The Colosseum, Rome – Icon of the Roman Empire

The Colosseum is a world-famous symbol of Rome. It can seem as full of visitors now as it was in its’ heyday. This was ancient Rome’s top entertainment venue, where capacity crowds would cheer on their favourite gladiators and watch criminals come to grisly deaths.

The building is located in the centre of Rome, next to the Roman Forum. Travertine limestone, marble, volcanic rock, bricks and lime cement were used to build the Colosseum. It is the largest amphitheatre ever built. The massive arena would have held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators.

The Colosseum is listed as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Not only is it Rome’s most popular tourist attraction, but in 2018, it was the most popular attraction in the world, with 7.4 million visitors.

It is one of several similar amphitheatres. Others that still survive are in El Djem in North Africa, Nimes and Arles in France and Verona in Northern Italy.

The Flavian Amphitheatre acquired its better-known name from a nearby statue. The stadium was built in the grounds of the detested Emperor Nero‘s extravagant house. It was built by his successors, Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus. Although Nero’s house was demolished his 30-meter high bronze statue remained. This was remodelled into the likeness of Helios, the Sun God, by the addition of the appropriate solar crown. It was called the “Colossus Solis”.

Colosseum Design

The stadium is a massive ellipse with three arched levels with 80 arches. On top of those another storey with small windows. All the ground floor arches were entrances, numbered to help spectators find their way to their seats. Covered walkways ran behind the tiers. The emperor sat in his box at the north end, while another box at the south end was reserved for the vestal virgins.

Occupying the best seats were the members of the senate. These are raised just far enough above the sand-strewn arena to avoid getting splashed with blood. Although all the sightlines were good, the lowest-ranking spectators at the top (workers, the poor and women) would have been at least 100 meters from the arena.

The Valerium, a huge awning shaded spectators from the sun. This was supported on poles fixed to the upper storey of the building. It was then hoisted into position with ropes which were then anchored to bollards outside the stadium.

The Games

Events often began with animals performing circus tricks. Emperor Domitian had a basement built underneath the arena where animals and gladiators awaited their entrances, Teams of stagehands used winches to hoist lions and tigers through trapdoors so that they could leap dramatically into the heart of the action.

Animals were brought here from as far away as North Africa and the Middle East. The AD 248 games which marked the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Rome saw the death of a host of different animals. These included lions, hippopotamus, elephants, elks and zebras.

After the animals’ circus tricks, gladiators would fight to the death. Gladiators were usually slaves, prisoners or condemned criminals. The majority were men although there were a few female gladiators. When a gladiator was killed, assistants dressed up as the mythical Charon, the ferryman of the dead would carry the body off on a stretcher. Any blood spilt would be raked over by sand, ready for the next bout. Badly wounded gladiators surrendered their fate to the crowd, receiving a thumbs up or down.

Decline and Dismantling

The games petered out in the sixth century and a church was built in the amphitheatre. The arena became a cemetery and people lived and worked in the arcades. In 1349 an earthquake destroyed the south wall, creating a plentiful supply of building stone. The rest of the building was gradually stripped of its fine travertine facings and bronze fittings. Stones plundered from the facade have been used in several palaces, bridges and parts of St Peter’s.

Then in 1749, Pope Benedict XIV declared the arena a sacred site of early Christian Martyrdom. Although there was little evidence to support his assertions it saved the building for posterity. It’s now revered in a different way as an icon of the Roman Empire.

By the 19th Century, the Colosseum was heavily overgrown. The various microclimates in different parts of the ruins had created a habitat for an impressive variety of wildflowers, grasses and herbs. Several botanists catalogued the plants with over 400 different species identified.

Visiting the Colosseum

The Colosseum has its own Metro stop on Line B. Several buses pass by, routes 51, 75, 81, 85, 87, 118 and also the no. 3 tram.

The Stadium always opens at 08:30, closing time varies throughout the year. There are always very long queues for tickets as it is very popular and always busy. If you don’t want to spend your holiday queuing, you can purchase your tickets in advance.

You could go to Palantine Hill and buy a combination ticket at the window there, this rarely has a queue – or visit the official website. The combination ticket includes admission to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Museum and the Roman Forum. This combination ticket is valid for two days, so there’s no need to rush to see all three sites in one day. It’s not possible to buy a ticket only for the Colosseum.

Although this saves you the hassle of queuing for your ticket you’ll still need to go through security, which can move quite slowly.

If you’re out and about in an evening the building is floodlit at night.

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Exploring Italy - Rome, The Colosseum
Exploring Italy – Rome, the Colosseum

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