Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Swimming in the Pool of Knowledge"

The Colosseum of Rome is one of the most recognizable structures in the entire world. However, I wonder how much people really know about it. For example, Colosseum is the name given to it long after it was built. It's original, and legitimate title is, in Latin, the Amphitheatrum Flavium, or, in English, the Flavian Amphitheater. What follows is a BRIEF history:

The Flavian Amphitheater was built over an approximate 10 year period, from 70-80 A.D. by the Emperors Vespasian and then Titus. They were members of the new ruling family of Rome, the Flavians. The Flavians came to power after the demise of the last of the Julian emperors, the hated Nero. Vespasian vowed to erase the legacy of Nero by ambitiously rebuilding Rome after the devastating fire (64 AD) that virtually destroyed Rome during Nero's reign. In addition to rebuilding the city itself, Vespasian launched many civic projects to cement the Flavian legacy and return some power to the people of Rome. One of these projects was the amphitheater which would become the largest building of its type in the ancient world. To further advance his own agenda and completely obliterate Nero's, Vespasian chose to build the amphitheater on the grounds of Nero's opulent palace, the Domus Aurea (or golden house). The particular site chosen was an artificial lake that Nero created for the palace. The lake was filled in and construction began in 70 A.D. After Vespasian's death, Titus, using funds largely secured by his sacking of Jerusalem (a Triumphant Arch near the entrance to the Colosseum dedicated to Titus depicts Roman soldiers carrying away their ill gotten booty, including the huge menorah from the Temple), completed the structure and the "games" began.

The amphitheater was (and is) an engineering marvel. It could seat over 50,000 people. It had plumbing for public restrooms and huge awnings made of sails that were used to provide cover for the audience from the hot Roman sun. The floor of the building was covered in sand (in Latin herena). Hence the term "arena" is used to describe the area where the combat between gladiators would take place. Sand was used to sop up the blood that was bound to spill during the contests. Gladiators and the wild animals used in the arena were housed in cells below the arena floor where they could be hoisted up using special elevators and appear, as if by magic, anywhere on the arena floor. Everything in the arena was designed for effect - to, in a sense, wow the crowd.

Spectator seating was segregated much as Roman society was, with the best seats saved for the wealthy and powerful and the "cheap" seats reserved for the poorer classes. The "games" usually lasted for an entire day, and in same cases, lasted days or even weeks. Interestingly, the games were not financed by the state, but rather by wealthy individuals (who might be the emperor) looking to gain favor with the Roman "mob". The day usually began with contests between wild animals and gladiators, followed by the execution of prisoners. The "main event" featured fighting between paired gladiators (it was almost always a one-on-one fight) with as many as 8-10 pairs of fighters. Contests could be to the death, but not always. One who fought bravely and lost could be spared to fight another day. It depended on the will of the crowd. And the contest winners were paid for their victories. Since gladiators were slaves, they had to split their earnings with their masters. After a time, if they were successful enough, they could earn enough money to buy their freedom.

The term gladiator derives it's name from the Roman (Latin) name for sword, or gladius. Hence, a gladiator was a swordsman. Each gladiator was given his own, specific armour and weapon, often representing those used by conquered peoples. A successful gladiator was considered what we, today, would call a superstar. Those whose skills pleased the mob were given many privileges, including access to beautiful women, even successful women whose status might be far above their own.

Today, we see the games and the Romans who supported them as barbaric. However, this is done with a modern sense of morality. And the Romans saw themselves as VERY moral people. To them, the arena, and those who fought in it, represented the best that Rome had to offer. Gladiators exhibited the traits that all Romans worshipped: courage, ferocity, and tenacity. It was these traits that allowed Rome to conquer the ancient world. So, these qualities were constantly reinforced within the arena. It allowed Romans to be proud of themselves and what they had accomplished. In fact, the games became such an important part of Roman society that they were held at the Colosseum into the 6th Century, nearly 300 years AFTER the Emperor Constantine had declared Rome "Christian"!

Eventually, the games did stop and the Amphitheater went into a steep decline. It became so decrepit in the Middle Ages that people were not even sure exactly what its original purpose was! Which brings us to how it got its popular name: The Colosseum. It seems that one of the few things that the Flavians did not obliterate of Nero's legacy was a giant statue, or Colossus, of the despot that stood for centuries outside the structure. Different emperors placed their own heads on the statue, but the statue itself remained in place throughout, even as the main structure declined. So, when people referred to the area they associated it with that Colossal Statue, hence the Colosseum. Ironically, the statue was eventually melted down for its bronze and disappeared leaving only the Flavian Amphitheater to delight and intrigue us.

There are MANY more things to know about this magnificent structure - too much to delve into here. Hopefully, this will pique your interest to know more about this wondrous and wonderful building.


  1. The first time I went to the Colosseum was in 1968 and it was literally falling apart. I'm so glad they had the smarts to make repairs and have maintained it since then. It is pretty impressive. And, as usual, great photos and thanks!