What Happens During a Day at the Colosseum?

From its inauguration, the Colosseum became a symbol of Rome and it still is today. Let’s go back in time and witness a day of celebrations and roman entertainment.

Jul 18, 2023By Radu Cristian, BA History, BA Philosophy, MA Medieval History
colosseum day events
Pollice Verso (the Turned Tumb), by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1872, via Columbia College


The Amphiteatrum Flavium, or the Colosseum, was built during the reign of the Flavian Roman emperors Vespasian (69-79 CE), Titus (79-81 CE), and Domitian (81-96 CE). The  arena hosted public events such as gladiator fights, animal hunts, and public executions. A typical day of gladiator fights included several parts and would last for most of the day. To understand how these shows played out, we have to become spectators and analyze, event by event, what occurred during a day of fighting.


A Day at the Colosseum: The Pompa Circenses

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The consul Junius Bassus in a Circus parade, photo by Jean-pol Grandmont, 5th century, via the Basilica of Junius Bassus, via Wikimedia Commons


The Pompa, or parade, was the procession that preceded the official gladiator fights at the colosseum. It was organized before other events such as religious festivals or chariot races and was presided over by a magistrate.


Young nobles, on horseback, led the procession, followed by young boys, on foot, who would later become infantrymen. After them came the participants, athletes and charioteers. The musical aspect of these festivities was provided for by troops of dancers, playing the auloi (a wind-type instrument) and the lyre. The dancers were divided by age or class, and they dressed as greek pyrrhics (purple tunics, bronze winged or crested helmets, spears, and shields).


The final group of entertainers was the chorus dressed as satyrs or sileni and armed dancers. The latter wore wooly tunics, goatskin loincloths and were decorated with flowers. The procession came to a close with men carrying golden bowls and perfumes, followed by statues of gods carried on litters through the colosseum.



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Venatio, Gladiator and Lion in the Colosseum, by Firmin Diderot, late 18th – early 19th century, via Ancient World Magazine

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The Venationes (animal fights) are the next spectacle during our day at the Colosseum. These contests pitted beasts against beasts or men against beasts. The men were condemned criminals, captives, or professionally trained animal hunters. Venationes were first put on as a show by the Roman general Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in the second-century BCE. It is said that he was inspired by Alexander the Great and his pastime practice of animal fights.


The rising popularity of animal fights led to a rise in the type and number of animals used in these fights. Bears, bulls, lions, crocodiles, and panthers are just some examples of the exotic animals brought from all corners of the world. An animal master trained these beasts for fights and tricks, although some exhibitions ended with the death of the animal master. Out of all these animals, Romans took special care of wolves. They did not harm or display them during the Venationes due to their religious significance. The practice was abolished during the fifth century CE.


More Bread and Circuses: The Ludi Meridiani at the Colosseum

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The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883, via the Walters Art Museum


The Ludi Meridiani, or the mid-day executions, took place at noon, in the time between the Venationes and the gladiatorial matches. This event involved the execution of condemned criminals and Christians. It was a public display of Roman supremacy and power over life and death. It served as a form of social control, to prevent future crimes, and it was a practical method to keep roman prisons from overflowing.


Damnatio ad Bestias refers to the method of killing criminals with the use of beasts. It began in the Republican Period but gained increased popularity in the Imperial era. Taking a look at the images of surviving Roman mosaics, we can agree that the Romans were very or almost too creative with their methods of execution, using a wide variety of wild animals to publicly end the lives of those who had violated the law. The condemned were sent into the arena fully or partially naked, without tools, weapons, or means of defense. Furthermore, they were heavily restrained, leaving them open to any attack coming from the predators released on them. The so-called Bestiarii were the ones overseeing the executions and they had to make sure the animals were always ready to attack their victims.


Other methods included making the condemned fight with each other, and the reenactment of mythical episodes referred to as fatal charades. The midday executions ended with the removal of the condemned ones’ corpses.


Closing the Festivities at the Colosseum: Munera Gladitoria

gladiators and musicians tripoli mosaic
Mosaic representing gladiators and musicians, 2nd century CE, via Villa Dar Buc Ammera, via Vici.org


The final, and high point of all events were the Munera, or gladiatorial games. Gladiators usually fought in pairs, determined by their equipment and skill level. Their main goal was not simply to fight but to provide an dramatic and suspenseful duel. They did this by having an extended match with an uncertain outcome.


The gladiator institution evolved in time, beginning with prisoners of war who used their weapons and fighting techniques. Afterward, weapons and techniques were standardized into different categories or armatures. Their names depended on either nationality or weapons used. There were four main types: the Samnites, Thraex, Murmillo, and the Retiarius. The Samnites were named after the Samnite warriors that Rome defeated in the early days of the republic, and they are most heavily armed of the four main types. The Thracians were named after another enemy of Rome, and they usually fought in pairs against the Murmillones.


Murmillones (fish men) wore a metal helmet with a fish on its crest, armor with leather or metal scales, and Greek-styled sword. Finally, the Retiarii (net men) fought with weapons modeled on the tools of a fisherman. Very lightly equipped, they wore armor on the arm and shoulder, leaving their heads and legs exposed.


A Day at the Colosseum: The Order of the Munera

gladiators tripoli museum
Mosaic depicting gladiators in combat, 2nd century CE, via Villa Dar Buc Ammera, via Vici.org


A Munera at the Colosseum was comprised of three parts. The first part was a prelude which consisted of a battle fought with blunt weapons, similar to training weapons. The second part, the probatio armorum, involved the gladiators testing the sharpness of their weapons. The final part was the actual combat.


Tied matches were rare because gladiators were supposed to fight to a conclusion. The best outcome was when one man was forced to submit to the other by being disarmed or immobilized.


When a gladiator lost, he would acknowledge his defeat by lowering his weapons and raising one finger in submission. After this came the decision of the editor (the owner or organizer). Meanwhile, the audience would scream Missum (leave him) or Iugula (kill). Finally, after being advised by the spectators, the editor would either demand the gladiator’s death or he would allow both fighters to leave standing.

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By Radu CristianBA History, BA Philosophy, MA Medieval HistoryCristian holds a BA in History and Philosophy, and a MA in Medieval History. He is a contributing writer with a keen interest in history, philosophy, mythology, and education. Other topics of interest are ethics, psychology, artificial intelligence, and Stoicism. In his free time, he enjoys reading, drawing, editing pictures, and cycling.