Travel to Italy and visit The Colosseum in Rome
The Colosseum is one of Rome’s most iconic and popular landmarks, with around 4 million tourists visiting it per year! Most people who travel to Italy know about the Colosseum and the glory days of ancient Rome – the gladiator fights, bloodthirsty crowds, and grand, monumental buildings – but did you know these surprising and interesting facts about Rome’s biggest amphitheatre?
The Colossus of Nero
The building that we know as the “Colosseum” was first known by the Roman people as the Flavian Amphitheatre, as it was built by the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, members of the Flavian Dynasty. It gained the nickname “Colosseum” from the Colossus of Nero, an immense bronze statue of the former emperor, which stood nearby. Nero wasn’t a very popular emperor – in fact, some hated him and his insatiable megalomania – and so the statue was changed slightly to look like the sun god, Sol. Only the foundations of the statue remain today, but it must have been quite a sight in ancient Rome!
Exotic Animals for Rome
One of the most popular kinds of shows held in the Colosseum were the “animal hunts”, where specially trained gladiators called bestiarii battled exotic beasts such as lions, hippos, and even giraffes! These animals were caught in their native countries (e.g., North Africa) and transported great distances back to Rome. They had to be kept alive and strong enough to put up an entertaining fight when their time came to battle the gladiators in front of an audience. It is said that during the inaugural games of the Colosseum, over 9000 wild animals were slaughtered in 100 days of shows and battles.
One often thinks of gladiatorial combat as one-to-one battles in an empty arena, but the most spectacular shows were actually more like gory theatrical performances! The subterranean passages and rooms under the wooden arena floor housed all kinds of props and set pieces that were used to set the scene of themed battles and animal “hunts”. The scenery pieces – for example, wooden palm trees and pyramids depicting Egypt – were hauled up to the arena floor from below, using a complex system of ropes and pulleys. Animals were also hoisted up by pulleys, and the slaves below the arena floor were kept extremely busy making sure that animals and props “appeared” at precisely the right times.
Death to Please the Dead
Gladiator fights weren’t always large public spectacles – in fact, they were mostly organized as part of funeral games for the wealthy deceased and their families. In the early days of Rome, it was believed that the spilling of human blood would appease the souls of the dead, and so gladiator fights, to the death, were commonplace at high-profile funerals. Families would generally buy cheap, untrained slaves for the event as a forced human sacrifice. Certainly not at all like the sombre and dignified funeral services of today’s society!
Riots and Hooliganism
Much like the occasional riots and hooliganism that erupt at large live sports games today, the ancient world also had badly behaved spectators! The senate in Rome was initially reluctant to allow the building of the Colosseum – Rome’s first permanent amphitheatre – due to fears of riots in the capital. Most prior gladiator fights were held in temporary wooden arenas that could be easily removed should the need arise.
Roman Brickwork and Travertine
The outer colonnade of the Colosseum gives the illusion of a grand structure made entirely from stone, but in fact the majority of the Colosseum is built from bricks! The ancient Romans perfected the technique of using of concrete to build walls, arches, and vaulted ceilings, and the concrete cores of these structures were clad with kiln-fired bricks or travertine (a kind of white-ish limestone) slabs. The slabs were hung on the walls using iron clamps. The iron was removed in Medieval times to be repurposed, hence the many holes in the remaining walls!
The Best Seats in the House
The Colosseum’s equivalent of “ring-side seats” were reserved for members of the senatorial classes. You can still see the names of some notable senators carved into their stone seats. The best seats were, of course, reserved for the emperor, his family, and the Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins were given special privileges due to their sacred religious status, which overrode their low social status as women. Regular women were limited to the worst seats right at the very top of the Colosseum. We can also assume that important foreign dignitaries would travel to Italy for the chance to experience the glory and gore of a gladiator fight in Rome’s Colosseum.
The Colosseum as a Castle?
Gladiator games were stopped around AD 435, and the Colosseum was repurposed several times before it fell into eventual ruin. In the 12th Century, the Frangipani family took residence of the Colosseum and used it as their own personal fort. They even constructed secret underground tunnels to other buildings that they owned. They didn’t control the area for long, and afterwards the Colosseum returned to being used as a quarry for building materials.
If you’re planning to travel to Italy for a vacation, you absolutely cannot miss a guided tour of the Colosseum in Rome. Booking ahead is essential if you’d like a private tour of the subterranean areas of the Colosseum, and the chance to walk on the reconstructed wooden arena and get a “gladiator’s-eye-view” of the amphitheatre! It’s truly a unique experience you won’t soon forget.