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The Flavian Amphitheatre, Colosseum (Amphitheatrum Flavium, Colosseum) is enormous bulding in round shape intended for the Games, which included wrestling, gladiators duels, fights with wild animals and naval battles so called naumachiae. According to the tradition Christians were murdered there, what was commemorated by a cross within building. This thesis is currently being questioned by some part of scientists.

Construction of Colosseum was started roughly in 70 or 72 CE. by the order of the founder of the Flavian dynasty an Emperor Vespasian, who gave command to rise this building in place of artificial lake surrounded Domus Aurea (“Golden House”) of Emperor Nero. Vespasian, who came to power through military putsh wanted to earn a favor of Roman people, which was neccesary for consolidation of acquired authority. As a famous commander, victor and tamer of Jewish uprising in Palestine, Emperor possessed huge financial resources and a big amount of prisoners of war and slaves. The Emperor however had passed away before the amphitheatre was opened.

In many publications it is said, that audience in Colosseum was able to leave the place within 5 – 6 minutes. It’s not really close to the truth. Only viewers, who occupied medium and bottom rows had this possibility. People from upper rows had to go through the corridor with sloping ceiling, which at most was approx. 2, 2 m high. This fact was real obstacle in going out. Probably this solution was to enable patricias quick exit from the building without having a contact with plebeians.

An inauguration of Colosseum was conducted by the Emperor Titus, who organised games lasting continuously for one hundred days. In the arena few thousands animals were killed, roughly nine hundreds of gladiators were fighting, morover naval battle took place. This object had been built for more than 10 years (from approx. 70 to the beginngs of the 80’s CE).

This building object was damaged many times. In 217 CE Colosseum was seriously damaged due to a fire, which according to the report of Cassius Dion was caused by lightning. A fire destroyed higher wooden floors in amphitheatre, The building was not renovated completely until 240 CE. Futher repairs took place in 250 (or 252) CE and then in 320 CE. Some survived inscriptions on several building’s elements suggest, that renovation was continued also during a period of the late empire. Renovations such as these were also carried out during the reign of Emperors Theodosius the Third and Valentinian the Second (probably because of earthquake in 443 CE). Futher works were conducted in 484 and 508 CE after conquering Rome by barbarians.

The building

Colosseum from the inside.
Autor: Paolo Costa Baldi | Licencja: GFDL/CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The amphitheatre was huge. Its longer axis is 187, 75 meters long and shorter one is 155, 6 meters. Then the height is around 50 meters. Circuit is 524 meters, the surface of the arena is 3600 square meters. Colosseum consisted of the arena, which was wooden floor covered with sand (the name was taken from Latin word harena, which meant “sand”). The arena was exceptionally large (86 by 54 meters) and well visible from each place of the amphitheatre.
An arena covered sophisticated underground structure called hypogeum (literally “underground”). Not much from the original arena survived to our times, but hypogeum is still visible. Construction consisted of two levels interlacedby many tunnels and passages. Also there some cages were placed in which gladiators and animals were kept. They entered the arena with special entrances. There existed some particular platforms (hegmata), which allowed to let big animals (like elephants) get into arena. A whole hypogeum was fulfilled with many mechanisms, which allowed to transport of cages into arena or even rapidly flood the arena. Water for this task, was brought from near aqueduct.

Commonly used name of (Colosseum) didn’t come from its “colossal size”, but from located near this building a huge (gr. kolossos) statue of the Emperor Nero presented as god Helios.
An author: National Geographic magazine, September 2014

Around the arena was podium (suggestum), on which the Emperor’s throne and seats for his family, senators and servants of goddess Vesta were located. Sitting places of senators surrounded Emperor’s lodge and often consisted of chairs brought by senators. The next floor (maenianum primum) was occupied by patricians (who didn’t hold function of senators) and equestrian class. In maenianum secundum sat ordinary Roman citizens (plebeians). This section was divided into lower part immum – for richer; and higher part summum – for poor. Also some sectors for particular social classes were created (like for boys with their teachers, soldiers, foreign official, scribes, priests etc.). Seats made from marble and stone were intended for citizens and noblemen, who probably brought cushions with them. The most distant places (approx. 50 meters above the scene) were occupied by women, slaves and the poorest. It was so called maenianum secundum in legneis, a sector built during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, which consisted of many wooden benches. Some social classes had a ban on coming to Colosseum, especially gravediggers, actors and former gladiators.

A scheme of seat levels. The most distant seats (approx. 50 meters above the scene) were occupied by women, slaves and the poorest.
Still visible inscription above the entrance to Colosseum. LII (52).
On the licnece of Creative Commons Recognition of authorship - under the same conditions 3.0.

It can be clearly seen, that in relation to tribunes existed division by sex and social status, which could be noticed in Roman daily basis. On the audience were from 45 to 50 thousands of sitting places and few thousands of standing places, but certaily building could accomodate more than 50 thousands people. According to late Roman ilumination “A chronograph from 354 CE”, which was made by comission of rich Roman Chrisian Walentius capacity of Colosseum was aprox. 87 thousands people.

Spectators entered through 80 (from the ground floor) numbered entrances (vomitoria), which allowed to quick leave even within 6 minutes. Staff came into Colosseum through four separated communication galleries. One of them was main north entrance intended for the emperor and his servants. Remaining three was dedicated for Roman elite. Most of original external entrances were destroyed, but entrances XXIII (23) and LIV (54) survived to our times.

