The Colosseum was the greatest Roman amphitheater of ancient times. Located in the city of Rome, it became a symbol of Roman power and grandeur—and also of violence. For hundreds of years, the Colosseum presented gladiator* fights, wild animal spectacles, and other types of entertainment. Much of the entertainment was violent and bloody, with thousands of gladiators, slaves, prisoners, and animals killed each year.
Construction of the Colosseum began about A.D. 75 during the reign of the emperor Vespasian. The dedication ceremonies for the amphitheater took place five years later, and it was named the Flavian Amphitheater in honor of the Flavian family of emperors who had supervised its construction. However, it later became known as the Colosseum after a colossal statue of the emperor Nero that stood nearby.
The Colosseum was a marvel of engineering. The oval-shaped building had a massive stone and concrete facade with numerous arches and columns. Its outer walls stood 157 feet high. The central arena, which measured 290 feet by 180 feet, was surrounded by tiers* of seats and standing areas capable of holding from 45,000 to 50,000 people. Arched corridors, ramps, and staircases within the outer walls provided access to the seating areas of the building.
Spectators in the Colosseum were seated according to rank. The lower tiers of seats belonged to public officials and members of the upper classes of society. Above this area were the seats reserved for the middle classes. The lower classes had to climb even higher to reach their seats near the top of the amphitheater. A complex ticketing system controlled the admittance of spectators to the arena and determined the location of their seats. Tickets, which were free, indicated a specific entrance, row, and seat. A canvas awning stretched over the seating areas, providing shade for the spectators on bright sunny days.
* gladiator in ancient Rome, slave or captive who participated in combats that were staged for public entertainment
* tier one of a series of rows arranged one above the other; as in a stadium
The floor of the arena was made of wood and covered with sand. Two levels of rooms and corridors ran beneath the arena floor. Cages in this underground area housed wild animals. An elaborate system of narrow passageways, pulley-drawn elevators, and trap-doors facilitated the safe movement of the animals to the arena. A net was hung around the arena to protect spectators in the front rows. Skilled archers stood by in case they were needed to provide further protection.
Among the most popular entertainments in the Colosseum were gladiator fights and wild animal hunts. Gladiators generally fought to the death. If a fight ended with injury instead of death, the life of the loser could be spared by a signal from the emperor. Gladiators also participated in animal hunts, sometimes in the midst of elaborate settings and scenery. Wild animals fought each other or attacked slaves and criminals, who were thrown into the arena unarmed. For some unusual events, the floor of the arena was flooded using underground pipes, and spectators rooted for staged sea battles or amphibious animal fights.
After the adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire, violent and bloody amusements declined in popularity. As a result, the importance of the Colosseum declined and the building fell into disrepair. The ruins of the Colosseum still stand—an impressive reminder of the past glory of ancient Rome. (See also Games, Greek; Games, Roman.)