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date: 23 September 2021



  • Heinz-Jürgen Beste


The construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre was financed by the Emperor Vespasian in 71–72 ce with the riches from the conquest of Jerusalem and carried out by his son Titus, who inaugurated the building in 80 ce. Domitian (81–96) completed the amphitheatre district, which extended from the Velian Hill to the present Basilica of San Clemente, and included the four barracks (ludi), the infirmary (samiarium), the weapons store (armamentarium), the mortuary (spoliarium), and the barracks of the sailors of the fleet of Misenum (Castra Misenatium) whose task it was to oper­ate the velum, the awning that shaded the spectators from the sun. The building became known as the Colosseum from a colossal statue that stood near it. The amphitheatre was in use as such until 523 ce, when it is recorded that it was the scene of the last animal hunt, organized by Anicius Maximus at the beginning of his consulate.

The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, an oval 187.75 × 155.60 m (205.32 × 170.16 yds). The sand covered arena measures 77.50 × 45.60 m (84.75 × 49.68 yds.). The tiered seating (cavea) ran around the perimeter, holding between 40,000 and 55,000 spectators and divided into five horizontal sectors (maeniana) separated by aisles.

The travertine facade rose 48.5 m (53 yds.) in three superimposed tiers of arcades and an attic storey. Each tier of arcades was decorated by the addition of applied Classical orders of engaged semicolumns: Tuscan (Doric columns with bases) Ionic, and Corinthian. The lofty attic storey had applied Corinthian pilasters.


  • Roman Material Culture

Updated in this version

Article rewritten and expanded to reflect current scholarship.

The monument was used for presenting animal hunts, gladiatorial fights, and death sentences. Known originally as Amphitheatrum magnum or Caesareum, in the Early Middle Ages (probably in the 8th century ce) it received the name of Colysaeum. The name derived from colossus, which is how the ancient Romans customarily referred to the statua Solis, the colossal metal statue of the Emperor Nero (as the sun god?) that stood just in front of the amphitheatre and of which the pediment survived to modern times, eventually to be destroyed only by the laying out of the via dei Fori Imperiali in 1937.

Nothing is known about when the construction of the amphitheatre district—which in addition to the amphitheatre also contained a gladiator school, ludus magnus, two other schools for animal hunts, venationes, a barracks for the sailors from Misenum who operated the awning of the Colosseum, and other official buildings (spoliarium, samiarium, armamentarium, etc.)—was begun. One can hardly assume a date prior to 70 ce, because the creation of this games complex formed part of Emperor Vespasian’s official reconstruction programme and was probably financed with the spoils brought home after the Jewish War, the bellum Judaicum (the fall of Jerusalem taking place in 70 ce).

Vespasian won the struggle for the imperial title in 69 ce, the so-called “year of the four emperors.” His reconstruction programme for the destroyed city also included the return of the area between the Palatine, Caelian, and Esquiline hills on which Nero had erected his Domus Aurea—complete with surrounding parkimmediately after the fire of 64 ce. The lowest part of the park, said to have been occupied previously by an artificial lake—the so-called stagnum Neroniswas chosen as the site of the amphitheatre. One of the factors that probably contributed to the decision to build on this site, in preference to an alternative location in the Campus Martius, was the ease with which it could be accessed from the Forum (Via Sacra) and the residential quarters on the Esquiline and the Caelian. Whether or not there already existed some kind of a retention structure for the artificial lake or a water supply and discharge system is unknown.

Notwithstanding all of the practical considerations relating to the selection of the site, we should not forget the political intention associated with returning the area to the city, namely to create in the Senate and among the citizens the friendly atmosphere that was so essential for the establishment of the Flavian dynasty.

The greater part of the gigantic structure (three stories of the outer shell) was seemingly completed in fewer than ten years, probably so that Vespasian himself could inaugurate it in 79 ce. The remaining work on the structure had to be left to his sons Titus and Domitian. It remains uncertain whether all building work had been completed by the time of the official opening ceremony presided over by the Emperor Titus in 80 ce. Construction of the amphitheatre district continued during the reign of Domitian (81–96 ce), to whom we owe the addition of the imperial cryptoporticus of the Colosseum and the first phase of work on the underground structures.

