The Colosseum: Roman Arena of Death

Discover the bloody history of Rome’s iconic amphitheater, the Colosseum, the site of spectacle and slaughter in the center of the ancient city.

Apr 18, 2022By Kieren Johns, MA Classics & Ancient History, BA History & Ancient History
colosseum pollice verso painting

 

To the east of the Roman Forum stands the vast edifice of the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater ever built during antiquity. Centuries ago, tens of thousands of spectators — perhaps as many as 60,000 — would have crowded into the seats here. The entertainment on offer was grizzly fare: the amphitheater made a spectacle of slaughter. Gladiators fought to the death in the arena for the adulation of the crowds, baying for blood. Others fought against the prizes of empire, as wild and exotic beasts were brought to the empire’s heart to appease the curiosity of the crowds before they too were dispatched. For others still, the Colosseum was the scene of their execution, criminals condemned to die for the entertainment of others.

 

The history of the Colosseum offers a window into an ancient society and the politics of an empire. The manipulation of architecture, entertainment, and public sentiment provided a series of emperors with the means to denigrate the legacies of predecessors, the opportunity to celebrate their own munificence, or, worst of all, to give free reign to their megalomania. But the history of the Colosseum also provides insight into the afterlife of antiquity. How did this vast structure survive through the years, from the medieval to the modern, to remain an icon of Italian heritage in the modern world and what did this symbol of so much bloodshed mean to future visitors?

 

1. Out of the Ashes: the Origins of the Colosseum

siemiradzki nero torches krakow painting
Nero’s Torches (sometimes known as the Candlesticks of Christianity), by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876, via Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

 

The Colosseum was built in the valley between Rome’s Caelian, Esquiline, and Palatine Hills. In 64 BCE, this area of the city had been ravaged by a terrible fire. The great conflagration laid waste to the region and provided Emperor Nero the opportunity to seize space in the imperial capital for his own ends. He appropriated the land as the site of his infamous Domus Aurea (the “Golden House” of Nero), an architectural statement of his sense of superiority. Unfortunately for the emperor, his popularity soon plummeted dangerously. Committing suicide in 68 CE, the empire was engulfed in a civil war. Four competitors surfaced, from which Vespasian would emerge triumphant as the new emperor. Together, he and his sons Titus and Domitian – the Flavian Dynasty – would attempt to restore Rome and efface the legacy of Nero.

 

vespasian statue bust
Head of a statue of Vespasian, possibly re-carved from a portrait of Nero, 70-80 CE, via British Museum

 

To do so, the Domus Aurea had to go. In a symbolic gesture, the land appropriated by Nero for private purposes was given back to public use. A vast amphitheater, a place of popular entertainment and a venue for imperial beneficence in the heart of the imperial capital, was a fitting gesture. Construction began on the Amphitheater in around 70 CE, funded by the extravagant wealth plundered by the emperors from the Temple at Jerusalem, sacked during the First Jewish-Roman War. A dedicatory inscription, now lost, recorded the structure’s debt to Rome’s military successes:

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Imp. Caes. Vespasianus. Aug.
Amphitheatrum Novum
Ex Manubis fieri iussit


—–


Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered a new amphitheater
to be made from the spoils (ex manubis)

 

2. Emperors and the Arena

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Copper medallion depicting bust of Gordian III , with reverse depiction of the Colosseum with a beast hung taking place, 238-244 CE, via , via British Museum

 

Much like the Flavian emperors, the rulers that came after found the Colosseum to be a politically charged environment in the heart of the imperial capital. Successive emperors could copy the Flavian exempla and invest in the vast arena, either in the games or in the structure of the arena itself. Some sense of the spectacle of the games themselves is suggested by the accounts of the inaugural games directed by the emperor Titus as recorded by Cassius Dio. The historian notes that some 9,000 wild animals were slain in the arena, along with combat between single fighters, groups of men, naval battles, and horse races. The emperor Domitian — far from the most fondly-remembered emperor — embellished his family’s legacy to the imperial capital by adding additional seating to the upper levels of the arena. In 217 CE, the arena was badly damaged by fire which Dio attributed to a lightning strike; the wooden floors on the upper levels of the arena were ruined. Repair works were ongoing throughout the third century.

 

collaert commodus gladiator leopard rijksmuseum
Engraving showing Commodus killing a leopard in the arena, attributed to Adriaen Collaert, 1594-1598, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Of course, the arena could also be the haunt of the deranged and the depraved, a showground for the worst imperial excesses. This was, as one theory holds, where the name came from: the Flavian Amphitheater picked up its enduring nickname from the Colossus of Nero. This enormous bronze statue of the emperor had originally adorned the vestibule of the Domus Aurea. After the emperor’s death, it was moved to a platform outside the arena, and the visage modified into that of the sun-god Sol. This too was impermanent however, and the emperor Commodus had the statue modified again. This time, it represented himself, but in the guise of Hercules; you can make out the club of the statue on the medallion of Gordian above.

