~ miscellaneous ~

- 3a -
The Colosseum

featured on the 5 Eurocents coin

Quamdiu stabit Colyseus stabit et Roma.
Cum cadet Colyseus cadet et Roma.
Cum cadet Roma cadet et mundus.

     [profecy by the Venerable Bede, c. AD 700]

"As long as the Colosseum stands, Rome will stand.
When the Colosseum collapses, Rome will collapse.
When Rome collapses, the world will collapse."

The Colosseum (or Coliseum, alternative spelling) is one of the largest surviving relics of the Roman civilization, and the most famous symbol of the city. It stands south of the Roman Forum, on a spot surrounded by three of Rome's famous seven hills: the Palatine, the Esquiline and the Coelian. It was originally known as the Flavian Amphiteatre, after the family name of emperor Vespasian (in Latin, Titus Flavius Vespasianus), who started the works for its making in AD 72. He was so eager to finish it that in year 79, fearing that he would soon die, he officially opened the arena, despite the works were still in progress; only the second order of archways had been built. It was almost completed under the short reign of his elder son Titus (81), who called the second famous opening that lasted one hundred days. His other son, Domitian (who reigned from 81 to 96), finished the works and had the set of tunnels below the arena built.
Only a few years earlier, the ground where the Colosseum stands was occupied by an artificial pond, which belonged to the vast gardens of the Domus Aurea (Golden House) of emperor Nero; after his death (68), most parts of the fabulous mansion were taken down, to cancel any trace of his memory, and also the pond was filled up and reused as a site for a public building. In this way, the wide area that Nero had made private was given back to the citizens.

emperor Vespasian (AD 71 - 81)

The outer side of the Colosseum consists of three orders or levels, each one with 80 arches, and a fourth level or attic with 240 small windows. Around the first three levels the arches alternate with columns, whose capitols are carved according to the three classic architecture styles, namely (from the bottom) Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian.

capitols from the three orders of the Colosseum: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian
The arches of the ground level acted as individual gates to the arena; Roman numberals running from I (one) to LXXX (eighty) are inscribed above each of them.

Instead the archways of the second and third level were once occupied by statues, none of which is still in place; some fragments of one of these statues have been recently (2008) found during an excavation outside the southern end of the amphitheatre.

one of the vomitoria (radial corridors)

Inside the building runs a complex system of staircases, concentric corridors and radial corridors (vomitoria), large enough to let the huge crowd of spectators enter and exit the Colosseum without getting jammed.

← cross section model of the Colosseum (from the Museum of Roman Civilization)

In those days the size of the amphitheatre must have looked gigantic compared to other buildings of the time: it measures 188 metres in length and 156 metres in width, with a perimeter of 527 metres. Its shape is that of a regular oval: unlike theatres, amphitheatres (from the Greek αμφι amphi ("all around") and θέατρον theatron ("theatre"), had seats for the public surrounding the whole arena.

The present name of the amphitheatre came into use during the early Middle Ages (the aforesaid prophecy by the Venerable Bede is probably the earliest known example), likely due to an enormous statue, i.e. a colossus, that measured about 35 m (115 ft) in hight. Initially, it stood on the Velia Hill, opposite the Colosseum, at the end of the Roman Forum; it was made of gilded bronze and it featured emperor Nero, who had it made for himself. After the infamous emperor's death, his Golden House was destroyed, and the face of the colossus was replaced with that of god Apollo. Then, around AD 120, emperor Hadrian had it moved from its original position to the open space by the northern end of the amphiteathre; to drag the heavy statue 24 elephants were employed. Despite its size, no trace of the colossus is left today, nor any of its parts has ever been found. Only the spot on which it once stood is now marked by a large square pedestal.
the size of the Colosseum

Some maintain that the word Colosseum might come from the Collis Iseum, the name given to the tip of the Esquiline Hill where the largest among the temples in Rome dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis once stood; this cult was very popular during the early imperial age, especially among the high society, and among its followers were even members of the imperial family. According to a further curious theory, the name Colosseum might even be the corruption of Colys eum? ("do you worship him?"), a question that was part of a satanic ritual. Actually, up to the late Renaissance age, the Colosseum used to be a chosen site for performing stealthily pagan rituals and black magic practises during night-time.