Naumachiae could be organised during the first period after Colosseum was built. Later it was unable as a result of construction of the arena with two-storey basements.

In four-storey internal division accumulation of architectural orders was used (the lowest storey presented Tuscan order, secon was Ionian, third Corinthian and fourth was decorated with Corinthian pilasters). The lowest three floors was connected with each other with arcades and the fourth had only small windows. From internal side the building has five floors. Four of them were built as layout of rooms between phillars, walls, barrel and cross vaults, Buffets, cloakrooms, showers, corridors, rooms for gladiators and animals were located there.

In the event of rain or heat it was possible to cover all the audience with special, huge, waterproof canvas (velarium), which was outstreched with ropes. This huge piece of fabric covered two thirds of the arena. For spreading it seamen from Misenum were responsible. They temporarily stayed in Castra Misenatium.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant
From behind can be seen velarium – huge piece of fabric, which protected audience from rain or heat.

Auxiliary objects

Construction of Colosseum and organisation of games attracted industry in this place. Around the building many objects began to appear, which were useful in wide variety of events, On the east from Colosseum school of gladiators – Ludus Magnus was located. Now only its ruins have been preserved. The building almost clun to the amphitheatre and was connected by underground passage, which allowed to quick transport of gladiators to the arena. Ludus Magnus had its own small training hall, which was very popular among Romans.

In the same region also other schools of gladiators operated like Ludus Matutinus (” the morning school “) – which trained warriors to fight with wild animals; except that also Dack and Gallic schools earned their fame in Rome.
In nearest area were also located: Armamentarium – store of weapons and armours; Summum Choragium– machinery store; Sanitarium – hospital for gladiators; and Spoliarium – place, where armours were removed from dead bodies of gladiators and their corpses were thrown away.


  • Naumachiae could be organised during the first period after Colosseum was built. Later it was unable as a result of the construction of the arena with two-storey basements during the reign of the Emperor Domitian.
  • There are no proofs that in Colosseum took place mass murder of Christians. Information about this appeared only from seventeenth century. Indisputable is a fact, that during the breaks between duels of gladiators executions of convicts were carried out, sometimes in creative and bloody ways. It is believed, that the main place for executions was Circus of the Emperor Nero, which was located on Vatican Hill.
  • In many publication it is said, that viewers in Colosseum were able to leave it within 5-6 minutes. It’s not really close to the truth. Only viewers, who occupied medium and bottom rows had this possibility. People from upper rows had to go through the corridor with sloping ceiling, which at most was approx. 2, 2 m high. This fact was real obstacle in going out. Probably this solution was to enable patricias quick exit from the building without having a contact with plebeians. It does not change the fact, that the evacuation system was well organised and it is still an example for stadiums in USA.
  • In contrary to popular opinion Sienkiewicz didn’t place any of “Quo vadis” episode in Colosseum. He only mentioned twice about this monument reffering to future events, A whole misunderstanding resulted from the careless reading of book and pointing out this error as a tittle-tattle.


A reconstruction of gladiators duel.

Colosseum was used to organisation of gladiators duels as well as other kinds of fights and events. Munera, for example, were always organised by private people. They had strong religious character, and were organised to honoring family name adding prestige to its members.

Other kind of the games was hunting for wild animals – venatio. During this event a wide variety of creatures appeared in the arena. They were imported from Africa, West Europe and Near East. Merchants brought rhinos, hippos, elephants, giraffes, turs, bisons, lios, panthers, leopards, bears, Caspian tigers, crocodiles and reddish ostrich. Fights and huntings were often located among sopisticated buildings and vegetation. This kind of events was extremely rare. It is believed, that in 107 CE the Emperor Traian to celebrate the conquest of Dacia organised huge games lasting 123 days in which 11.000 animals and 10.000 gladiators took part.

In the early period of Colosseum existence (according to the reports of ancient historians) took place naumachiae (better known as navalia proelia) or naval battles. Sources show, that in 80 CE this kind of event took place for the first time on order of the Emperor Titus. Then the whole arena was sunk and specially trained horses and bulls appeared to fight with each other. Also there was some naval battle between Greeks, Corinthians and inhabitants of Corfu. This event is still questioned by many historians, who say there was not enough space for warships and how arena could be waterproof. However it was agreed, that flooding arena with water was no challenge for the Romans.
Another kind of attraction were sylvae, or reconstruction of natural scenes. Painters and architects had to construct forests with real trees and flowers planted in the arena. In such prepared environment animals appeared, which could be admired by viewers. This spectacle was on purpose to show people live animals and present stories taken from mythology. Sylvae were also an opportunity to executions in which main story character – played by convict – was killed in sophisticated and cruel way (but possible to accomplish), which was as similar as in the myth.

How to visit Colosseum?

  • Brigitte Hintzen-Bohlen, Rzym. Sztuka i architektura
  • Sadurska Anna, Archeologia starożytnego Rzymu - okres cesarstwa, 1980
  • Makowiecka Elżbieta, Sztuka Rzymu
  • Szolginia Witold, Architektura

Author of translation: Kimberly Sas

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