Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008
“While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand. When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall, and when Rome falls - the World.” This poetic statement attributed to the Venerable Bede sums up every generation’s fascination with the great amphitheater of Rome. No building symbolizes the Roman Empire quite like the Flavian Amphitheater. For centuries it has inspired artists, architects, poets, musicians, and more recently, filmmakers. Conversely, the Flavian Amphitheater horrifies the modern conscience because of the blood spilled within its walls before mobs of cheering spectators. Despite these misgivings, we can appreciate the Colosseum for its enormous size, architectural complexity, and the advanced engineering required to build it almost two thousand years ago.
The Roman Emperor Nero started his reign as a popular leader in the eyes of the citizens of Rome. Driven by popularity, Nero began to erode the power and status of the wealthy, aristocratic class. Increasingly, consulships were given to slaves and freedmen rather than people of noble lineage. Aristocrats were prohibited from hosting gladiatorial games and animal hunts so that Nero could be the sole provider of entertainment for the masses. After having his mother, Agrippina, killed by assassins, Nero continued to depart from Roman tradition, largely due to his fascination with Greek culture. Following in Greek tradition Nero started Neronia, a festival named after himself, to take place every four years. These games comprised competitions in athletics, chariot racing, and musical performance. Nero appeared before the public in chariot races and as an actor on stage while encouraging men and women of distinction to do the same. While many Romans approved, delighted that their magistrates were exhibiting themselves for public amusement, traditionalists were horrified. This was not acceptable behavior for senators and those of the equestrian class let alone the Roman Emperor.
In the year 64 A.D., a great fire burned much of Rome, and Nero took much of the destroyed area for his own use. He constructed a huge personal palace known as Domus Aurea or Golden House, which included manmade landscaping, gold leaf and precious gems in the ceilings, frescoed walls, and a 120 foot tall statue of Nero known as the Colossus. It is from this statue that the Flavian Amphitheater got its nickname, The Colosseum. The use of public land for a personal palace marked the beginning of Nero’s descent into selfish frivolity and neglect of his duties as Emperor. He embarked on a year long tour of Greece during which he competed in musical contests and acted on stage. Nero had alienated the Roman Senate and the Roman Army during his time as emperor and during his absence from Rome, the general public turned on him as well due to widespread food shortages. Nero committed suicide in the year 68 at the age of 30 after having ruled for twelve years.
After Nero’s death, civil war engulfed the Roman Empire for a year and a half, and the empire saw four short lived emperors come and go. Vespasian, a successful military commander who had suppressed a Jewish rebellion in the year 66, claimed the title of emperor and managed to avoid assassination unlike his predecessors. He had to work hard to reverse the damage that Nero had done to the empire. Nero’s frivolous spending had depleted much of the Roman treasury, so Vespasian lived modestly for an emperor and levied new taxes until the empire’s finances were under control. He also drained the lake in Nero’s palace, and started the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater on the site in the year 70. In one move, Vespasian returned to the Roman citizens the land that was theirs and dedicated a colossal monument to their entertainment. He made the point that it was not only the emperor and aristocracy that should benefit from the spoils of Roman conquest, but the citizens too. This political move was calculated to wipe out the memory of Nero, but ironically, the new amphitheater derived its nickname from the giant statue of the emperor whom it tried to erase. Vespasian died without seeing the completion of the Flavian Amphitheater, which was finished by his second successor, Domitian. At its grand opening in the year 80, the Flavian Amphitheater hosted one hundred days of entertainment including wild beast hunts and gladiator matches.
The Flavian Amphitheater, commonly called the Colosseum, is an engineering marvel, even by today’s standards. Seating roughly fifty thousand spectators and featuring a retractable roof, it is comparable to Safeco Field in Seattle, but was planned and erected without the aid of computers or modern construction machinery. The Flavian Amphitheater was built primarily from over one hundred thousand cubic meters of travertine, quarried twenty miles away in the town of Tivoli. The Romans built a special road from Tivoli to Rome for the purpose of transporting the huge blocks of travertine needed to construct the Colosseum. Supplementing the travertine blocks were iron, cement, brick, marble, and Peperino, a porous, volcanic rock.
