Today the Colosseum is at top of most people’s bucket list. For good reason. This is one of the greatest structures built by the ancient civilizations and it is considered one of the “new wonders of the world”. The impressive feat architecture and engineering truly has stood the test of time. But what is the story of the Colosseum?

The Colosseum or the Flavian Amphitheatre

Well if we are to do this properly we need to go back to the beginning. Let’s rewind 2000 years to the year 80ad. If you asked an ancient Roman for directions to the Colosseum in 80ad they wouldn’t even know what you meant. It wasn’t until the 5th Century ad that the name Colosseum was given to the building. In the time of the Roman Empire it was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. Why? Because of the Flavian Dynasty – A father (Vespasian) and his two sons (Titus & Domitian).

Colosseum Flavian Timeline

Another amphitheatre?

The call for the Colosseum to be built was made by Vespasian in attempt to erase his predecessor from history, Nero, and win the hearts of Rome’s citizens. Nero became increasingly unstable toward the end of his reign and so unpopular, partly due to his enormous golden palace, that in the end he took his own life. The Colosseum is built on the site of his infamous golden palace or domus aurea. The idea was to turn the palace of Nero into the palace of the people. This led to the construction of a bathhouse and the greatest amphitheatre the empire had ever seen – and would ever see! Not a bad way for new blood-line, the Flavians, to begin their legacy.

The Completion of the Colosseum

Emperor Vespasian, the father, commissioned the Colosseum in 72ad. Vespasian died in 79ad. The Amphitheatre took 8 years to build. It was bad fortune that he never saw the completion of his grand new stadium. The biggest and best in the whole Empire! Titus being the eldest son was Vespasian’s natural successor finished the job, inaugurating the Colosseum with fantastic display of games for Rome which lasted more than 100 days. Imagine the body count. Aside from the games, Titus’ rules was short and plagued with problems. He died 2 years later of fever. Enter Domitian… The last of the Flavian Dynasty.

Brass sestertius of Titus, showing the Colosseum

The Colosseum, as shown on a brass sestertius of Titus – The British Museum(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Colosseum Underground

Up until 81ad when Domitian became Emperor the Colosseum’s arena floor was solid wood with sand on top and a hollow cavity underneath. Although the Colosseum was a finished stadium at the start of Domitian’s rule, he decided to add some finishing touches to enhance the spectacles which took place inside. The Hypogeum is the term used for the Colosseum Underground. It consisted of a complex arrangement of corridors, chambers and machinery which were used to house gladiators and animals before the fights. The Hypogeum was connected to the arena floor by 64 trapdoors which gave a theatrical entrance to stadium. Special effects… 2000 years ago! These days, selected tour groups are allowed to visit the Colosseum – click the link above to view my Colosseum underground experience.

The Games

We’ve all watched Gladiator. Hollywood did a pretty good job of helping us visualise the brutality of the games and the buzz it created for the ancient Romans. But it doesn’t represent everything that took place. The Romans were organized people, barbaric, but organized. Games day had a programme, similar to a modern day boxing or MMA event.

  1. Venatio

The Venatio took place in the morning. This was a form of entertainment which involved the hunting and killing of wild animals. These animals were captured from the far reaches of empire and brought to the centre stage. Hadrian was an Emperor that spent a lot of time in Africa and was famous for bringing the “African beasts” to Rome. We know from art and various sources that lions, tigers, and even giraffes were transported across the Mediterranean to feed the bloodthirsty appetite of the Romans.

  1. Executions

The execution of criminals and enemies of the state would take place at lunch. The merchants and upper class would leave the stadium and dine or drink in the taverns nearby. The poor, or the plebeians, were given a free lunch… inside the stadium… watching people die. A harsh reminder of the consequences in falling out of line or becoming an adversary to the regime.

  1. Gladiators

The highlight of the event would take place in the afternoon. This is what the Roman’s really came for: Gladiatorial combat. The fighters were worshiped by the crowds and their death became a form of entertainment. There was amphitheatre’s all over the empire but this was MGM grand of the ancient world. It was the down the Gladiators to please the crowds by drawing out the fights and dying an honourable death. Recent archaeological finds have unearthed figurines of Gladiators which is suggests they even sold memorabilia at the events

How many people died in the Colosseum?

The Colosseum was in operation for over 4 centuries. It’s quite hard to imagine how many people and animals met their fate inside these walls in the form of “entertainment”. The truth is the exact amount still remains a mystery, but there are some sources that give us an idea. For example in Trajan’s games to celebrate conquering Dacia, modern day Romania, it’s said that over 11,000 animals were slaughtered in games which lasted 120 days!

The Decline of the Colosseum

The decline of the Colosseum began in the 5th Century CE for two main reasons. Money and Religion. Rome was at war and things weren’t looking good for the eastern part of the Empire. The Colosseum was an extremely expensive thing to run as it was free for the citizens, and with little left to celebrate the war campaigns took priority. The introduction of Christianity in the 3rd century CE, thanks to Emperor Constantine, saw a shift in public attitude. The morals, principles and values of the Romans had changed. By the start of the 5th Century gladiatorial combat was abolished and the last gladiatorial games were held by Emperor Honorius in 404ad. The animal hunts, Venatio, continued another century until 523ad.

The Story Continues

Even to this day the Colosseum is still used a venue, not just a tourist attraction. Recently, Andrea Botticelli performed a charity fundraiser inside – for those that could afford the price tag. Not just that, archaeologists are still excavating the site. Which means there are still discoveries to be made… These discoveries may alter or question our current story and line of thought on the life of the Colosseum. My advice? Come and visit the Colosseum and become part of its story. Check out my guided tours and we can discover it together.

Main image by Henry Paul of Unsplash.