The Colosseum

The Colosseum stands today as a symbol of the power, genius, and brutality of the Roman Empire. It is commonly known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, named after the dynasty of emperors that presided over its construction.

 

Vespasian, who ruled from 69-79 CE, began construction of the Colosseum. Titus, his older son, dedicated the Colosseum and presided over the opening ceremonies in 80 CE. Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian, completed construction of the monument in 81 CE. The funding for building the Colosseum came from the spoils of the Judaic wars that the Flavians fought in Palestine.

Because of earthquake and fire damage, the Colosseum underwent repair until the 6th century. However, after the 6th century, the Colosseum sat in disrepair, was neglected, and used as a quarry for hundreds of years. Some of the outer arcades and most of the inner skeleton of the Colosseum remain intact today.

The Colosseum has an elliptical shape, enabling attendees to have a good view from virtually any location. It could hold over fifty thousand spectators, with the best view available along the minor axis. This was where the emperor and his family sat. Slightly behind him were the vestal virgins sat, then the senate, the equestrian classes, and finally women and slaves on wooden seats. Seating was preassigned, as evidenced by the markings on the seating areas designating the class of people that could sit there. The seats on each level of the Colosseum also acted as architectural supports for the level above.

Another advantage for the upper classes was being able to enter and exit the stadium faster. Despite having less numbers, the exits for the upper class were larger and more easily accessible; the design of the Colosseum demonstrated effective crowd control of the lower classes. Nonetheless, the design of the exits is still very impressive as it over 50,000 spectators could swiftly access and exit the stadium.

The inner part of the Colosseum measures 620 ft long and 513 ft wide. Each of the Colosseum’s three stories has eighty arches. On the bottom floor, 76 of them functioned as general entrances with the others being reserved for the emperor, the senate, and gladiators. At the height of its use, the monument had statues in each of the archways on the second and third floors. Greek influence can be seen in the Colosseum. The first floor has Doric, or possibly Tuscan columns in between arches, the second floor has Ionic columns, and the third floor has Corinthian columns. This style of sequential complexity of the columns would be emulated by many architects in the Baroque era. The Colosseum was mostly composed of concrete with a travertine or marble coating on the outside. Some of the blocks of concrete weighed over 300 tons.

There were sockets for 240 wooden beams at the top of the Colosseum to support an awning. Sailors of the imperial fleet, who often did not have any other work to do, were stationed nearby so that they could move the awning to shield spectators from the sun.

The main floor of the Colosseum was composed of wooden blocks covered with sand. The wooden blocks could be removed to reveal an extensive underground area lit by flares. This 2-floor maze of corridors had human powered elevators that would bring wild beasts up through trap doors in the arena floor. There is a popular story about 100 lions being “magically” revealed at once.

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