Before the Colosseum was built, the site was occupied by Emperor Nero’s personal villa (the Domus Aurea), an artificial lake, and a giant statue of himself called the Colossus of Nero. In around AD 72 Emperor Vespasian had the lake drained and started building the Colosseum in its place, turning the hated Emperor Nero’s private land into a place of entertainment for the public. So that was a nice thing of him to do I guess. What was not so great was the use of thousands of captured Jewish slaves in the building process.
Nobody really knows exactly what the Colossus of Nero looked like, but Emperor Vespasian had it altered to resemble Sol, the Roman sun god, and gave it a new name, Colossus Solis. The statue was originally located in a large atrium at the entrance of Nero’s villa. However, Emperor Hadrian had it moved in around AD 121-125 when construction started on the Temple of Venus and Roma. All that’s left for us to see is the huge foundation of the statue in the place Hadrian had it moved to, right next to the Colosseum.
The Romans actually called the Colosseum the Amphiteatrum Flavium, because it was built under the Flavian dynasty, which began with Emperor Vespasian in around AD 69 and ended with his second son Emperor Domitian in AD 96. Their reign was called the Flavian dynasty because their family name was Flavius. Eventually, the amphitheater was nicknamed the Colosseum. One theory is that the nickname for the Colosseum came from the Colossus statue, or it could just be referring to the ginormous size of the Colosseum itself.
Really, when you think about it, the Colosseum was an awful place. Hundreds of thousands of people died here, and possibly over a million animals. It opened officially under the reign of Vespasian’s eldest son, Emperor Titus, in AD 80. He held a 100 day event with gladiator games, where thousands of people and animals were killed.
We were pleasantly surprised when we reached the Colosseum at about 9:30am and there was basically no line at all. There were lots of people inside already, so we must have just missed the early morning lineup. We spent about 2 hours inside just looking around. I found it amazing, but also kind of just as I expected. It’s hard to be surprised by a place when you’ve already seen so many photos of it. Still, it’s definitely well worth visiting!
One interesting fact about the Colosseum is that it had 80 entrances, so I guess that means each archway on the ground was an entrance. There were 76 public entrances and 4 main Grand Entrances. Tickets were free, but entrance still required a ticket, which was a little piece of pottery marked with a seat and tier number, as well as a number indicating which gate to enter through. Where individuals sat was determined by their status, which was made obvious by the clothes they wore. The more important people sat closer to the arena, while the women and plebeians sat in the higher tiers. Previously, I didn’t think the higher tiers would be that bad, but when you get in there and see the distance between the base and the higher levels, you realise why the important people sat on the lower levels. From up high, the people in the arena would have looked like ants and it would have been difficult to see what was going on. The number of people inside the Colosseum would have been far more than the amount of tourists we were in there with, and it was still really noisy with all their chatter, so I imagine that those in the higher tiers wouldn’t have been able to hear much over the chatter of the crowds below either. So their seating plans do sort of make sense after all, even if the way they ranked people doesn’t. The emperor and Vestal Virgins had the best seats, followed by the senators, then the citizens of rank, followed by soldiers and ordinary citizens, with the women and slaves being seated at the back.
The passageways that led to the seats were called vomitoria. From these many passageways, people could easily access their seats and could also quickly exit the Colosseum when the games were finished. So the term had nothing to do with actual vomiting, like I initially thought, but described the rapid exodus of people coming and going through the passageways.
The word arena itself comes from the Latin word for sand. The passages that can be seen when you look down were the underground passages and were originally covered with boards and sand. Pulleys and trap doors were used to lift animals, people, and props into the arena. They say that the area under the arena would have been extremely hot and smelt of blood and excrement, so not a pleasant place to be.
A day of games began with warm up acts, such as animals fighting each other, or people and animals hunting each other. Around lunchtime was the time for public executions, the favourites being spectacles where the execution was turned into a play that ended with the death of the condemned. The gladiators were on in the afternoon. Gladiators were skilled fighters because they were trained in special gladiator schools. The best gladiators were like our celebrities, with lots of fame, fans, and money.
The whole purpose of the Colosseum and the games were to keep the people content with their current rulers and to control the unemployed by keeping them off the streets. Giving the people power over the life of someone else would have been a real thrill for them and gave them something else to focus on instead of being discontent with their rulers. For these reasons, the games were free and food was supplied, sponsored by the emperor and wealthy citizens. The people were kept distracted and appeased through ‘bread and circuses’.
In its day, the Colosseum would have looked so much more glorious than it does now. The outside would have been whiter and brighter than its current soot and dust covered self. Displayed inside were statues of the gods, but it was later used as a quarry, with the materials being used for various palaces and churches around Rome. As we walked around the Colosseum, we saw lots of little holes in the walls, which are apparently from people removing and melting down the iron brackets which held the bigger stones together.
The giant cross on the north side was placed there to remember the early Christians who may or may not have been killed there. Unlike the Circus Maximus and the Circus of Nero, there doesn’t seem to be historical evidence proving that Christians actually were murdered in great numbers here, but the cross is still there anyway. The Emperor’s Box is believed to have been situated in the place where the cross stands, while the Vestal Virgins had a box on the south side, directly opposite.
The main East Gate known as the Porta Sanavivaria (the Gate of Life) was where gladiators entered and where successful gladiators exited. It was apparently connected to a tunnel from the gladiator school. The main West Gate known as the Libitinarian Gate (the Gate of Death) named after the goddess of funerals, was where dead animals and gladiators were carried out. This was connected a room underneath where the armour and weapons would be taken from the body of the dead gladiator and given to his lanista, the man responsible for training him and who made money through renting him out.
There’s so many more interesting things about the Colosseum, but I figure most of you aren’t as interested as I am, so I’ll stop here…
…except for one more thing. In contrast to all the death that originally happened here, the Colosseum has been used as a symbol against capital punishment and its lights at night apparently change colour from white to gold whenever a death sentence is revoked or the death penalty is abolished anywhere in the world. You’ve gotta be impressed with the way Italy has taken something terrible and turned it around into something great!
Also, around 200 cats live there. We saw one. Yes, we did take photos of it. I won’t upload them though because I have limited storage space and I’m sure you all know what a cat looks like.