Inside, the public was seated in different sectors (maeniana), according to social status: the higher was the rank, the closer to the arena were the seats. The best sector was the podium, where the senators sat, and the seats were entirely made of marble (not of bricks, as the upper ones). There were three ranks of senators, illustres, spectabiles and clarissimi, in decreasing order; each had its own sector, and on the seats the names of the holders were carved. When one of them died, or was promoted to a higher rank, the name was erased, and a new one was carved. The ones that are now still readable, among traces of multiple erasures, belonged to the last magistrates before the amphitatre was abandoned.
At the southern end of the Colosseum, in the center of the podium, in a privileged position, was the imperial box. But at the same level was also the box reserved for the Vestals.

The next sector was the maenianum primum, at the level of the upper part of the first order of arches, for the knights (equites). Then came the maenianum secundum, divided into two levels: the lower one (imum) corresponding to the second order of arches, was for the wealthy patricians, while the upper one (summum), matching the upper part of the third order of arches, was for the plebeians. Under the reign of Domitian, at the level of the attic, wooden seats were added (maenianum summum in ligneis) for women, children, and slaves. Men and women who attended public shows had been separated by Octavian Augustus, to avoid that these events may turn merely into a pretext for romantic meetings (what they often did).

In the Colosseum three main kinds of show took place, called Munera, Venationes and Naumachiae.
Munera: these were the main kind of tournament, in which gladiators fought one against the other; the winner of a match challenged the winner of another match, and so on until only one among many competitors was the winner. Being munera the most cherished among the shows held in the amphitheatre, they took place in the afternoon as the clue event of the day. The gladiators were in most cases enslaved war prisoners, who fought for the prime purpose of earning enough money to buy their freedom back from their owners. The name 'gladiator' comes from the gladius, i.e. a short pointed sword with two blades that some of them used. They were divided into several categories, each of which had its own fighting attitude, according to their physical build, the weapons they wielded and the protections they wore. Furthermore, not all categories existed at the same time, as some of them developed from earlier schemes.
replica of a Roman gladius
The following were the most common types of gladiators.

helmet worn by the Murmillones,
decorated with mythological themes
  • The Secutores ("chasers") wore a globe-shaped helmet, shin guards and carried a rounded shield with his left arm, while the right arm was padded and in the right hand carried a sword called sica, even shorter than a gladius.
  • The Hoplomachi (literally, "those who fight like the Oplites", Greek heavy infantry soldiers) wore a helmet, shin guards and carried a shield and a short sword with their left arm, while the right arm was padded and held a spear.
  • The Thraces ("Thracians") were fighters of small physical build who wore a leather corset, a helmet decorated with a griffon or with feathers, shin guards, and carried a curved sica and a round shield.
  • The Murmillones or Mirmillones wore a large helmet with a grill to protect the face, whose sides were decorated with fish called mormylos and other mythological scenes related to the sea. They also wore shin guards and held a typical gladius and a long rectangular shield. Murmillones were usually fighters with a stout build.
  • The Retiarii ("net carriers") had no protection except a metal guard on their left arm, ending with a shoulder plaque that guarded their neck; they had a net, a trident and a dagger with a large blade (pugium); these weapons mimicked the equipment of a fisherman, likely in connection with the cult of Neptune, the god of all seas.
  • Several other categories are mentioned by literary sources, but they were less common.
    Usually specific categories fought one against the other: the Retiarii were matched against the Secutores or the Hoplomachi, while the fast Thraces fought against the Murmillones, whose heavy equipment made rather slow.
    Fights very often ended with the death of the loser: a gladiator could die killed by his opponent, but if he was floored still alive, the last word was left to the emperor, who usually attended the tournament. If in his own opinion (sometimes partly influenced by the roaring crowd) the loser had fought bravely, he would spare the gladiator's life; otherwise he would have him definitively killed on the spot by the winner (gladiators also received a specific training on how to kill a floored opponent without hesitation).