After damage from a major fire in 217 ce, the uppermost, the arena flooring was not operational until about 240 ce. In 250–252 ce and 320 ce further repairs are mentioned. The account by Ammianus Marcellinus shows that in 357 ce the amphitheatre was still in excellent repair. Just a few decades after, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, it started to fall into disuse. Part of the hydraulic system no longer worked, which meant the flow of water was blocked. After Rome had been besieged three times, the amphitheatre remained unused for some years. In 443 ce, an earthquake struck Rome, blocking the drains which had carried away storm water from the amphitheatre, and leading to the flooding of the underground level. Another destructive earthquake in 484 or 508, did further damage to the amphitheatre, reducing it to a state of ruin. The underground level became the receptacle of the removed debris, leaving it abandoned and filled in with massive quantities of earth. Nevertheless, the amphitheatre was in use as such until 523 ce, when it is recorded that it was the scene of the last animal hunt, organized by Anicius Maximus at the beginning of his consulate.

Far removed from the part of Rome that served as a residential area in medieval times, it was more or less abandoned and served mainly as a quarry until the first excavations in the 18th century. This arbitrary use of the monument ended only in 1749, when Pope Benedict XIV dedicated the arena to the sufferings of Christ and his martyrs. From then on it was associated with the setting up of a Via Crucis, a Way of the Cross; this had the indirect effect of prohibiting the removal of further blocks of masonry.

The Outside

Four superimposed architectural orders articulated the external elevation. Its original height of 52 m is preserved only along the north front, towards the Oppian Hill. Built of travertine blocks, it is marked by semicolumns of the Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. It culminates in the attic with a wall divided by pilasters into squares that were with or without windows. Here you can still see the corbels that supported the velum, a movable awning made of wood and fabric operated by the sailors from the fleet at Misenum to shade spectators from the sun. In the 5th and 6th centuries, the south side was damaged by earthquakes and dismantled to salvage its materials.

Figure 1. North side.

Source: Author.

Figure 2. South side.

Source: Author.

The Interior

The amphitheatre was built of travertine blocks (load-bearing structures and attic wall), blocks of tufa (radial walls and underground partitions), and bricks. It has an oval plan, with the main axis measuring 187.77 m (636.50 RF) and the smaller 155. 54 m (527.25 RF) with a proportion of 1:1.20. It has eighty entrance arches for different sectors: forty-eight of them were for the spectators, sixteen for the knights, and twelve for political and religious authorities; two, at the end of the transvers axes, were reserved for the emperor and his family, and two at the ends of the main axes, for the performers in the games. The tiered seating (cavea) ran around the perimeter, holding between 40,000 and 55,000 spectators. This seating area was divided into five horizontal sectors (maeniana) separated by aisles. At the centre was the arena, a wooden platform with a sand-covered surface (arena), on which the shows took place.

Figure 3. Entrance arches with the numbers.

Source: Author.

The actual arena was unearthed in the period between 1802 and 1807, which led to the discovery of the basement. Further parts of the basement were excavated during the French occupation of Rome in the years 1809–1814. However, accumulated groundwater made it necessary to backfill the excavated parts of the basement. It was only in 1874–1875 that better technical equipment made it possible to pump this water out and free the eastern part of the basement down to ground level. The western half of the basement was completely excavated in 1938. The excavation, for which we possess no relevant documentation, was associated with an extensive restoration of the entire arena area, when all of the additions made in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages were removed in the course of the work.

The subterranean level of the amphitheatre is composed of a series of corridors subdivided by several walls measuring 76.12 m along the longitudinal axis of the oval and about 44.07 m along the shorter transverse axis. It is limited by the so-called encircling wall, which originally carried the podium. Architecturally, this wall is the counterpart of the so-called foundation wall which supports the outer facade. If one approaches the edge of the arena from the stands today, one looks down at the basement, because the wooden arena floor has long since disappeared. The longitudinal axis of the oval-shaped basement is oriented in an east-west direction, and this is true for the greater part of the walls found there. These walls, made of tufa blocks and bricks, subdivide the basement into twelve corridors of different widths and lengths and, more precisely, six elliptical corridors that run parallel to the encircling wall and nine corridors parallel to the longitudinal axis.

