One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Roman Colosseum is one of the greatest works of architecture and engineering in Italy. It is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome that was built on the site of an artificial lake in Nero’s park and near the Golden Palace (Domus Aurea) in A.D. 70. It was opened after a very quick decade of construction with a festival that featured 100 days of games. Measuring approximately 620 by 513 feet, the Colosseum was designed to be the largest amphitheater in the Roman world and it still holds that title centuries later.
In Roman times the Colosseum was known as the Flavian Amphitheater for the Emperor who built it, and whose family name was Flavius, hence the name Flavian. It only became known as the Colosseum in later times, due to the colossal golden statue of Emperor Nero that stood alongside it. Next to the Colosseum is a “marked” physical spot where the statue stood.
The Colosseum was made from travertine stone extracted from the quarries of Albulae near Tivoli. It was clad in marble and more than 150 large statues were placed on the arches of the upper floors. Complementing these is the free standing structure’s three stories of arched entrances, all supported by around 80 semi-circular columns. What’s interesting is the fact that each story’s columns feature a different style. The bottom features the Doric order, followed by Ionic and topped by the Corinthian order. On sunny and rainy days, the structure would be covered with a large awning known as the velarium. The awning required a team of a thousand men to install it, a task divided into attaching it to the large poles on top of the structure and anchoring it to the ground using large ropes. To this day, one can view the pillars that sit outside the east side of the Colosseum, that were used to anchor the ropes for its operation. It is believed that the Roman sailors, from the Roman naval headquarters in Misenum, operated the velarium.
From the exterior, when viewing each individual entryway into the Colosseum, above each arch is the very faded memory of Roman numerals. This remarkable feature informed the ticket (made of pottery shards) holder of long ago, that this was the proper portico to enter into the stadium to find one’s seat.
On the inside, 55,000 spectators would be divided across four stories, the top dedicated to lower classes and women whereas the bottom was reserved for influential and prominent Romans. To be more precise, priests, senators and the Vestal Virgins sat four meters above the arena, followed by 14 rows for noblemen and knights (ima cavea section), a block for the Roman citizens (media cavea), a block for the poor, foreigners and slaves (summa cavea section), and an area under the colonnade for the wives and daughters of Roman citizens. Meanwhile, the Emperor and his court were seated in the imperial box in the northern corner of the arena. Opposite him was the box dedicated to the empress and her female followers. The Colosseum was known for both wild animal hunts and mock see battles.
What’s most interesting is the hypogeum, which is the area beneath the arena. Whereas most visitors expect a smooth, sandy patch, the floor of the Colosseum is actually a number of masonry walls made from concentric rings and chambers. Recently renovated for $1.4 million, the hypogeum has been cleared of centuries of dirt, rubble, vegetation and dumped animal dung. Since recent times, visitors are now able to walk in the underground of this magnificent structure to discover some of the finest examples of Roman technology, such as the compact yet strong elevator system responsible for delivering wild beast and equipment into the arena.
In addition to helping with the wild beasts and gladiators, the mechanisms of the hypogeum were used for creating illusions. The Roman poet Martial, who was in the audience of the inaugural games, wrote about the magical executions which were inspired from Roman mythology. “Rocks have crept along,” he wrote, “And, marvelous sight! A wood, such as the grove of the Hesperides [nymphs who guarded the mythical golden apples] is believed to have been, has run.”
The Colosseum aside, different buildings were built in the vicinity. To the east was the Ludus Magnus, which was a training school for gladiators. Other schools were the Lusu Matutinus and the Dacian and Gallic Schools. Near the structure were the Armamentarium (armory storage), the Summum Choragium (machinery storage), Sanitarium (infirmary for wounded gladiators), and Spoliarium (morgue for dead gladiators). Immediately next to the Colosseum remains what is left of the fountain structure where the Gladiators washed up after their battles.
Currently, the Colosseum is undergoing different renovation programs to counter the damages of lightning, earthquakes and other natural phenomena, primarily through the efforts and funding of Diego Della Valle (Tod’s.) Even though many of its stones were used in major building projects such as the cathedral of St. Peter, and various Renaissance projects, it still stands strong and continues attracting thousands of tourists from all over the world.
Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture. More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.