The Colosseum is undeniably a symbol of the city of Rome. With over two thousand years of history, it attracts millions of tourists every year and is embedded into the hearts of Italians: the Colosseum represents heritage, strength, and prosperity. Enough so to be represented on the 5-euro-cent coin (since 2002), in fact. But how much do you actually know about the Colosseum? Here are 7 fascinating facts that will deepen your knowledge of this important Roman monument.

The Colosseum as photographed on an early morning in 2019

But first, in case you’re wondering about the spelling of the word Colosseum, which you may have seen spelled as coliseum… The two were used interchangeably at some times in history, but a “coliseum” is the word used to describe a general amphitheatre anywhere in the world. But the Colosseum in Rome is the only colosseum with a capital “C.” So, you can always remember that the Colosseum is a coliseum.

1 / “Hello my name is… the Flavian Amphitheatre”

The Roman Colosseum has not always been called “the Colosseum” as this modern name only dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s proper name is “Amphitheatrum Flavium” or Flavian’s Amphitheatre; in fact, you can still see the original name written on the Colosseum today. The Flavian Amphitheatre was named after the Flavian Dynasty, the emperors who commissioned its construction.

But, how did the Colosseum get its modern name? The answer is still widely disputed between historians today. At 4 stories tall and with a capacity of over 50,000 spectators, its unprecedented size may have generated its colloquial name, “the Colosseum.” However, a number of historians believe that its name derived in reference to a “colossal” bronze statue of Nero as sun-god that once stood outside of the Amphitheatre.

2 / The Colosseum was built really quickly

Considering the pace of construction work in modern-day Italy, you may well think that the Colosseum must have taken a long time to build (or perhaps was even left unfinished). But the Roman workforce was, let’s say, strongly motivated. The Flavian Dynasty had a gigantic workforce of about 60,000 slaves brought back from Jerusalem after the first Jewish-Roman war, who dragged Travertine rocks 20 miles from Tivoli all the way back to Rome. While the manual labor was handled by slaves, much of the skilled labor was completed by Romans in professional teams of artists, engineers, architects, and decorators.

A certain amount of mechanical ingenuity was also employed: treadwheel cranes powered by slaves in what was essentially a human hamster-wheel, were used to hoist the materials needed to build the Colosseum’s famous stone arches. The recent invention of volcanic concrete also accelerated the construction, allowing workers to efficiently and effectively combine travertine, bricks, and other stones. Thanks to these slaves, construction began under Vespasian around 70 or 72 AD and was completed about eight years later when Vespasian’s son, Titus, inaugurated the Colosseum. To be precise, the final touches were added when Vespasian’s other son, Domitian, added the top floor and the underground chambers for animals and fighters.

3 / Everyone was invited… and it was free!

Interior of the Colosseum

In restoring the Roman Empire’s magnificence and glory, Vespasian built the Colosseum to give the public a place for free entertainment and to feel appreciated. Each emperor organized free games inside the Colosseum as propaganda, aiming to top the last’s extravagance and epic battles to increase his popularity. The Colosseum could fit 50,000 spectators (although some scholars estimate up to 80,000), making these games similar in size to some modern football games.

Upon entering, spectators were given pottery shards or rocks as tickets to identify their seats and gates depending on social status. The lower seats in the stadium were reserved for wealthier Roman families, some even with private spaces like modern-day boxes. The remaining stadium seats were divided based on social status, with those lowest on the social tier in the higher seats. To enter and exit, each of the gates were numbered; there were 76 entry arches for “common” spectators, and four other special gates – two for the gladiators and two for the emperor. During the Roman era, social status was extremely important, and great detail was put into the ticketing system to ensure nobile families and common people were divided at these free events.

Fun fact: Historians believe that there were “intermezzos” between games, and servers brought out platters of various foods for the spectators including cakes, cheeses, fruits and nuts, and even large cups of wine! Historians have noted there were some occasions in which wooden balls fell from the sky filled with prizes such as desserts, money, and gifts. Other times, “sparsiones” were planned, in which mists were released over the spectators, scented with saffron or other luxurious aromas. The more fun, food, and extravagance, the more the emperors were adored by the people.

4 / The Colosseum was colorful

During a 2013 restoration of the Colosseum, restorers discovered ancient fresco paintings in a sealed tunnel that led to the commoners’ seating. After decades of being untouched, restorers brushed off a layer of limescale and dirt, revealing brightly colored paintings in vivid red, blue, green and white colors. They also found historical graffiti left by spectators, such as crowns and palm trees. This has led historians to believe that the tunnels inside the Colosseum were most likely filled with paintings and color during its original era. Read more on Reuters.

