Coliseum: The Great Arena

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

In 69 AD, Vespasian was declared Emperor of Rome after a year long civil war. Some of his first acts as the new ruler were to rebuild parts of Rome damaged during the hostilities. One of the projects that he started was the construction of an immense stadium. The Flavian Amphitheater, as it was then known, would become the largest public entertainment venue in the Roman Empire and eventually a symbol of the city of Rome itself. For 18 centuries it remained the largest amphitheater in the world. Today we call this zenith of Roman architecture and engineering the Coliseum.

In 64 AD under the Emperor Nero, the city of Rome had suffered a devastating fire. Rumors had it that Nero had started the fire himself in order to clear land for his new palace and gardens. Later it was in this garden area, known as the Domus Aurea, that Vespasian decided to build the Coliseum. The new Emperor wanted to show that he was returning some of the land Nero had acquired for himself back to public use.


Seven Quick Facts
Seating capacity: 50,000 - 55,000
Exterior Size: 615 long (187m), 510 feet wide (155m) and 159 feet high (49m)
Constructed from: 72 AD to 80 AD
Function: Stadium for Roman spectacles , mainly gladiatorial games and hunts.
Built by: Emperors Vespasian and Titus.
Made of: Travertine limestone with brick and concrete in some sections.
Other: Largest amphitheater in the world for 18 centuries.

Construction on the site started in 72 AD when an artificial lake in the former pleasure garden was filled in. The shape of the structure was laid out as a huge ellipse measuring 615 long (187m) and 510 feet wide (155m) on a foundation 40 feet (12m) deep. The exterior walls, constructed of blocks of travertine limestone, rose in three layers (known as arcades) composed of arches flanked by columns. Each level used a different type of column: Doric on the ground level, Ionic on the second level and Corinthian on the third level. After Vespasian died in 79 AD, his son, the Emperor Titus, added a fourth level consisting of an attic that had no arches but small rectangular windows instead. Corinthian pilasters (a low relief, square-shaped column) were used in the facade on the fourth level. This final section pushed the height of the stadium up to 159 feet (49m).

Below the floor of the arena (which measured 157 by 272 feet - 48m by 83m) was a two level basement area known as the hypogeum. It was here that people and animals would wait before being brought out into the performance area. There were at least eighty vertical shafts that provided access from the hypogeum to the surface using a surprising array of advanced hydraulic-powered machinery. This allowed people, animals and scenery to be lifted by elevator to the floor of the Coliseum. Hinged ramps were also used for large animals like elephants. The roof of the hypogeum was made of timber and on top of that was laid a layer of sand (in fact the word for sand in Latin is arena) that made up the floor of the Coliseum.

Part of the floor of the arena had been restored, but the chambers that made up the hypogeum can still clearly be seen. (Photo by Bjarki Sigursveinsson and released to public domain)

The hypogeum had underground access to several of the surrounding buildings. This permitted the Emperor and other dignitaries to come and go without mixing with the crowd. There were also underground tunnels that ran to the gladiators' barracks and the nearby stables.


The seating arrangements in the stadium represented the stratified organization of Roman society. The Emperor had a lavish box for himself and his guests next to the stadium floor. The other seats next to the floor around the sides of the arena were given over to senators. Behind them was a class of nobles known as the equestrians. The next level back was for ordinary Roman citizens known as plebeians (the richer ones got to sit closer in a section called the immum while the poorer ones were back in an area known as the summum). Up in the attic was a section called the maenianum secundum in legneis where the common poor, slaves and women could stand or sit on steep wooden benches. At the very top of the structure over the attic was a large awning called the velarium which could be deployed over the seats to keep the sun off the throng.

Some ancient documents say that the Coliseum could accommodate a crowd of 87,000 people. Modern estimates, however, have put that figure between 50,000 and 55,000. In any case, with such large crowds the ancient designers faced some of the same problems that architects of modern stadiums do: the passageways had to be large and numerous enough to quickly evacuate the building in an emergency. The Coliseum had eighty entrances/exits at the ground level of the structure for this purpose. Four of these were reserved for the elite, while the rest were used for ordinary spectators. Pieces of pottery with the seat locations written on them were used for tickets.

This diagram shows a cross-section of the Coliseum's seating.

The original name of the structure was the Flavian Amphitheater as Flavius was the family name of both Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus. The name Coliseum probably came from a colossal statue of Nero that stood near the building. After Nero's reign, later emperors changed the head of the sculpture to make it appear as the god Apollo. It is thought that eventually the colossus name became associated with the amphitheater and stuck even after the statue itself was destroyed around the 5th century AD.


Perhaps the most popular games at the Coliseum were gladiatorial bouts. Gladiators were armed fighters who would often battle to the death for the entertainment of the crowd. Animal hunts, known as venatio, were also popular. These were often done with elaborate scenery to mimic a natural environment. Many beasts, imported from places like Africa and the Middle East, were used in the show. Large numbers of lions, tigers, bears, rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, elephants, giraffes and crocodiles were all slaughtered in the stadium. It is said that when the Emperor Trajan hosted bouts at the Coliseum to celebrate his victories in Dacia in 107 AD he used 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators.

Gladiators were usually convicted criminals or prisoners of war. They were given special training in the martial arts at gladiator schools owned by wealthy Romans. Though most died in the arena, a few extremely successful ones who survived long enough became popular heroes and lived to retire.

The Roman crowd had an appetite for cruel entertainment and the sand of the arena floor was often soaked with blood from these gory spectacles. In addition to fights to the death and the hunting of exotic animals, the arena was also used for simple executions of prisoners or undesirables. They might be killed by the sword, shot with arrows or thrown to hungry lions.

Gladiators salute the Emperor in the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Note the velarium in the background.

According to ancient records the floor of the Coliseum could also be flooded so that navalia proelia (simulated sea battles) could be done before the audience. While water would have easily been available for such a display from Rome's aqueducts, it isn't clear to modern archeologists how the floor of the stadium could have been waterproofed with the hypogeum below. Some have suggested either these sea battles were actually performed at a different location or were done in the early years of the stadium before the hypogeum was built.

There is a long tradition that early Christian believers were martyred in large numbers on the floor of the Coliseum, but historical research suggests this actually occurred instead at the Circus Flaminius near the Tiber River. In the Middle Ages the Coliseum was not considered a sacred site by Christians, which would have been expected if martyrs had been killed at that location. The tradition identifying the Coliseum as a location of martyrdom appeared only in the 16th and 17th centuries, over a thousand years after such incidents might have happened.

Last of the Games

In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and moved his capital to Constantinople. The city of Rome went through a slow decline after that with the gladiatorial games ending in 404. For a while the building served as a church and later was fortified as a castle. As time passed it was abandoned as earthquakes toppled about half of the structure's outer wall. The remains acted as a quarry and much of the travertine stone was recycled into other buildings. In 1744 the Pope Benedict XIV put an end to this practice as he saw the site as a sacred location.

The Coliseum still stands in the heart of Rome today. Even though a third of its original structure has fallen, the building is still overwhelmingly impressive and thousands of visitors tour the ancient stadium each year and marvel at its grandeur.

Because much of the outer wall of the Coliseum has collapsed, only about two-thirds of its original structure still stands. (Photo by ScubaBeer licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Copyright 2012 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.