Colosseum Essay

Colosseum / rome / architecture / gladiator / construction / design / roman

The Colosseum in Rome

The rule of the Flavian Dynasty (69-96) was marked by the bloom of architecture. One of the pearls of Roman architecture is The Flavian Amphitheatre, or the Colosseum (75-82).

This enormous construction, which could hold about 50000 spectators, was designed for Gladiatorial Combats and games.The huge size of arena made it possible to let out up to 3090 pairs of gladiators simultaneously. The games were of a rude nature and developed low and bloody instincts in spectators. Games were organized by the emperors, commanders, politicians. The Roman elite had to organize spectacles in order to gain popularity and distract Romans from their real interests. They were even obliged to do it by law. It required big expenses to hold the games. There were many laws regulating the organization of the games.

There was a dire need of an Amphitheatre because the one that existed in Rome (built by Statilius Taurus in 29 BC) was too small. Although the works for a new Amphitheatre were begun by Caligula (12-41 AD), they were stopped by Claudius when he was made the fourth emperor of Rome. Nero didn’t like the old Statilius' construction and built his own amphitheatre, which was situated in the Campus Martis. However, this facility was ruined in 64 AD.

After Nero’s suicide in 98, the Emperor Vespasian Flavian destroyed the Palace, melted the Nero’s statue, and laid the foundation for a gigantic elliptical cup in the site where there used to be an artificial lake. This construction was supposed to show to Rome that the Flavian dynasty cared about its citizens, which is why this construction was named The Flavian Amphitheatre. The system of channels and locks, with the help of which the arena can be flooded in several minutes, is the reminder of an artificial lake which used to be there.

According to one of the versions, the name “Colosseum” is derived from the Latin word «colossus», which means «giant». The emperor Vespasian, who had been to the East and was impressed by the grandeur of Egyptian pyramids, decided to erect an Amphitheatre of a similar splendor and magnificence. According to another version, this construction was named the Colosseum because there used to be a colossal statue of Sun God, remade out of Nero’s statue.   However, modern scientists claim that all these versions are far from the truth. It turned out that in the Roman dialect this Amphitheatre bears the name Coliseo, but not Colosseo, which means that there is no direct connection with the word “colosso” (giant). It has been recently suggested that Coliseo is derived from “collis Isaeum”, which means “the hill on which Isaeum stands” (the sanctuary for the worshippers of the Egyptian goddess Isis). The Colosseum was situated near the Palatine Hill, where there used to be Isis’ temple.

The construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre was completed with the forced assistance of 12000 Jewish captives. The Colosseum was finally opened after ten years of work by another emperor, Titus, Vespasian’s son. This great event took place in 80 A.D. The opening of the Colosseum lasted one hundred days. The Emperor dedicated the new amphetheatre with an astounding spectacles. They involved combats between dwarfs and cranes, individual battles between male and female gladiators, venationes with 5000 wild animals, and lastly the flooding of the arena for a naval combat between war galleys (naumachia).

               The historians still cannot be certain about the name of the architect who designed the Colosseum. His name was not found in  the primary sources like Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Martial.There are several versions, the most popular of which is that it was Rabirius, who also created the palace of Domician. The design of the construction was also ascribed to Gaudentius due to the inscription found in the Catacomb of S. Agnes. According to the legend, Gaudentius was a Christian martyr who, afterwards, died in the amphitheatre of his own design for the entertainment of the Roman citizens

The plan of the Colosseum is an ellipse (188 m x 156 m). An elliptical arena in its center was separated from the spectators by a high wall. The seats for the spectators were divided by wide passageways and formed four tiers. The lowest tier of seats was preserved for the emperor and its court, senators, etc., the next two tiers were occupied by horsemen and Roman citizens, whereas the last tier was used for libertines. Every arched flight served as an entry of the Amphitheatre, and 76 of them were numbered. Even today one can see Roman ciphers above the arcs. The four main entries were preserved for the Emperor and his court, vestals, judges, and honourable guests. Each spectator had a plate with the indication of row, sector and seat.

               Such arrangement of spectators according to social status was typical for Rome, which cannot be said about Greek theaters. The seats of spectators were situated on thick vaulted galleries which served as the protection of spectators from the rain. Due to the gallery system and a great number of entries (80) the building could be easily crowded and emptied. The Flavian Amphitheatre was covered with an exceedingly large awning called vela (an old  Latin word, from which came also the name of velabrum, meaning "sails"), which was supposed to protect the spectators from the heat of the sun. The velarium was fastened to huge poles on top of the Colosseum and moored to the ground by large ropes. It took a team of about 1,000 sailors to furl and unfurl the awning, and to attend to the machinery. They lived in a camp nearby, which was called Castra Misenatium because the workers came from the fleet at Misenum (in the bay of Naples). This camp must have been situated on the Esquiline, right to the north of the grand construction of the Colosseum, or on the Velia.

The interior decoration of the Colosseum abounded in marble revetment and stucco decorations; there probably were statues in the arched flights. The colossal construction of the Amphitheatre lies on the deep basement rooms, which were used for secondary purposes: there used to be rooms for gladiators, for injured people and dead bodies, cages for animals.