5 / The Colosseum was built over a huge manmade lake

Viewed from the distance, amongst maritime pines | ph. Unsplash

Before Vespasian was Emperor of Rome, the Empire was ruled by Nero, a megalomaniac murderer who built himself the Domus Aurea, a massive, golden villa with a large, manmade lake, taking land away from the public. After Emperor Nero committed suicide, Emperor Vespasian built his Colosseum over the lake as a direct jab at his predecessor. He did this in a great effort to erase Nero’s memory, while also gaining loyalty and popularity in building something for the people and reestablishing Rome’s glory.

Emptying the Domus Aurea’s large, manmade lake two thousand years ago was no easy task! Ancient engineers had to build canals to drain the water from the space. In doing this, they cleverly transformed them into a sewage system, which was useful for game days when over 50,000 spectators came to see the battles. These sewage systems were connected with terracotta and lead pipes that drained into the Tiber River. There is evidence of a truly advanced water and sewage system inside the Colosseum, including over 100 water fountains and two very large, communal latrines.

Another fun fact… Before Domitian ordered the underground layer of the Colosseum to be constructed, the floor and its wooden supports could be removed, allowing the arena to be flooded. The ancient canals provide evidence that water was added back into the arena for mock naval battles inside the Colosseum, complete with mock warships!

6 / The Colosseum had elevators

Not only was the Colosseum the largest amphitheatre of ancient times, but its technology was also state of the art for its time. When Vespasian’s younger son, Domition, became Emperor, he ordered the construction of the lower level of the Colosseum, called the Hypogeum. The base of this underground layer measured over 6 acres, and it held an intricate system of secret tunnels to transport the exotic animals and gladiators under a veil of mystery. There were two levels of tunnels underground, and these led to other buildings outside of the Colosseum.

Moreover, engineers installed an advanced system of elevators to transport gladiators and animals from underground into the arena. These were normally man-operated with ropes and pulleys, allowing for a seemingly instantaneous change of scenery in the arena. For larger animals like elephants, a hinged platform was invented by Roman engineers to hoist them into the arena. There were a total of 36 trap doors, adding special effects and excitement at the moment when a prop, wild animal, or gladiator seemed to magically appear out of nowhere.

Entertainment inside the Colosseum lasted for hours (sometimes even days), and the special effects were of the highest quality and level of importance. With slave labor, there was never a shortage of manpower, and engineers worked tirelessly to ensure the Colosseum was as up to date in technology as possible. In fact, there is evidence that the Hypogeum was renovated up to twelve times. Every scene of the spectacles was meticulously planned in advance – changing the acts and “guests” as often as possible. The elevators were vital in providing the entertainment expected by the Roman Emperors.

7 / The Colosseum contributed to the building of many other things in Rome

A partial ruin…

After almost 400 years of use, the Colosseum was officially abolished by Emperor Honorius in 404 AD. The battles no longer appealed to the public, and the Roman Empire was in decline. Centuries of neglect and continuous damage from natural disasters, particularly earthquakes, caused the Southwest arches of the Colosseum to fall. You can see this damage in the asymmetric shape of the Colosseum today.

In the Renaissance, Pope Alexander VI officially leased the abandoned Colosseum as a quarry for precious raw materials. Columns and blocks were removed; statues were melted; many iron clamps were stolen. These materials were vital in new construction projects and art throughout Rome including Basilica San Pietro, Palazzo Barberini, and Palazzo Venezia.

8 / It did not impress Ridley Scott

Despite the magnificence of the Colosseum during the Roman Era, it was insufficient in Ridley Scott’s opinion. Fans of the Gladiator film are usually eager to visit Rome and see where the real fights took place, as well as where the film was set. However, fans may be surprised to discover Gladiator was actually filmed in Malta. The Gladiator’s production had a huge budget and all of the proper licenses to film inside the Colosseum; however, it did not have the “look and feel” Ridley Scott had imagined for the film. His easy solution? A new arena was built in Malta just for the movie to the tune of about 1 million dollars.

 

Find out more facts about the Colosseum, including about its architecture and what exactly went on inside, by taking a Roman Colosseum tour with Ciao Florence.

This article is part of a collaboration with Ciao Florence tours.

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