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For information about the jazz-rock band of this name, see Colosseum (band)

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
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The inner layers of the Colosseum

The Colosseum or Coliseum, originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre (lat. Amphitheatrum Flavium), is an amphitheatre in Rome, capable of seating 50,000 spectators, which was once used for gladiatorial combat. It was built by Emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus, between AD 72 and AD 90. It was built at the site of Nero's enormous palace, the Domus Aurea. The Colosseum's name is derived from a colossus (a 130-foot or 40-metre statue) of Nero nearby.



The construction of the Colosseum began under the Emperor Vespasian in AD 72 and was completed by his son, Titus, in the 80s AD. It was built at the site of Nero's enormous palace, the Domus Aurea, which had been built after the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Some historians are of the opinion that the construction of the Colosseum might have been financed by the looting of King Herod the Great's Temple in Jerusalem which occurred about AD 70. Dio Cassius said that 9,000 wild animals were killed in the one hundred days of celebration which inaugurated the amphitheatre opening. The arena floor was covered with sand to sop up the blood.

The Colosseum hosted large-scale spectacular games that included fights between animals (venationes), the killing of prisoners by animals and other executions (noxii), naval battles (naumachiae, via flooding the arena), and combats between gladiators (munera). It has been estimated that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people died in the Colosseum games.

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Interior of the Colosseum.

History of the name Colosseum

The Colosseum's name is derived from a colossus (a 130-foot or 40-metre statue) of Nero nearby. This statue was later remodeled by Nero's successors into the likeness of Sol, the sun god, by adding the appropriate solar crown. The link to Nero's colossus seems to have been forgotten over time, and the name was corrupted to Coliseum in the Middle Ages. Both names are frequently used in modern English, but "Flavian Amphitheatre" is generally unknown. In Italy, it is still known as il colosseo, but other Romance languages have gone for forms such as le colise and el coliseo.


The Colosseum measured 48 metres high, 188 metres long, and 156 metres wide. The wooden arena floor was 86 metres by 54 metres, and covered by sand. Its elliptical shape kept the players from retreating to a corner, and allowed the spectators to be closer to the action than a circle would allow.

The Colosseum was ingeniously designed. It has been said that most spectacle venues (stadiums, and similar) have been influenced by features of the Colosseum's structure, even well into modern times. Seating (cavea) was divided into different sections. The podium, the first level of seating, was for the Roman senators, and the emperor's private, cushioned, marble box was also located on this level. Above the podium was the maenianum primum, for the other Roman aristocrats who were not in the senate. The third level, the maenianum secundum, was divided into three sections. The lower part (the immum) was for wealthy citizens, while the upper part (the summum) was for poor citizens. A third, wooden section (the maenianum secundum in legneis) was a wooden structure at the very top of the building, added by Domitian. It was standing room only, and was for lower class women.

Underneath the arena was the hypogeum (literally, "underground"), a network of tunnels and cages where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. There were also numerous trap doors in the arena floor for the various animals hidden underneath. The arena floor no longer exists, and the hypogeum walls and corridors are clearly visible in the ruins of the building. The entire base of the Colosseum was equivalent to 6 acres (160,000 m²).

Map of central Rome during the Roman Empire, with Amphitheatrum Flavium at the upper right corner
Map of central Rome during the Roman Empire, with Amphitheatrum Flavium at the upper right corner

A most ingenious part of the Colosseum was its cooling system. It was roofed using a canvas covered net-like structure made of ropes, with a hole in the center. This roof sloped down towards the center to catch the wind and provide a breeze for the audience. Sailors manipulated the ropes. The Colosseum also had vomitoria — passageways that open into a tier of seats from below or behind. The vomitoria of the Colosseum in Rome were designed so that the immense venue could fill in 15 minutes, and be evacuated in 5 minutes. Each entrance and exit was numbered, as was each staircase. There were 80 entrances at ground level, 76 for ordinary spectators, two for the imperial family, and two for the gladiators. The vomitoria quickly dispersed people into their seats and upon conclusion of the event disgorged them with abruptness into the surrounding streets — giving rise, presumably, to the name.

Drawing of the Colosseum
Drawing of the Colosseum

Later history

The Colosseum was in continuous use until 217, when it was damaged by fire after it was struck by lightning. It was restored in 238 and gladiatorial games continued until Christianity gradually put an end to those parts of them which included the death of humans. The building was used for various purposes, mostly venationes (animal hunts), until 524. Two earthquakes (in 442 and 508) caused a great damage to the structure. In the Middle Ages, it was severely damaged by further earthquakes (847 and 1349), and was then converted into a fortress. The marble that originally covered it was burned to make quicklime. During the Renaissance, but mostly in the Baroque age, the ruling Roman families (from which many popes came) used it as a source of marble for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica and the private Palazzi. A famous description is in the saying Quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini; what the Barbarians weren't able to do, was done by the Barberinis (one such family).

The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735) wrote:[1] (

Quandiu stabit coliseus, stabit et Roma; (As long as the Colosseum stands, so shall Rome)
Quando cadit coliseus, cadet et Roma (When the Colosseum falls, so shall Rome)
Quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus. (When Rome falls, so shall the world)

Note that he used coliseus, i.e. he made the name a masculine noun. This form is no longer in use.

In 1749, as a very early example of historic preservation, Pope Benedict XIV forbade the use of the Colosseum as a quarry. He consecrated the building to the Passion of Christ and installed Stations of the Cross, declaring it sanctified by the blood of the Christian martyrs who were thought to have perished there. Later popes initiated various stabilization and restoration projects. Every Good Friday the pope leads a procession within the ellipse in memory of Christian martyrs. However, there is no historical evidence that Christians were tortured and killed in the Colosseum [2] ( It is presumed that the majority of Christian martyrdom in Rome took place at the Circus Maximus.

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The Colosseum at night

In recent years, the local authorities of Rome have illuminated the Colosseum all night long whenever someone condemned to the death penalty gets commuted or released.

Hollywood and the Colosseum

The Colosseum has a prominent place in many motion pictures. For example, in the Science Fiction film The Core, the Colosseum is destroyed by intense lightning strikes, which blast it to bits. In Gladiator (2000 film), the Colosseum was re-created via computer imagery to restore it to the glory of its heyday in the 2nd century.

External links


ca:Coliseu da:Colosseum de:Kolosseum es:Coliseo de Roma eo:Koloseo (Romo) fr:Colise it:Colosseo he:קולוסיאום la:Amphitheatrum Flavium hu:Colosseum nl:Colosseum ja:コロッセオ pl:Koloseum pt:Coliseu de Roma fi:Colosseum sv:Colosseum zh:罗马斗兽场


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