No type of building is more closely associated with the Roman empire than the amphitheater. However, the most important of them, the giant Flavian Amphitheater, or Colosseum, built between AD70 and 80, was the first permanent construction of this type. The emperors Gaius Caligula and Nero had loved gladiatorial games: these had been performed in temporary if lavishly decorated timber structures which where destroyed in the great fire of AD64.
In a stroke of political genius, Vespasian decided to use the drained lake of Nero’s ‘Domus Aurea’ (Golden Palace) – which was detested by citizens for it’s ostentation -for a great crowd-pleasing project: Rome‘s first, and the empire’s greatest, permanent amphitheater. Well drained, with good clay subsoil for such a heavy building, in the very centre of the city, it was the perfect site. Work began early in Vespasian’s reign (AD69-79) and Titus held typically splendid inauguratory games in AD80.
The Colosseum fully deserves its name, given by the historian Bede in the early Middle Age either because of the colossal gold statue of Nero nearby, or because of its colossal size. A substantial part of the amphitheater survives today despite it was constantly pillaged for building materials over the centuries until Pope Benedict XIV pronounced it sanctified by the blood of martyrs in 1749, safeguarding the remainder.
The Colosseum is still the most impressive extant building in Rome and a massive testament to the enduring skills of Roman engineers. Its typically elliptical outer shape measures (615ft by 510ft), its big arena inside (282ft by 177), its outer wall once rose to 171ft, making it the tallest building in the city. It could accommodate an estimated 45-55.000 spectators.
To support the Colosseum‘s huge ‘cavea’ (stepped seating), a vast ring of concrete 170ft wide and 40ft deep was laid. The lower part of about 20ft was cut into a trench while the upper, equal-sized part was contained inside a huge circle of brick-faced concrete above ground. These foundations supported a framework of load-bearing piers of travertine (a typical roman’s white stone) specially quarried near Tivoli. Between the piers ran radial walls of squared tufa-bricks up to the second floor. Almost all the vaults are barrel-vaults made of concrete, but some have brick ribs.
About ten million cubic feet of travertine were needed to built the façade alone, and 300 tons of iron were used just for the nails. The façade has three tiers of low arches framed respectively by Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, all semi-engaged and purely decorative. The arches probably once had statues of gods or heroes in them, judging by depictions on coins. The top storey had tall Corinthian pilasters and originally had huge shields of gilded bronze alternating with large windows, that would have gleamed impressively. Although this storey looks the most solid, it is in-fact the lightest built section
Romans erected this gigantic and complex structure with impressive speed, helped by their quasi-military organization of the process. Each material used in the building was handled by different groups of craftsmen, so that travertine could be added to the concrete core in one area while the final marble coatings were being laid in another. The whole structure was massively built in withstood a lightning strike in AD217 – though it was closed for some years for repairs – and other assaults by recurrent earthquakes and the elements. Only human quarrying has done lasting damage.
The imperial box, richly decorated with colored marbles, occupied the prime position on the short axis. Elsewhere, seating was allocated according to class or status. Augustus, as part of his attempted restoration of public morality, had tried to stipulate exactly who should sit where while watching performances in theatres, to reduce the opportunities for chatting up girls that Ovid so fondly described, and this seems to have applied in the Colosseum as well. In fact women were relegated to the topmost tiers, with the worst view, except for the Vestal Virgins, whose high religious status overrode their lowly sexual status.
In the smarts seats on the lowest tier where joined senators, equestrians and others dignitaries, often including ambassadors. Immediately above them, was the first row for the general public, the ‘maenium primum’, followed by the ‘maenium secundum immum’, the ‘maenium secundum summum’ and finalyy by the ‘maenium secundum in ligneis’, with a gallery around that where ordinary spectators had to stand.
Some tickets were reserved in blocks for ‘collegia’ (guilds) or for particular groups such as the citizens of Cadiz, privileges tenaciously preserved down the centuries. There were 76 public entrances, some of whose Roman numbers can still be seen. The Emperor’s monumental entrance, surmounted by a ‘quadriga’ (four-horse chariot), was in the south, between entrance I (1) and LXXVI (76), a part of the amphitheater that has almost completely destroyed.
The performers reached the arena directly by entrances at the long ends of the axis that where connected via a tunnel with the ‘Ludus Magnus’, the main imperial gladiatorial school nearby. The Roman audience was protected from the sun and rain by a ‘velarium’, a huge canvas awning that covered the whole of the ‘cavea’ and left only the arena open.
Beneath the floor of the arena was en even more impressive network of subterranean passages and chambers which accommodated the wild beasts and the human performers before the games. This seeming labyrinth was organized with characteristic Roman efficiency, although later alteration and addition make the original structure hard to discern. Lifts operated by man-cranked windlasses lifted the animals up in their cages to trapdoors through which they sprang, bedazzled, into the sunlit arena covered with sand to absorb the blood.