The Colosseum—Ancient Rome’s “Entertainment” Center
By Awake! correspondent in Italy
“THE Colosseum, one of the most famous of Rome’s ancient monuments; a symbol of its former power and glory, and a witness of great atrocities,” says Luca, acting as a tour guide for his friends Marco and Paolo.
Perhaps you too would like to know more about the Colosseum—when it was built and what spectacles were staged there. Did any of the early Christians ever go there? Did they die there, torn to pieces by wild beasts, as some believe? Well, listen to what Luca has to say to his friends.
Luca: “The Colosseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater because it was the collective work of the emperors of the Flavia family: Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Vespasian began the construction during the years 72 to 75 C.E., his son Titus continued the work and inaugurated the structure in 80 C.E., and his brother Domitian later completed it.”
Paolo: “But why is it called the Colosseum?”
Luca: “That’s an interesting question, but there is no sure answer to it. It seems that it was not until the eighth century C.E. that the arena came to be called the Colosseum. Some think that the name derives from its colossal size. Others say it was because of the nearby colossus of Nero, an enormous statue about 110 feet [35 m] high, that represented Nero as the sun-god.
“Simply stating that it was the largest of the Roman amphitheaters doesn’t mean much without some details. For example, it was built in the form of an ellipse, with a greater axis of 617 feet [188 m] and a lesser one of 512 feet [156 m]. It has a perimeter of 1,729 feet [527 m] and is 187 feet [57 m] high. The work required tens of thousands of tons of travertine, a form of marble quarried in the nearby town of Tivoli, and 300 tons of iron to join the marble blocks together. The builders also used a lot of what we today would call prefabricated materials. Blocks and columns of stone were produced elsewhere and then transported to the construction site. This explains the speed with which the Colosseum was built. Just think, between five and eight years were sufficient to erect this massive structure.”
Marco: “I was just thinking, Luca, how many slaves must have worked on the Colosseum!”
Luca: “It’s possible that prisoners of war were used for the heavy work, but that’s all. The rapidity with which the construction was brought to a completion and the variety of materials used indicate that professional workers and craftsmen were used.”
Paolo: “How many stories does the Colosseum have?”
Luca: “From the outside you can see three stories with perfectly symmetrical arches. Originally every arch was adorned with a statue, and each story had 80 arches. Above the third story, you can see a fourth one with large rectangular windows in the wall.”
Marco: “How many spectators could it hold?”
Luca: “The majority of reference works indicate about 45,000 seated and 5,000 standing. Some sources claim that it could hold over 70,000 spectators. In any case, it had a considerable capacity. The audience was protected by an enormous awning, or velarium, that covered the seating area of the arena.
“The amphitheater was built on a concrete platform 42 feet [13 m] thick, which has contributed to its stability over the centuries. What you now see has withstood various fires and earthquakes during its history. The Colosseum’s greatest enemies, however, were the builders of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, who used it as a handy and inexpensive source of travertine and marble. Some of the important buildings in Rome were built or restored with material taken from here. But let’s go inside now.”
Paolo: “What impressive ruins! Tell me, Luca, what used to be down there in the center?”
Luca: “That was the subterranean area for the equipment used in the spectacles. The stage scenery was kept there, along with the cages for the wild animals, the weapons, and the hoists with counterweights for lifting the wild beasts and the gladiators to the level of the arena. The arena floor, which covered the subterranean area, was made of wood. This explains why no trace of it remains. The perimeter of the arena itself was surrounded by a high net or protective metal railing. On this net, which was supported by poles, there were spikes and ivory rolls that prevented the wild animals from climbing it. As a further precaution, it seems there were numerous archers placed around the arena.”
Paolo: “Did the spectators have to pay to get in?”
Luca: “No, entry to the Colosseum was free. This was part of the policy of the emperors, who offered free entertainment in order to keep the people under control. In reality, these spectacles were like a drug that corrupted people’s consciences. The Roman poet Juvenal used the famous phrase ‘panem et circenses,’ ‘bread and circuses,’ in deploring the behavior of the Roman people, who lived mostly to eat and to enjoy themselves.
“Roman society was divided into classes, as the seating division in the arena shows. The front seats were reserved for the senators. Behind these were the gentlemen’s seats, and the rest, higher up, were for women and slaves.”
Marco: “Is this where the gladiators fought?”