 

pollice verso gerome phoenix gladiators painting
Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872-1900, via Phoenix Art Museum

 

Commodus himself is perhaps the emperor most closely associated with the Colosseum, infamous for his predilection for playing at gladiators. The most-noble born of all emperors (the son of Marcus Aurelius), Commodus would debase himself by participating in events in the arena. He never lost a fight, he boasted (though his opponents would always submit, rather than strike the emperor), and he famously slaughtered scores of exotic beasts. In one gruesome encounter, he carried the decapitated head of an ostrich over the watching spectators and motioned to the elderly politicians that they would be next…

 

3. We Who Are About to Die: Gladiators in Rome

gerome ave caesar salute yale painting
Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (Hail Caesar! We Who Are About to Die Salute You), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859, via Yale Art Gallery

 

The gladiators at Rome, the celebrity sportsmen of their day, gave life and limb for the entertainment of the imperial capital. Despite this, they were often from the lowest rungs of the social ladder, and gladiators were very often either slaves or criminals condemned to death. Some, such as Spartacus, rebelled against their fate, often in vain. Others would achieve fame, notoriety, and even wealth. Gladiators typically kept their prize money and other gifts, and their skills were highly valued. Suetonius even alleges that Emperor Tiberius offered several retired gladiators as much as 100,000 sesterces to return to the arena! They were trained in special schools. The largest in Rome is the Ludus Magnus, built by Domitian in the late 1st century CE directly to the east of the Colosseum.

 

metropolitan museum carnelian intaglio gladiator lion
A carnelian intaglio of a gladiator fighting a lion, produced in the early 1st century CE, Metropolitan Museum

 

The shows hosted at the arena, called munera, were always given by wealthy private individuals. In the Colosseum, this was the emperor himself; the games offered a way for the princeps to display his generosity for the ordinary people. The beast hunts in the arena, fabulously rendered on a number of mosaics to have survived from antiquity, were known as venationes (a single venatio). This was a display of imperial opulence as much as power: exotic beasts from the far corners of the empire were brought to Rome to exhibit in the arena. The spectacles were often staged among elaborate sets and ran the course of dozens of days. One of the most famous were the games Trajan staged in celebration of his conquest of Dacia: 107 contests, involving over 10,000 gladiators, took place over 123 days.

 

4. The Architecture of the Amphitheater

alma tadema gladiators colosseum painting
The Colosseum, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1896 via Wikimedia

 

The Colosseum was, and remains, an architectural marvel. The word amphitheatrum literally means ‘theater all around’, and the structure is best interpreted as two classical theaters joined together. However, unlike a Classical Greek theater – typically built to maximize the advantages of natural topography, the amphitheater was entirely free-standing. The Colosseum itself is comprised of an elliptical structure that measures 189m long and 156m across. The height of the outer wall soars 48m high. The floor of the arena itself is also an oval, measuring 87m in length by 55m across; a 5m wall separated the baying spectators from the bloodletting on the sands below. The outer wall is a wonderful mix of architectural orders, one per level: Doric half-columns are used on the base, then Ionic around the middle, and finally, elaborate acanthus leaves spill out of Corinthian columns on the uppermost level. Although now lost, there once would have been around 240 mast corbels positioned around the top of the attic. These supported a retractable awning that could be used to protect spectators from the blistering Italian sun.

 

colosseum flavian amphitheatre kieren
The façade of the Colosseum in Rome, photograph by the author

 

The base of the Colosseum had 80 separate entrances, and visitors today can still see the numerals above that marked these out. Modern estimates put the number of spectators at around 50,000, and these would have been seated in tiers on the interior. These would likely have reflected the strictly hierarchical nature of Roman society — the better your standing in life, the better your seating at the games. The floor of the arena, a wooden floor covered with sand, covered a subterranean structure called the hypogeum. This was also built by Domitian and consisted of a series of tunnels and other logistical apparatus that were vital to the spectacles above.

 

5. All the World’s a Stage: Amphitheaters in the Roman Empire

pompeii amphitheatre riot mural
The Pompeians at the Amphitheater at Pompei, from the Casa della Rissa nell’Anfiteatro, at the National Archaeological Museum of Napoli, via Wikimedia Comons

 

Although the Colosseum was the largest amphitheater in the ancient world, it was far from the only such arena. In all, around 230 have so far been uncovered across the expanses of the empire, from Britain in the north to Tunisia in the south. The earliest of these date to the Republican period and may perhaps be a feature of the Capuan region of Italy.  However,  many of the permanent structures belong to the imperial period. One of the best known of these earlier amphitheaters is the arena at Pompeii, which is confidently dated by archaeologists as belonging to a period shortly after 70 BCE.

 

Later, during the imperial period, amphitheaters became a recurring feature of the Roman urban landscape, a testament to the integration of Roman cultural norms into other societies. These vast, permanent structures became spaces for towns and cities to engage in competition for pre-eminence in the empire, increasing the arenas in size, sophistication, and decorative elaboration. They could also reflect the personal attachments of the emperors themselves. The fifth largest amphitheater in the world was built in Italica, located in Andalucía, southern Spain. The home of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, it was the latter who commissioned the structure to be built during his reign (117-138 CE).

