How Did The Colosseum Become A Paragon of Roman Architecture?

Alice Roberts

4 mins

28 Oct 2019

In AD 70, Emperor Vespasian had money to spend: the sack of the Second Temple of Jerusalem had been a lucrative business. Two years later, he ordered an enormous amphitheatre to be built in the heart of Rome.

The site for such a venture was the site of the Domus Aurea, the late Emperor Nero’s decedent pleasure palace. This was a symbolic gesture, as Vespasian sought to distance himself from the carnage of Nero’s tyrannical rule. Instead, he built a palace for the people’s entertainment, an ‘Amphitheatre Novum’, which was completed in the year of the Emperor’s death (AD 79).

Emperor Vespasian ordered the Colosseum to be built on the site of Nero’s pleasure palace. Image source: user:shakko / CC BY-SA 3.0.

A great statue which had stood outside Nero’s palace, named the Colossus of Nero, gave the stadium its name. The sack of the temple at Jerusalem is commemorated in a plaque which read:

‘the emperor Vespasian ordered this new amphitheatre to be erected from his general’s share of the booty’.

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A marvel of Roman engineering

The Colosseum’s design consisted of three superimposed arcades, made of brick-faced concrete. The lowest was built in the Doric order, the middle in the Ionian, and the uppermost in the Corinthian – reflecting the progression of orders in Roman architecture.

A cross-section of the Colosseum’s design.

The plan of the Colosseum is an ellipse, measuring 156 metres wide and 188 metres long. When in use, it could accommodate 60,000 ticketed spectators on 50 rows of seating, who entered through one of 80 gates. ‘VIP boxes’ with the best views were provided at the north and south ends for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins.

The seating was then allocated according to wealth and class. Marble seating was provided for citizens and nobles, who would have brought their own cushions.  Some areas were sectioned off for specific groups: boys with their tutors, soldiers on leave, foreign dignitaries, scribes, heralds and priests.

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To protect the spectators from the blistering Italian sun, an awning, the velarium, was installed to provide shade.The motto of panem et cirenses, meaning ‘bread and circuses’, was adopted for many centuries. It summarised why the Colosseum was so popular – people could go to be fed, and also be entertained.

Sea battles and gruesome executions

The entertainment in the arena was extraordinary – albeit often sickeningly gruesome. The inaugural games in AD 80 lasted 100 days, and included gladiatorial contests, sea battle re-enactments and animal hunts. Many of the wild beasts were imported from Africa, and historians have estimated about 10,000 were slain in a single day during some celebrations.

There are records of rhinos, hippos, elephants, giraffes, lions, panthers, leopards, bears, tigers, crocodiles and ostriches fighting in the amphitheatre. When sea battles were re-enacted and the arena was flooded with water, specially trained swimming horses and bulls were brought in for the crowds’ pleasure.

The subterranean tunnels are visible today. Image source: Historiadormundo / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The blood and gore produced the by executions and games was soaked up by a floor covered in a thick layer of sand. Below this, cells, cages and planks could be rearranged to operate pulleys and move the vast pieces of stage machinery.

Vespasian’s younger son, the Emperor Domitian, constructed a hypogeum, a series of subterranean tunnels used to house animals and slaves. To thrill the crowds, they would suddenly enter the arena through trapdoors.

The Colesseum was appreciated as a mighty wonder throughout the Roman era. The Venerable Bede, quoting a prophecy of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims, wrote:

‘While the Coliseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Coliseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall.’

A gladiatorial fight, as imagined in 1872.

A ‘noble ruin’

Gladiatorial games were held in the Colosseum until the 5th century and animal hunts until the 6th century. Since then, it has deteriorated, as it became a free-for-all quarry. The interior was stripped of stone to be used elsewhere. The marble façade was burned to make quicklime. The bronze clamps which held stonework together were pried out the walls, leaving enormous pockmarks.

Some of the worst offenders were the Roman popes and aristocrats, who used the stone for their churches and palaces, including St Peter’s Basilica. As a result of this plunder and several fires and earthquakes, only one third of the original structure still stands.

In 1832, the Colosseum was overgrown and desolate.

Pope Benedict XIV finally stopped the looting in the 18th century, and it was recognised as a sacred spot in light of the thousands of Christians who were slaughtered. Today, the Pope leads the Way of the Cross procession in the Colosseum every Good Friday.

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Charles Dickens wrote passionately about standing alone in the the vast piles of stone:

‘It is no fiction, but plain, sober, honest Truth, to say: so suggestive is it at this hour: that, for a moment -actually in passing in – they who will, may have the whole great pile before them, as it used to be, with thousands of eager faces staring down into the arena, and such a whirl of strife, and blood, and dust, going on there, as no language can describe.

Its solitude, its awful beauty, and its utter desolation, strike upon the stranger, the next moment, like a softened sorrow; and never in his life, perhaps, will he be so moved and overcome by any sight, not immediately connected with his own affections and afflictions.’

Featured Image: Alessandroferri / CC BY-SA 4.0.