Building Phase in the Subterranean Level (Hypogea) I

The first phase is characterized by a very light construction with a long span. The walls, which are about 90 cm wide and 6.30 m high, attain arch spans of up to 4.0 m. These “filigree walls” made of tufa were placed between 2.0 and 4.0 m apart and supported the wooden arena floor. They were presumably at first insufficiently designed to withstand vibrations caused by earthquakes, subsidence of the ground, or perhaps the games themselves. Therefore it they had to be stabilized subsequently.

Phase II

For this reason, all of the openings in the arches were reduced by inserting brick arches within the existing ones.

Phase III

This phase consisted of stabilizing all of the walls. It repeated the procedure of phase II by adding masonry in all the passages, which were thus further reduced in size. Over and above this, the tufa walls in corridors C, E-North, E-South, G-North, and G-South were each reinforced by the addition of brick walls rising to a height of about 3 m which were joined to each other by means of transverse arches and, thus, strengthened the original walls.

Phase IV

Phase IV constituted of a very substantial change to the existing subdivision of the basement, in that it involved the erection of a brick wall of about 2.30 m in height in corridors F-North and F-South that closed off the greater part of the passages that served them. This phase is distinguished from all the others by the fact that it does not consist of bricks of uniform size, and it rests on a foundation made of material that must have fallen down from the crown of the walls.

Preliminary Note on the Dating

The newly discovered brick stamps permit the limited development of a chronology that summarizes the construction details and procedures of the different phases. A total of fourteen stamps were found during our research in 1999, and ten of these are sufficiently well preserved to fix the date of their production between the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd century ce. Two more preserved brick stamps show a design dating to Septimius Severus. Six of the ten datable brick stamps belong to the reign of Trajan, and all were found in the walls of the stabilization phase designated phase II. All subsequent phases are, therefore, later than Trajan. Phase I, which consists of tufa blocks, could mark a change of plans during the Colosseum’s original construction.

Corridor B or How the Wild Animals Entered the Arena

The architectural study of corridor B has demonstrated that a highly advanced lifting system operated by means of large winches was installed during phase I. To judge by the finds in the corridor walls and floor, each winch was followed by a lifting cage, which means that there were twenty-eight winches and lifting cages in this corridor alone, so that the entire corridor was equipped with a lift system. Due to the lack of space, the winches were designed in such a way as to make it possible to turn them at two levels, located one above the other, in order to generate the traction needed to move the cages. The lifting system was arranged in such a way as to remain unseen by the spectators, as the winches brought the lifting cages no higher than below the wooden floor of the arena. Once they reached this point, a mobile ramp descended from the arena floor to allow the beasts to enter the arena itself. How advanced this lifting system was is demonstrated by the connection between the lifting cage and the mobile ramp. The mobile ramp was used as a counterweight. The weight of the lowered ramp supported the winches while the lifting cage was elevated. On the other hand, when the lifting cage was lowered, the ramp was raised and closed in the arena floor. From the evidence discovered in the corridor walls, the height of the lifting cages can be put at about 1.0 m, which means that animals the size of a bear or a large feline could be introduced into the arena by means of this machinery. On the other hand, elephants, bulls, and hippopotamuses, which are also attested in the sources, had to be let into the arena at ground level.

Figure 4. 3D model of the lift system in corridor B.

Source: Author.

Figure 5. Model of lift system in corridor B.

Source: Author.

Corridor F and H

In Corridor H, as well as Corridors F-North and F-South, it can be assumed that a total of twenty-four mobile platforms—about 4 × 5 m—served to lift entire stage decorations and people into the arena. As in the case of the lifts in Corridor B, the platforms are again part of the arena floor. Whenever necessary, they could be lowered into the basement with the help of the guide grooves, which can be traced along the corridor walls and probably carried appropriate metal rails. The platform was first released and then slowly lowered along the guide grooves, in Corridors G presumably with two counterweights controlling the speed. Following its arrival at basement floor level, the platform was provided with the appropriate scene-painter and probably people, before being pulled back into its original position.

Figure 6. Corridor H with mobile platforms to lift entire stage decorations and people into the arena.

Source: Author.


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