 

6. Into the Lion’s Den? The Colosseum and Christianity

schmalz faithful christians lions painting
Faithful Unto Death – Christians to the Lions, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1987, via Christie’s

 

Within the Christian collective consciousness, the shadow of the Colosseum looms large as a site of martyrdom. The Church history tradition presents the arena as one of the primary places at which the persecutions their faith suffered reached a bloody nadir. A notable example is provided by Irenaeus, who died around 202 CE. The Greek Bishop described how Ignatius of Antioch was taken from his hometown in Syria, and taken to Rome, where he was fed to lions for the entertainment of the Romans in c. 107 CE. However, specific evidence that this took place at Rome — let alone in the Colosseum — is sparse.

 

It was John Chrysostom who first alluded to the Colosseum as the place of Ignatius’ martyrdom. The association of the Colosseum with early Christian martyrs is further problematized by the apparent lack of reverence shown to the structure in the Middle Ages. At a time when sites associated with martyrdoms were typically venerated, the Colosseum itself was spoliated; it became, in effect, a vast quarry for building material in the center of Rome. Nor, it should be noted, was it included in the itineraries compiled for pilgrims. The 12th century Mirabilia Urbis Romae (“Marvels of the City of Rome”) instead identifies the Circus Flaminius as the site of Christian martyrdoms. Despite this, a small chapel is known to have been built in the arena in the 6th century, though this should not be conflated with a broader religious significance attributed to the structure.

 

flavitsky christian martyrs colosseum rybinsk painting
Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum, by Konstantin Flavitsky, 1862, via art-catalog.ru

 

Nevertheless, the Colosseum evidently captured the imagination of the Christian communities in Rome. Artists, in particular, have found the subject of Christian martyrdom in Rome’s greatest arena to be an evocative and emotive subject for paintings. Pope Pius V (1566-1572) reputedly encouraged pilgrims to view the sand of the Colosseum’s arena as a relic. It was, he argued (though not all his contemporaries agreed), rich with the blood of martyrs. Associations with the Christian faith likely helped preserve the remains of the structure, and certainly warded off plans to turn the arena into a bullring, as proposed by Cardinal Altieri. Pope Clement X  declared the structure a sanctuary in 1675. Stations of the Cross were erected around the Colosseum by Pope Benedict XIV in the mid-eighteenth century. The link endures, and today a Christian Cross stands in the Colosseum, accompanied by a plaque that declares its dedication to the suffering of the martyrs which purified the arena from its previous impious superstitions.

 

7. After Antiquity: The Colosseum in the Modern World 

galle heemskerck colosseum rijksmuseum
Colosseum in Rome, by Philips Galle after Maarten van Heemskerck, 1572, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

The Colosseum’s decline as an arena was long and protracted. First, Honorius banned gladiator fights in the late 4th century CE. However, the structure was evidently still an important venue in Rome, with epigraphic evidence indicating that Theodosius II and Valentinian III — who reigned during the mid-5th century — restored the structure. The venationes, the Roman beast hunts, are known to have continued until at least 523. Anicius Maximus, a late Roman senator, celebrated his consulship with games. Unfortunately for Anicius, and a sure sign of the times, the high cost of the games attracted the criticism of Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic King.

 

By the 13th century, the arena had become a castle, taken over by the Frangipani family and fortified. Then, in the age of the Popes, the Colosseum was the subject of much deliberation: in the late-16th century Pope Sixtus V, one of the great rebuilders of Rome, floated a plan to convert the Colosseum into a wool factory to provide honest employment to the city’s prostitutes. His premature death brought an end to this proposal. It wasn’t until the 20th century, and the archaeological endeavors (poorly judged) of Benito Mussolini and the Fascists, that the arena substructure was fully exposed.

 

warwick interior colosseum yale painting
An Interior View of the Colosseum, Rome, by John Warwick Smith, 1749-1831, via Yale Centre for British Art

 

Today, the Colosseum is what it has been for a very long time: one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions. Millions visit the enormous structure every year, bewitched by the architectural marvel, the history of bloodshed and of crazed emperors, and the plans of Renaissance popes.

 

The Colosseum captured the imagination of artists who visited Rome, a must-see stop on the Grand Tour, who despite (or, perhaps because of) its ruined condition, found the structure an endless source of Romantic inspiration. Lord Byron, one of the leading Romantics, painted a particularly evocative image in his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a narrative poem published between 1812 and 1818. The poem recounts the travels and reflections of a cynical, world-weary young man who has gone traveling to inject his life with meaning. In Canto IV, the hero of the poem enters Italy, and encounters the ruins of an ancient empire, crumbling. Of the Colosseum, he opines:

 

“While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand;

When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall.”

 

There are few clearer expressions of the Colosseum’s enduring status as an icon of Roman and Italian history and of the continued importance of this architectural masterpiece to people all over the world.



Author Image

By Kieren JohnsMA Classics & Ancient History, BA History & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK based contributing writer currently studying for a PhD in Classics and Ancient History, investigating the representation and authority of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the past with as many people as possible. Away from his research, Kieren is also interested in arts, literature, and travel.