The outside of the Flavian Amphitheater is composed of four different levels. The lower three are formed by a series of arches surrounded by columns in Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian styles from bottom to top. The top layer was formed by a series of engaged Corinthian columns, walls, and small rectangular windows. Each level of the amphitheater’s façade was ornamented with statues, and each level was separated from the next by an entablature, which allowed for more ornate decoration. Wooden masts extended up from brackets in the top story to support the massive canvas awning that shielded spectators from the hot Mediterranean sun.
All that is known about the roof is that it was made of canvas, it was retractable, and it was operated by Roman sailors who were stationed near the Flavian Amphitheater. There are two main theories on how such a massive roof could have been constructed. The first claims that the roof was composed of canvas draped over a spider web of ropes that ran from the edges of the stadium to the center. This theory provides the most shade for the spectators, but is somewhat less practical because ropes made from natural fibers tend to stretch. The maintenance of such a system of ropes would have required constant attention and repairs. The second theory suggests that the canvas of the roof was hung between horizontal beams of wood. This would have left more of the stadium open to direct sunlight, but the upper class Romans would still have been shielded from the sun for the bulk of the day. This theory is more accepted by critics because pictorial evidence shows that other amphitheaters in the Roman empire had this kind of roof.
The Flavian Amphitheater had eighty entrances, seventy-six of which were marked for public entrance. Of the other four entrances, one was reserved for the emperor, two for the entering gladiators, and one for the removal of corpses from the Arena. Tickets distributed to spectators were marked corresponding to one of the seventy six public entrances. After finding the correct entrance, spectators could make their way to their seats through a maze of passages and stairways within the hollow structure of the amphitheater. These inner passages were constructed to allow maximum traffic flow while still keeping separate the social classes present in Roman society. The emperor had a designated imperial box with the best possible view in the Colosseum. Senators and the Vestal Virgins were given the next best seats, close to the action that took place on the stadium floor. Members of the equestrian class were given the second tier of seats, just behind the Senators and their families. The third level of seating was reserved for common citizens, while the fourth was given to women and slaves.
Great care was taken to ensure that animals could not escape into the crowd and also that all of the action remained in sight to those in the high seats. Netting prevented animals and gladiators from getting too close to the arena walls so that they could always be seen from all angles and from every seat. In addition, the tops of the walls separating the spectators from the arena floor were fitted with rollers so that if an animal did manage to get past the netting it would not be able to scale the wall and escape. As a third level of protection, archers were stationed around the arena walls as an extra precaution.
Underneath the arena floor there was a network of underground passages, cells, and elevators. These cells were used to hold animals and condemned men until they needed to be elevated to the arena through trapdoors. The trapdoors were used to create dramatic effects such as animals appearing from nowhere onto the arena floor. Roman historians claim that the Flavian Amphitheater could be filled with water to hold sea battles, but this would be impossible if the underground passages were in the way. Therefore, it is hypothesized that this underground network of passages was added years after the amphitheater was originally built. The amphitheater was also connected to an aqueduct and a sophisticated series of drainage pipes, which lends some credibility to the stories of sea battles in the Colosseum. Research has shown that with the aqueduct operating at maximum capacity, the Colosseum could have been filled with water for a sea battle in about seven hours, making it possible to have gladiator fights one day and naval reenactments the next.