    mosaic featuring a retiarius (left) attacking a secutor with his trident →
    In addition, each emperor had his own sympathies for one category or another. For instance, Titus was particularly fond of Thraces, while his brother Domitian fancied the Hoplomachi. Instead nobody partied for the Retiarii, who were held in lesser consideration, basically because they wore no helmet and their net was also looked at as 'less manly' than a sword.

    the code of signs that decided the fate of the loser
    A common belief is that the signal code with which the emperor decided the fate of the losing fighter from his box was a thumb upward to spare his life and downward for having him killed by the winner; this is often seen in the movies, but it is fictional. The scanty literary sources that mention these signs suggest that the thumb held either upward or horizontally (pollex versus) meant death, as if representing a drawn sword. Instead a pollex pressus sign (thumb pressed against the palm of the hand by the four fingers) mimicked a sheathed sword, thus the loser had his life spared.

    Nowadays this kind of entertainment would be considered unacceptable for its brutality, but this was also the opinion of a number of cultured Romans of the time. However, the large majority of the people really enjoyed such gruesome shows.

    Venationes ("hunts"): another blood-shedding type of event consisted in hunting and killing wild and exotic animals, such as elephants, crocodiles, lions, tigers, buffalos, zebras, hippos, camels, ostriches, and several other species, taken to Rome in great quantity for this purpose, from the empire's territories in northern Africa and the Middle East.
    mosaic featuring different stages of a hunt show and a damnatio ad bestias

    Hunts were usually held in the morning hours, as an opening show, and took place in an exotic setting that recreated the wildlife environment, obtained by arranging painted backgrounds all around the arena. Some bones of these animals were found in the sewage system that runs below the arena. The fighters who took part to hunts only used spears, as arrows would have been dangerous for the public; they were called bestiarii and were looked down at by the real gladiators. They too, though, shared the same social rank.
    The public's safety was guaranteed by a complex protection system. A net was hung all around the arena, with elephant tusks acting as spikes; also a series of revolving rolls set horizontally along the arena's boundary prevented the animals from climbing. Lastly, the narrow space between the podium and the arena was watched over by a number of bowmen.
    During the events for the second official opening of the Colosseum, decreed by Titus, which according to historical sources lasted 100 days, some 5,000 wild animals were killed. This also happened every time games were held for special events, such as a military victory, or an important anniversary. Several emperors fancied taking part personally to hunts, either using arrows from the imperial box or even stepping into the arena themselves, as emperor Commodus did, being particularly fond of both munera and venationes, while his father Marcus Aurelius, known as the 'philospher emperor', completely disregarded such violent shows.

    Sometimes the hunts ended with the damnatio ad bestias, i.e. "execution by wild animals", a particularly cruel form of death inflicted for serious crimes such as murder, arson, or sacrilege (the many early Christians who refused to worship Roman gods were prosecuted under the latter offence). Those to be killed were tied to posts and hungry wild animals such as lions or leopards were then set free in front of them. This part of the show usually took place at lunch time, before the munera.

    Naumachiae: these were naval battles, using real ships, a form of entertainment that required the flooding of the arena. After the making of the underground tunnels, by the time of Domitian, the Colosseum stopped hosting naumachiae, because the structure was no longer suitable (literary sources no longer mention them over the following years).
    However, naumachiae took place also in other smaller stadiums built on purpose, as this peculiar entertainment was enjoyed by many emperors, in particular by Octavian Augustus.

