“The Roman People,” wrote the satirist Juvenal in the first few decades of the second century CE, “once used to rule…but now they wish for two things only: Bread and Games.” And the Roman people had been amply provided with both: the frumentationes (free distribution of grain to between 200,000 to 300,000 members of the plebs) had been going on since the beginning of the Republic, and magnificent buildings and sites such as the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus offered entertainment many times a year. The emperors supplied the grain, the games, and the impressive buildings, aware of the efficiency of these means of social control.
The Roman Coliseum was built in less than 10 years. Planning was begun in 69 CE, after the death of Nero in 68, and finished in 80 CE, under the reign of Titus, one of the sons of the popular Emperor (Titus Flavius) Vespasianus, who died a year before its inauguration. The construction was paid for by the spoils of the Judaic war, which provided much gold and many captives, who were sold as slaves. The poet Martial, alive at the time, praised the monument and made clear that from its planning stages throughout its execution, the Coliseum was always meant to rival the other seven wonders of the world, such as the Pyramids or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Coins were struck that carried its image. It was known as the “Flavian amphitheater” until the 8th century CE, when its current name gradually came into use. It was called “the colossus” after the giant 100-foot-tall statue of Nero that had been placed beside it, Nero’s head having been replaced with the head of Apollo. The Coliseum was built on the site of Nero’s Golden House, more precisely, on the site of his private lake. Nero had confiscated this land for his own use after the great fire of Rome in 64 CE, and by returning it to the people, Vespasianus gained enormous popularity.
The inaugural festivities lasted 100 days and involved gladiatorial games and mock hunts (venationes), which called for tigers, elephants, lions, antelopes, cranes, and many other animals. In one day, 5,000 animals and men are said to have been killed. Some events were reenactments of myths: for instance, Orpheus, supposedly calming wild animals with his music, was torn limb from limb by a wild bear.
The normal course of events would be a pompa, or procession, led by the sponsor of the event, followed by the animals, gladiators, and criminals with placards around their necks announcing their crimes. The pompa gave spectators the opportunity to place bets on the competitors. Once in the arena, hunts and executions of criminals by wild animals would be first, followed during lunchtime by some more executions and some less bloody performances, for instance, clowns and jugglers, and then the main gladiator contests in the afternoon. The sponsor or the public would decide on the fate of the defeated gladiators. The dead would be carried out of the arena through a special gate by someone dressed up as the god of death (Pluto), or Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. The winner would receive a crown, a cash prize, and other gifts. Many gladiators had fans and were considered “stars,” in the modern sense of the word. Gladiators would specialize in different weapons and gear and sometimes would be (mis)matched against each other or against animals for greater excitement. Over time, expenses related to putting on shows rose so high that several laws were enacted in an attempt to keep costs down. A list from the 4th century CE indicates the maximum amounts that could be charged for imported animals, such as lions, ostriches, lionesses, leopards, deer, wild boars, and wild asses. Crocodiles, rhinoceroses, monkeys, big dogs, and hippopotamuses were also popular.
The gladiatorial contests are believed to have originated in funeral games in the Campania, an area near Rome. At the time of the inauguration of the Coliseum, Rome is calculated to have had about 1 million inhabitants. The Romans themselves knew that the munera (duties, or obligations) were blood sports to appease the spirits (Manes) of the underworld. They believed that originally slaves or captives would have been sacrificed on the tombs of important men, and that over time this practice developed into contests, always ending in killing. The Coliseum was a permanent place to stage such events, which during the 2nd century BCE became detached from funerals and turned into secular staged shows to entertain (and buy) the masses. The games spread from Rome all over the conquered world: Permanent buildings or amphitheaters, also called spectacula because they allowed unimpeded views, are found in France, England, Germany, Spain, and North Africa. Already existing theaters in the Middle East were adapted to accommodate gladiatorial games and executions.
Most amphitheaters are elliptical in shape, to allow for better viewing, as the architect Vitruvius had already suggested in his De Architectura. The Roman Coliseum is believed to have had a capacity of 50,000 to 75,000 spectators. For comparison, the Circus Maximus, where horse races were held, could accommodate up to 250,000. The center part where the action takes place is called the arena (or sand), and the tiers where the public is seated are called the cavea. The area underneath the arena is hollow, and contained carceres, or cages, for wild animals, tunnels, and other rooms and areas, which allowed quick changes in the scenery by means of pulleys and lifts. Complex plumbing and draining systems characterize all amphitheaters. The multiple entrances and exits were clearly marked, as were the seats, so that spectators of different class and status need never mingle. The emperor, the nobility, and ruling class had the better seats lower down, and the higher up the seat, the less important the spectator. Thus, the seating in the Coliseum reflected a virtual microcosmos of Rome, enforcing group allegiance by the joint witnessing of executions and the transgression of social laws, such as killing for pleasure. An awning covered most of the audience against the sun, since games would last all day; it was operated by experienced sailors.
Many earthquakes and fires damaged the Coliseum over time; repairs were undertaken occasionally. The last gladiatorial games took place during the 5th century; the venations, or hunting games, stopped about 60 years later. It is thought that it was the high expense of giving games, rather than moral beliefs, that put an end to these events. In addition, foreign invasions, lightning, plagues, famines, and general population decline—only a few tens of thousand inhabitants occupied Rome in the 6th century CE—accelerated decay. The valley of the Coliseum now lay outside the city limits. The building was variously used as a quarry, as a thoroughfare between the valleys of Rome, as stables, refuge for criminals, storage area, and a fortification for different noble families. In the 14th century, all knowledge of its previous use had been lost, although it continued to symbolize Roman (pagan) power, and was believed to be a place where evil spirits and ghosts gathered. No efforts to protect the structure were made, and quarrying continued. Some archeological work was undertaken in the 15th century, and old channels were identified. At the beginning of the 18th century, Pope Clement XI planned to have a church built inside the Coliseum in honor of the martyrs, which Christians erroneously believed to have been sacrificed there. This belief saved the Coliseum from further destruction. During the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous restorations were undertaken; nevertheless, during World War II, it was used as a shelter and weapons depository for German paratroopers. During the last three decades of the 20th century, further archeological investigation was undertaken; the building is now under control of the Office of Archeological Superintendence of the city of Rome. Approximately 3 million people visit per year.
- Gabucci, A. (Ed.). (2001). The Colosseum (M. Becker, Trans.). Los Angeles: Getty Museum.
- Quennell, P., et al. (Eds.). (1971). The Colosseum. New York: Newsweek.