Luca: “Yes. There were mainly two types of spectacle, the munera, or combat between two gladiators, and the venationes, the hunting of wild animals. Also, criminals were put to death here, being consigned unarmed to the gladiators or thrown to the wild animals. Their death offered a horrible spectacle for the ‘enjoyment’ of the public.”
Paolo: “If I remember correctly, the gladiators were slaves, right?”
Luca: “Yes, slaves chosen mostly from among prisoners of war, who accepted any work to save their skins. Some were criminals who, in order to avoid the death sentence, looked for a better chance in gladiatorial combat. Others volunteered as gladiators. There were schools that trained them before they began their career. They were allowed to use various instruments of combat, such as the sword, or the spear and shield, or the net and the trident (three-pronged spear). Even though the events were called ludi gladiatorii, gladiator games, such encounters were tragic spectacles that often ended with the death of one of the contestants.”
Marco: “In fact, I remember that when the gladiators entered the arena, they greeted the emperor with the words, ‘Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant,’ which means, ‘Hail, Caesar, those who are going to die salute you.’”
Paolo: “What about that scene in the movies where the emperor thrusts out his hand with the thumb down to decree the death of the defeated gladiator—did that really happen?”
Luca: “Yes, it did. In earlier periods, it was the winner who decided the fate of the loser. Later on, this right was given to the emperor himself, who decided after having heard the crowd’s verdict. If the spectators felt that the loser had fought bravely, they raised their thumbs and shouted, ‘Mitte!’ (Leave him!), asking for his life to be spared, and if the emperor also showed a raised thumb, the loser was allowed to live. If, instead, the spectators thought the loser had acted in a cowardly way, they lowered their thumbs and shouted, ‘Iugula!’ (Slaughter him!) If the emperor repeated the same gesture, the vanquished gladiator’s death sentence had been pronounced. All he could do was offer his throat to the victor for the death blow. All of this was amid the applause and ovations of the crowd. The winner was then given precious gifts and gold coins.”
Marco: “What a cruel spectacle!”
Luca: “Oh, yes! Human blood literally flowed, not to mention the blood of wild animals that were killed. The spectacles involving animals were often simple exhibitions of trained wild animals that obeyed the orders of their trainer, much like what we see in a modern-day circus ring. But more often, wild animals fought with one another or were pursued and killed. It was real slaughter. Just think, when the Colosseum was inaugurated, 5,000 wild animals were killed in one day!”
Paolo: “I wonder how people could enjoy such things.”
Luca: “Well, think of today’s boxing matches. The audiences roar their approval on seeing the loser knocked senseless to the floor, his face streaked with blood. Or how about those who are attracted by films that attempt to thrill the public by showing blood, death, and gore everywhere? People today are perhaps just as insensitive.
“So the arenas were places of violence and corruption. For this reason the early Christians were careful not to frequent them. In fact, the third-century writer Tertullian, in his work De spectaculis, defined what went on in the arena as ‘rubbish’ and emphasized that the arena was ‘completely foreign’ to Christians.”
Marco: “Is it possible that some Christians died a martyr’s death in the Colosseum?”
Luca: “Christians unquestionably died in Roman arenas, torn to pieces by wild animals. Historical sources prove this. It may be that at 1 Corinthians 15:32, the apostle Paul is saying that he was exposed to dangerous wild beasts in the arena at Ephesus.
“Certainly, somewhere in Rome, Christians suffered a martyr’s death, but it is impossible to say whether they were martyred in the Colosseum. The Enciclopedia Universale, Volume 4, says: ‘It has not been historically proved that the Colosseum was a place of Christian martyrdom.’ However, several Catholic authors claim that it was. They evidently base their opinions on legends that were born in successive periods and that have been accepted by the Catholic hierarchy.
“However, what is upbuilding for Christians today is the fact that ancient followers of Christ were faithful to death in remaining neutral in a violent world. The important thing is not so much knowing where their martyrdom occurred but knowing that they fully maintained their integrity.
“Have you enjoyed your visit to this colossus of Roman architecture?”
“Certainly,” answer Paolo and Marco, “and we thank you for your fine explanations.”
The stones that speak to us through history can reveal many interesting things. The Colosseum highlights the extraordinary talents of the ancient Romans in the fields of architecture and construction. They were builders of bridges, roads, aqueducts, theaters, arenas, temples, and palaces. However, the Colosseum was the scene of horrendous spectacles in which Christians in the past, as well as today, refuse to take part either as spectators or as willing participants.
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Inside the Colosseum today
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The Colosseum in its faded glory