colosseum. Pope Sixtus V planned to turn the building into a wool factory to provide employment for Rome's prostitutes, but this proposal fell through with his death. In 1671 Cardinal Altieri authorized its use for bullfights, but a public outcry caused the idea to be abandoned quickly.

In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV claimed, as official Church policy, the view that the Colosseum was a sacred site where early Christians had been martyred. He forbade the use of the Colosseum as a quarry and sanctified the building to the Passion of Christ and installed Stations of the Cross, declaring it hallowed by the blood of the Christian martyrs who perished there. Later popes initiated various stabilization and restoration projects, removing the extensive vegetation which had overgrown the structure and threatened to damage it further. The façade was reinforced with triangular brick wedges in 1807 and 1827, and the interior was repaired in 1831, 1846 and the 1930s. The arena substructure was partly excavated in 1810, 1814, and 1874, and was fully exposed under Mussolini in the 1930s.

  • Today

The Colosseum is today one of Rome's most popular tourist attractions, receiving millions of visitors annually. The effects of pollution and general deterioration over time prompted a major restoration program carried out between 1993 and 2000, at a cost of 40 billion Italian lira ($19.3m / ¤20.6m at 2000 prices). In recent years it has become a symbol of the international campaign against capital punishment, which was abolished in Italy in 1948. Several anti-death penalty demonstrations took place in front of the Colosseum in 2000. Since then, as a gesture against the death penalty, the local authorities of Rome change the color 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, is released, or if a jurisdiction abolishes the death penalty. Most recently, the Colosseum was illuminated in gold when capital punishment was abolished in the American state of New Jersey, in December, 2007.


The Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles. It remained in use for nearly five hundred years with the last recorded games being held there as late as the 6th century. As well as the traditional gladiatorial games, many other public spectacles were held there, such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The building eventually ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. It was later reused for such varied purposes as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine.

The shows, called munera, were always given by individuals rather than the state. They had a strong religious element but were also demonstration of family power and prestige. Another type of show was the animal hunt, or venatio. This required a great variety of wild beasts, mainly imported from Africa (ex. rhinoceros, hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, panthers, leopards, crocodiles, ostriches). Battles and hunts were often staged amid elaborate sets with movable trees and buildings.

During the early days of the Colosseum, ancient writers recorded that the building was used for naumachiae or simulated sea battles. Accounts of the inaugural games describe the Colosseum as being filled with water for a display of specially trained swimming horses and bulls. Sylvae or recreations of natural scenes were also held in the arena. Painters, technicians and architects would construct a simulation of a forest with real trees and bushes planted in the arena's floor. Animals would be put in the scene to populate it for the delight of the crowd. Such scenes might be used simply to display a natural environment for the urban population, or could otherwise be used as the backdrop for hunts or dramas depicting episodes from mythology. They were also occasionally used for executions, in which the hero of the story (played by a condemned person) was killed in one of various gruesome ways, such as being mauled by beasts or burned to death.

Christian's Involvement

In the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was not regarded as a sacred site. Its use as a fortress and then a quarry, demonstrates how little spiritual importance was attached to it. Part of the structure was inhabited by a Christian order, but apparently not for any particular religious reason.

It appears to have been only in the 16th and 17th centuries that the Colosseum came to be regarded as a Christian site. Pope Pius V is said to have recommended that pilgrims gather sand from the arena of the Colosseum to serve as a relic on the grounds, that it was scared with the blood of martyrs. This seems to have been a minority view until it was popularized nearly a century later by Fioravante Martinelli, who listed the Colosseum at the head of a list of places sacred to the martyrs. Martinelli evidently had an effect on public opinion; in response to Cardinal Altieri's proposal some years later to turn the Colosseum into a bullring. Carlo Tomassi published a pamphlet in protest against what he regarded as an act of desecration. The ensuing controversy persuaded Pope Clement X to close the Colosseum's external arcades and declare it a sanctuary, though quarrying continued for some time still.

At the insistance of St. Leonard of Port Maurice, Pope Benedict XIV forbade the quarrying of the Colosseum and erected Stations of the Cross around the arena, which remained until February 1874. St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent the later years of his life within the walls of the Colosseum, living on alms, and prior to his death in 1783. Several 19th century popes funded repair and restoration work on the Colosseum and it still retains a Christian connection today. Crosses stand in several points around the arena and every Good Friday the Pope leads a Via Crucis procession to the amphitheatre.

Fun Facts

  • The Colosseum has a common background in the busy metropolis that is modern Rome.
  • Large concerts have been held just outside, using the Colosseum as a backdrop.


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See Also