    The public entered the building from the eighty numbered gates, which gave access to huge corridors called vomitoria leading inside; 64 of them were for the common people and 12 of them were for senators. The emperor sat in the imperial box, which could be reached directly from the outside by means of a special gallery.

    the Colosseum in its original setting

    gate marked with number 48
    The spectators had what today would be called a card, or pass, consisting of a badge with a symbol in relief, similar to the ones shown below, whose design differed according to the entrance and to the location of one's seat.
    The lower was the position, i.e. the closer to the arena the spectator sat, the higher was his social rank. Women too were admitted to the shows, but they were confined to the uppermost ring, at the level of the attic. The Colosseum could hold up to about 70,000 spectators, most of which seated. The seats were made of wood and bricks, except the ones of the imperial box, that were in marble.
    access badges for shows

    At the very top of the Colosseum, a system of sails (or curtains), ropes and pulleys, called the velarium, was operated by soldiers belonging to a specific military navy corps. The velarium could be drawn over the public, to protect the people from either rain or a long exposure to the hot summer sun. The ropes were tied to a number of large stone blocks set all around the amphitheatre, a few of which are still visible.

    The arena's floor was made of wooden planks and then covered with sand. Further down, in the basement, was a complex system of galleries and chambers, whose remains can be seen today, since the floor has completely disappeared. They were used as deposits for weapons, tools and scenery.
    An underground gallery connected the Colosseum to the nearby Ludus Magnus, a training school for gladiators, shaped as a small oval arena, whose remains are still extant by the southern end of the amphiteatre.

    Also wild animals were kept in the basement in cages; at the right time, they were led onto the arena's floor either along slopes or by using elevators.

    The gladiator fights were stopped in year 404 by emperor Honorius, who was a fervent Christian. About two decades later, Valentinianus III lifted the ban, but the same emperor stopped the gladiator games once again in 438. Instead the animal hunts came to an end about one century later. Therefore, by the turn of the Middle Ages the Colosseum was abandoned, and soon fell into a state of disrepair.

    remains of the Ludus Magnus

    Year after year, century after century, the arena became a huge swamp, filled with mud. Several marble fragments were taken away, either used for producing lime by burning them in small furnaces, or recycled as building material.
    Also the many iron hinges that held together the stone blocks were removed and melted for other purposes: today the large holes they left in the blocks are clearly visible by the intersections (picture below); a few surfaces still appear slightly blackened, because in order to extract the hinge, the metal was often heated with fire, so that it would expand and enlarge the hole, making the extraction easier, once the metal had cooled down and shrunk to its original size.

    many holes are left in place of the removed hinges
    Then, during the 11th century, the powerful Frangipane family turned what was left of the Colosseum into their private stronghold, which included, among other remains, also the nearby arch of Titus. The fortress reached in height the second order of arches; today no trace of it is left.

    About 200 years later it became the property of another powerful family, the Annibaldi, and finally it ended up in the hands of the popes. By that time, the Colosseum fell once again into oblivion.
    Having been damaged by some earthquakes earthquakes that struck Rome particularly during the 14th century, several of its fallen blocks were left lying on the ground. In time, many of them were taken away and reused in several projects in other parts of the city.

    Between the late 16th and the early 17th centuries (the Age of Counter-Reformation), the interest of the popes for the Colosseum was revived by the idea that the arena had been the site of martyrdom for many Christians. The place was therefore cleared from the many thieves and prostitutes, who had chosen these ruins as their shelter, and closed by means of gates. A number of Christian symbols were set among the ancient remains, and a small church was built inside.
    When in 1870 the Papal State fell, the monument underwent a full restoration campaign; the whole central area had to be cleared of trees and wild vegetation that had been growing over the arena for over one thousand years, and anything not consistent with the original structure, including the small church, were removed. During the excavations, the underground galleries were found.
    Among the curious findings unearthed during the campaign are several fruit stones, thrown away by spectators who had nibbled on peaches and olives during an event, about two thousand years ago.

    Since year 2000, the Colosseum has also been used as a lavish setting for some shows and concerts (picture on the left), one thousand years after the last public event held in it.

    the arena being arranged for a play in year 2000

    Unfortunately, air pollution and water infiltrations have increasingly threatened the steadiness of its structures, so that a major restoration campaign is now in progress (2014), whose end has been scheduled for March 2016.