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Il Colosseo as the Romans refer to it began life as the Flavian Amphitheater, an enormous elliptical stadium capable of seating 50,000 spectators within its six acre domain.
During the 1st century AD, and for hundreds of years thereafter, the Colosseum was host to grisly spectacles of human-human and human-animal combat. Slight evidence of those activities remains among the ruins, chiefly the underground vaults and tunnels that served as storage and entrances for the combatants.
Though the building has suffered repeated fire and earthquake damage over the centuries, remnants of its ancient glory can be seen in numerous places.
Looking over the huge arena from atop its 48m (157ft) height, it isn’t difficult to imagine the show below as if it had happened only yesterday. True, the red brick arches are crumbling and the slaves and lions are long gone. But this popular Roman site remains alive with the ghosts of battles past and the many tourists in its present.
The seats are arranged in layers, almost all of which look out over the many levels of arch upon arch surrounding this vast expanse. Sitting in one, a visitor can almost hear the roar of the crowd as the Emperor’s retinue enters through one of the four entrances used solely by them. The other 76 were for the average Roman citizen.
Opening in 80 AD after eight years of labor by 15,000 slaves and engineers, the Colosseum gained its now-common name from a 40m (130ft) nearby statue, the Colossus. Thought to have once had Nero’s likeness, the statue displayed the face of a succession of Roman emperor’s down the years. Evidence of the base of the bronze giant can still be seen between the Colosseum and the Temple of Roma and Venus not far away.
For 100 days after its debut, the arena was host to celebrations both noble and barbarian (to modern eyes). Fights to the death among enslaved gladiators, Roman versions of lion taming, considerably harsher than modern circus acts and many other displays of violence were common fare.
Seating was arranged by rank – the Emperor had a box near the base and women who were not part of the Royal party were relegated to the upper levels. But even from there it would not have been too difficult to see the results of the combat. Even from that height it would not have been to hard to see rhinos, hippos and elephants who were used in the ‘shows’ along with the more well-known lions and tigers.
The masts and velarium – a canopy covering part the large area to provide shade – have disappeared, long ago succumbing to the changes of the ages. But the immense columns and walls remain, ranging from Doric on the first story, to Ionic on the second, finishing with Corinthian on the third.
Visitors will marvel at the rest of the architecture, as well, that even today forms the basis of arenas around the world. It was one of the first, and certainly the largest and most well-known, to be free-standing. Most prior examples had been dug out of a hillside, of which many exist in and near Rome.
No visit to Rome is complete with a tour of the Colosseum.