Unlike many other amphitheatres, the Colosseum was constructed in the city centre, placing it as the literal and symbolical heart of Rome.
Originally the construction was called the Amphitheatrum Flavium deriving from the Flavian dynasty, as it was built during the reign of Vespasian between AD 70 and 72 on land that Nero had seized following the mass destruction caused by the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which he used to create his own personal haven, the Domus Aurea. Vespasian’s decision to build the Colosseum on the site of Nero’s lake and gardens was interpreted as returning the land back to the citizens of Rome.
Work on the stadium had been completed up to the third storey at the time of Vespasian’s death, with the upper level completed under his son Titus’s reign. The gallery at the top and the hypogeum (a series of underground tunnels used to hold slaves and animals) were added years later by Emperor Domitian, Titus’s brother.
Its capacity stood at approximately 50,000 spectators and was used for gladiatorial combat, games and other public spectacles. In the medieval era it was no longer used for entertainment but rented out for housing, storage and religious premises until the 12th Century at which point the Frangipani family fortified the exterior and used it as a castle. A religious order moved in mid-i4th Century, and inhabited the site until the early 19th Century.
Today it stands as a battered relic of the monument it once was. It was first devastated by fire in 217 and earthquakes in 443 and 1349 caused more damage. Over the last few hundred years the interior has been stripped of stone, the marble facades burned to produce quicklime and the bronze clamps which secured the stonework have been hacked out of the walls, scarring the face of the building.
The gladiatorial battles that were carried out in the Colosseum were known as munera and were usually organized by private individuals. The combat was seen as the ultimate demonstrations of power and were hugely popular with the citizens of Rome. Some gladiators were burly volunteers, likely to have been former soldiers who risked their social standing in pursuit of popular acclaim and public admiration. However, most were slaves or persecuted Christians, who had no choice in their participation. As well as mortal combat, gladiators would fight animals in shows known as venatio, and would depict the fighter hunting a variety of beasts imported from Africa and the Middle East.
Facts about the Colosseum
Size – The elliptical stadium is 189 metres (615 feet) long and 156 metres (510 feet) wide with a base area of an impressive 24,000 metres squared (six acres).
Wonder of the world – On 7 July 2007 the Colosseum was voted as one of the New Open World Corporation’s New Seven Wonders of the World (along with the likes of the Taj Mahal, and Petra).
Anti capital punishment – In irony of its bloody heritage, the site stands as a symbol of the anti-death penalty movement after a demonstration took place there in 2000.
Velarium - The Velarium was a popular Roman invention that was used inside the Colosseum as an awning to protect against any rain and to provide shade.