The Coliseum, more commonly referred to as the Colosseum, is one of the most famous and exciting sights in the whole of the Italian Peninsula. This huge amphitheatre, originally named the Flavian Amphitheatre because it was constructed by the Flavian dynasty of emperors – founded by Vespasian who made his name as a military commander during the Roman invasion of Britain – was inaugurated in AD 80. From the beginning, the Colosseum – which gained that name in the Middle Ages – was used as a gladiatorial arena, where all manner of entertainments and public spectacles were put on. Vespasian commissioned the arena some eight years before it opened and chose to build it on the grounds of Nero’s previous Domus Aurea complex. When the Colosseum was finished, it was Vespasian’s son Titus who sat on the Imperial throne and – in an audacious act – he opened the vast building with a series of public games that lasted 100 days. At that time, the oval of arches did not reach their current height, which can be seen by tourists and Romans alike, and it was the later emperor Domitian who added the upper story.
Astounding Architectural Features
One of the most remarkable things about the Colosseum is that it is a free-standing amphitheatre. In other parts of the ancient world, amphitheatres tend to be supported by groundworks or are cut into a sloping hillside. However, the Colosseum in Rome does not have this, making it a stunning piece of Roman civil engineering in its own right before its architectural merits are even considered. When its colossal size is taken into account – it has a footprint of some 189 by 156 metres – then it has to be said that there is probably no other structure in the world to rival it, certainly one that has been situated in the middle of an urban centre for almost two millennia.
Harking back to the classical era of Greek architecture, the mighty arena is encircled by arcades which are built with decorative half columns. These columns comply with all three of the classical architectural orders – Doric, Ionic and the highly stylised Corinthian. The main structural elements of the Colosseum’s façades are made from travertine, however other walls are made from volcanic tufa. Concrete was also used extensively in the construction of the building, particularly in the vaults and arcades.
When touring the Colosseum today, visitors can still get an idea of what it would have been like in its heyday. Accommodating some 50,000 spectators, it would rival many modern-day stadia. Although now missing, the building would have had a huge retractable awning, or velarium, which was designed to create shade for the public. The Colosseum’s wooden floor is also now long gone. However, this means that the hidden passageways and service routes are now fully exposed, offering a wonderful insight into the inner workings of the arena. Few visitors are able to pass through them without imagining the tension of waiting gladiators or beasts in these underground passages.
The Colloseum Through the Ages
Despite the many wars which have visited Rome since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum remains in remarkably good condition. Much of the decorative marble that clad parts of the structure have gone and its marble seats have also been put to other uses. It was also struck by lightning and earthquakes over the centuries. In the mediaeval period, the Colosseum became a fort which was occupied by some of Rome’s feuding warrior families, such as the Frangipani and the Annibaldi. However, in the nineteenth century under Pope Pius VIII the building underwent a campaign to preserve it. Over the course of the last twenty years the city’s authorities have undertaken extensive restorative works in order to protect one of its major historical tourist attractions, which was also made one of the New Wonders of the World in 2007.
Piazza del Colosseo, 1, 00184 Roma, Italy
8:30 – 15:30