Entertainment and Propaganda
The main role of the Flavian Amphitheater was to provide entertainment to the citizens of Rome. All tickets were free, and all shows were sponsored by the state. It is not known how tickets were distributed, but it is estimated that one in every twenty people living in Rome could attend a single event with a high percentage of these tickets going to the upper class. There were three main types of events held at the Colosseum; wild beast hunts, executions, and gladiator matches. Often, one day of entertainment would include all three types of spectacle. Wild beast hunts started the day followed by public execution of criminals during a lunch break followed by gladiator matches that lasted into the night. The most exotic animals from all over the Roman Empire were slaughtered in the beast hunts by trained hunters. Occasionally smaller, tamer game was exhibited including deer and ostrich. Often, executions were carried out by throwing the condemned men to lions or other animals. Occasionally, however, the condemned were forced to fight each other in reenactments of historic battles or made to act in plays where they would be killed on stage in front of the audience. Gladiator matches usually pitted just one fighter against another and contrary to popular belief did not always end in the death of one of the participants. Training and feeding a gladiator was a significant investment, so if half the gladiators died in each round of a tournament, it would not be economically feasible to maintain a sizable stock of trained gladiators. During the height of the public spectacles, the state sponsored several gladiator schools in Rome, the most famous of which was connected to the Colosseum by underground passages. The Ludus Magnus as it was called was home to three thousand gladiators at a time. There were four main types of gladiators who were distinguishable by their armor, weapons, and fighting style, and up to twenty minor varieties. The Romans loved to pit different types of gladiators against each other. The most famous of these matches pitted a lightly armored, nimble fighter armed with a net and trident against a heavily armored, slower fighter armed with a short sword.
The emperors of Rome used the Colosseum and the events held within as propaganda to push their messages and values to the Roman public. By constructing the Flavian Amphitheater on the former site of Nero’s palace, Vespasian sent a clear message that he was differentiating himself from his predecessor. He was giving back to the Romans the land that Nero had taken from them. The Colosseum was to be a symbol of the beneficence of the Flavian Dynasty towards the citizens of Rome. In addition, it was the perfect place for the emperors to parade their power in front of their citizens, and at the same time gave the spectators the illusion that they could influence the decisions of the emperor through chants of petition.
The Colosseum was meant to convey the power of the Roman Empire through its sheer size. Standing over one hundred fifty feet tall it towered above the surrounding buildings and dominated the Roman skyline. The exotic beasts exhibited in the Colosseum were a visible reminder that the Roman Empire was expansive, stretching to all parts of the world, and that the Romans were in control of nature. The gladiator matches reinforced the military values espoused by Roman Emperors; courage in battle and triumph over death.
The harshly segregated seating reinforced Vespasian’s message that he was different than Nero. While Nero had eroded the boundaries between the social classes of Rome, Vespasian enforced them and brought them to everyone’s attention. He would still appear before his subjects on a regular basis; however it would be done in a dignified manner with a visible separation between the aristocracy and the commoners. The class separation in the Colosseum’s seating was so strict in fact that one could follow a politician’s career by watching where his seat was over several years. Successful politicians slowly moved towards the front rows while failing politicians moved slowly backwards towards the ranks of the commoners.
In the days when Rome was a republic, the wealthy used public entertainment to buy votes for political office. The citizens of Rome came to expect the upper class to provide them with free entertainment, so the Roman Emperors used the public entertainments hosted at the Colosseum to sustain popularity with the people of Rome. This was a double-edged sword because it meant that the emperors continually had to outdo what had been done in previous spectacles whether this meant finding stranger beasts or entering higher numbers of beasts and gladiators into the arena. It was well known that successful emperors hosted great spectacles, and a failed spectacle was an omen of an emperor that was doomed to fail.
In the fifth century, the Christian Church began to use the Colosseum as a symbol of its perseverance. Recounting tales of the brave martyrs who faced lions in the arena was a perfect way to gain converts. Who would not want to be part of a religion that so empowered its followers that they overcame the fear of death? There is no actual evidence of Christians being martyred in the Colosseum because it was not until after Christianity had already been named the official religion of the empire that these stories began to surface. There is proof, however, that Christians were put to death in Rome during persecutions and it is likely that this could have happened in the Colosseum during the executions displayed at midday.
