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Colosseum – Rome, Italy

While you can’t catch a real-life gladiator death match or chariot battle anymore, the Colosseum is still a great place to visit on your travels through Italy.  It’s hard to find a city with such immediacy to a history that stretches into the BC era.  Ancient buildings (not just historic, but ancient) dot the entire landscape, but none are more majestic or awe-inspiring than the great Roman Colosseum.


Originally designated as the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum was designed for a capacity crowd of 45,000 people in several tiers.  Emperor Vespasian commissioned the building in 72 AD as a general amphitheatre to please the masses.  It was finished astonishingly quickly for its time in the 80s (not 1980’s!) by Vespasian’s son, Domitian.  The site was chosen near Nero’s enormous palace of Domus Aurea, and some historians are quick to point out that its construction was only possible with valuables looted from King Herod’s Temple in 70 AD.  Some say that the name Colosseum must derive from the term colossus, which was form of large monumental statue at the time.  The Colossus of Nero used to stand near the site, which gives credence to this theory.

When the Colosseum opened, the public was treated to 100 days of celebration during which 90 animals were killed per day.  Throughout its history, the Colosseum was mainly used as a form of carnal entertainment.  Common battles pitted animals against gladiators, animals against prisoners, and gladiators against gladiators.  On occasion, the entire arena would be flooded for lofty naval battles!  Some historians put the body count at 500,000 killed during the operation of the games here.

Many civil engineers and architects point to the Colosseum for a textbook study of large-scale venue design.  Indeed, you only have to look at something like a SuperDome to get a feel for just how much the Colosseum has influenced stadium building techniques.  The Colosseum was one of the first venues to have classes of seating for the social elite, wealthy, and low-class (from front row to top gallery, of course).  Among the other major innovations was the unique roof system that featured ropes and pulleys to change its attitude so that it could draw in wind to cool the audience.  Another huge mainstay that Colosseum developers came up with was the passageway system that allowed spectators to file in from behind and beneath the seats like all modern stadiums.  This allowed 45,000 people to enter in 15 minutes or exit in a scant 5.  A total of 80 entrances on the ground allowed people to spill into the streets in a frenzy after the games.

Dimensions of the Colosseum are as follows: 48 meters in height, 188 meters in length, and 156 meters in width.  It is not a perfect circle.  The arena floor was 86 meters by 54 meters and was filled with sand.  Beneath the arena was a dense network of catacombs that housed competitors, animals, and prisoners.  A complex network of trap doors allowed animals to be released unsuspectingly into the arena from below.

Regular use of the Colosseum persisted for another 200 years until the dominance of Christianity in the Roman Empire managed to eradicate the more violent aspects of the games.  Between 238 AD and 524 AD, the Colosseum was only used for animal hunts.  Many animals from exotic locations were brought from the distant reaches of the Empire.  Several natural disasters including lightning and earthquakes severely damaged the building over the next century.  Later, it would be converted to a fortress and stripped of all its exterior marble.  You can still find most of the marble in St. Peter’s Basilica where it was used in its construction.


Today, as it has been for the past few centuries, the Colosseum is in a state of ruin.  No one is allowed inside anymore, aside from the occasional archaeologist and preservationist.  Tour groups are often brought to the fringe of the building, while some do get to see the interior.  Not much is left of the Colosseum as large portions of it have collapsed (like the Roman Empire itself).  The entire wooden arena floor is gone, revealing the complex holding cells and trapdoor systems previously hidden below.  Nothing remains of the ingenious roofing system either, though well-documented reports have helped to re-create the Colosseum in all its grandeur in films like Gladiator.

Visiting the Colosseum is a great idea when stopping in Rome, though there are many other great places to stop that you can examine in much greater detail.  For instance, nearby the Colosseum are a number of interesting ruins and archaeological sites of notable mention.  The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, along with the wonderful Pantheon, are all open for visitors and easier to access. 

Of course, nothing really compares to the size and scope of the Colosseum, even in its dilapidated state.  If anything, catching a glimpse of it in person can put you in touch with the mysterious forces of nature, culture, and tradition that stretch back an amazing 2000 years.