The Flavian Amphitheater gradually fell out of use because of the expense involved in capturing exotic beasts, training gladiators, and maintaining the structure. The last gladiator matches were held in the year 404, though beast hunts continued for some time after. The decline of the Colosseum paralleled the gradual decline of the Roman Empire as invading tribes broke it down into smaller, separate nations.
In the middle ages, the Colosseum because a popular tourist site reputed as the only destination in Rome guaranteed not to disappoint. Despite its revered status as the symbol of Rome, however, the Colosseum was quickly falling into disrepair. A series of earthquakes and fires cause by lightning strikes had destroyed much of the original structure. In addition, for centuries Roman builders used the travertine blocks of the Colosseum as building materials for new projects. Scavengers had taken all of the iron that held together the travertine blocks as well. After the fall of the Roman Empire, families squabbling for control of Rome used the amphitheater’s walls as a fortress, barricading its arches to deny entry to their enemies. Vagrants used the Colosseum as a convenient place to spend the night, and at one point it was used to house a wool factory. It had become so overgrown that in 1855, Richard Deakin published a book illustrating four hundred twenty species of plant that could be found growing in the Colosseum.
It was not until late in the 1800s that any serious efforts were made to stop the steady degradation of the Colosseum. Crumbling walls were reinforced by large buttresses, part of the outer wall was rebuilt with brick, and use of the travertine as a quarry for current building projects was halted. Despite these measures, the Colosseum is just a ghost of its original magnificence. It is estimated that over half of the original structure is gone, and it is very difficult to tell where that original structure stops and where repairs begin. Today the biggest threats the Colosseum’s structure besides earthquakes are traffic and pollution. Pollution slowly degrades the travertine blocks, and the steady rumble of cars and tour busses passing nearby gradually turns them to dust.
The Colosseum Today
Despite being only a shadow of its former glory, the Colosseum is still an impressive sight, and still continues to inspire modern artists. Many modern sports venues copy elements of the Colosseum’s design, and several venues are named “The Coliseum” in its honor. Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, staged rallies at the Colosseum prior to World War II to try to evoke its power and liken himself to the Roman Emperors. The Catholic Church still considers it to be a sacred monument to the martyrs who died within its walls, and the Pope still occasionally leads services there. A pro-life group currently uses the Colosseum as part of a campaign against the death penalty called “The Colosseum Lights Up Life”. Every time a condemned person is executed or a country outlaws the death penalty, they use floodlights to light up the Colosseum. In an ironic twist, the Colosseum which is traditionally associated with brutality and death is being cast as a symbol of life.
Many people today are still horrified by the idea of exotic animals being massacred for sport and people being put to death for entertainment. We are intrigued by this brutality while at the same time we hope that our society is more evolved. We wonder what would drive a society to be so bloodthirsty and to delight in such brutality. Our society is also pervaded by violence, however, and although our violent entertainment is on TV and in movies we have to wonder if we are very different from the bloodthirsty Romans at all.
Much to Learn
The most surprising element of the Colosseum is that we know so little about the details of what went on within its walls with absolute certainty. Much of common belief about gladiators, hunts, and executions in the amphitheater is based on Hollywood, exaggerating historians, and artist’s interpretations. For example, traditionally we think of the thumbs down as a condemnation, and thumbs up as a sparing gesture. This is based entirely on Gerome’s painting, Pollice Verso, and it is more likely that a thumb turned towards the throat would indicate condemnation through the delivery of a fatal stab to the neck. Additionally, we don’t know for sure whether the Colosseum was ever flooded for naval battles, whether Christians were put to death in the Colosseum, how the retractable roof was constructed, or how the immense structure was built without the aid of cranes and other modern construction equipment. We can guess accurately due to clues left by Roman historians and unearthed archeological evidence, but part of the intrigue of the Colosseum is that it is mysterious and we may never know much about it with absolute certainty.
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