The façade of the Colosseum is a grand three-tier arcade; there is a thick stone wall as the forth tier, which is divided by pilasters of the Corinthian order. The Colosseum ows its structure to the system of unifying a multi-tier arcade, which forms a kind of a carcass construction of the building, with the elements of the order – half-columns, that are attached to the arched pillars and support entablature, the purpose of which is to separate one tier of the arcade from another. Such a system is typical of the Roman architecture. The Roman architect in this case use the order not only as the means of proportional division of the enormous in range construction (the length of a circle is more than 520m, the height is 48,5m), but also as the means to discover the tectonic patterns lying in the foundation of the architectural image. Half-columns and entablature reveal the constructive meaning of the multi-tier arcade: a half-column, attached to an arched pillar expresses its supporting meaning better than a pillar itself. In turn, entablature to some extent increases the supporting ability of the arch.

The width of arched apertures and pillars in the Colosseum is the same for all three tiers, but due to the fact that the half-columns of the middle tier have the forms of the Ionic order, which is lighter in proportions, and the half-columns of the highest tier have a form of an elegant Corinthian order, there is an impression of a gradual diminution of weight and lessening of the upper part of the construction, which is very important for the tectonic logic of an architectural construction. Apart from that, the elements of the order increase the plastic expressiveness of the outer wall of the Colosseum.

               There was a row of columns in front of the upper gallery ; two of  the bases remain there, and a number of capitals that belonged to that colonnade have fallen down in an earthquake, and were found in the substructures. These are very rude workmanship, perhaps only because they were to be seen from a great distance. They differ greatly from the finished capitals used in the lower gallery.


               At the bottom of the great central passage a very remarkable wooden framework was found, which resembled what is usually called a cradle in a dockyard, and used for a vessel to stand upon . At the east end of the passage, at the lowest level, is the great drain, half above and half below the level of the old pavement. At the entrance to this are the grooves of a sluice-gate in the walls on each side, and an original iron grating to prevent anything being carried through by the rush of water ; by this it is evident the water was let off from the canals from time to time through this drain. Unfortunately, the old drain, which was at a great depth, was so much damaged that it was found impracticable to repair it, though it was traced the whole length of the building, as far as the Arch of Constantine at the opposite end.

               Down the centre of the building, for the whole length, is a wide passage, which was used for sending up the scenery, and which must have been put together below, and then sent up to the stage, as wanted, by means of this passage ; there is no room for it anywhere else, and there was no place behind the scenes for the actors and workers, as in a modern theatre. On each side of this great central passage are remains of two canals for water, each about ten feet square, and about the same height from the ground; these were evidently filled with water supplied from the aqueducts, and unmistakable traces of three reservoirs for water from the aqueducts have been found in the first gallery. The four canals are not all quite of the same period, nor on the same plan ; one on each side was supported on flat arches of brick of the third century, the other on large beams of wood ; the places to receive the ends of the beams are left in the walls on each side of the passage for the workers under it. These walls are of such a thickness in proportion to their height, that they were evidently made to support the great weight of water ; these very thick walls served instead of the great projection of the buttresses of the usual reservoirs of the aqueducts.

It should also be noted that the arcs of the lowest tier served as the entries of the construction;   vaulted galleries for supporting the rows of seats started from the outer arcs in radial directions. Thus, the compositional structure of a grand façade illustratively showed the constructive qualities of the Colosseum. In this respect, the Amphitheatre is a remarkable example of the organic unity of the Colosseum’s construction and its architectural solution.

The grand multi-tier arcade was never broken by some other forms, its strict rhythm was never interrupted; not a single side of the construction was singled out as the main façade, and the nature of Colosseum was exhaustively opened from any side; in this respect the construction of Colosseum, like a Greek peripter, is remarkable for its compositional unity and integrity.

The Colosseum was made of tufa; the outer walls were made of a more solid travertine. Most of the vaults and walls were made of brick and concrete.

In the apertures of the second and the third tiers there are the rows of statues, made of snow-white marble. They look incredibly impressive due to the artistry of performance, and the quantity and richness of the materials.  Whereas the statues of Parthenon express the beauty and perfection of a free man, the statues of the Colosseum glorify the invincible strength that set them up in the right rows in similar arched apertures along the endless elliptic façade.

The arena of the Colosseum had wooden floor covered with sand, which could be moved down and up. Sometimes the arena was flooded with the help of an aqueduct, and then Naumachiae (real sea battles with real sea ships) were organized.

In the middle of the Colosseum there was the statue of Jupiter. Rivers of blood were shed here for the mere entertainment of cruel and pervert crowd. These were terrible spectacles, and many people expressed their indignation about these games, but they were in minority. It took 200 years to wean away people from such bloody spectacles.

The great construction was used for entertainment of the Romans for four and a half centuries. A lot of changes, additions and repairs were made to the Colosseum. In 217, the upper floors were damaged by a thunderbolt, and for five years the spectacles were held at the circus. Apart from that, the Colosseum suffered from earthquakes (in 442, 470, 847).   The last record of gladiatorial combat dates back to 404, and the last hunt was recorded in 523.

Little by little the taste of the public had changed, and the games held in the Colosseum stopped being so popular. However, the era of the games ended because of the military and financial crisis of the western part of the Roman Empire. It was no longer possible to bear the great expenses for the organization of the games, which made the function of the Colosseum out-of-date. There is the evidence that the hunts were organized in the amphitheatre until the end of the VII century. In the VIII-IX centuries the Colosseum was entirely abandoned.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the Colosseum started to come to ruin. During the Middle Ages it was used for performing Christian ceremonies, sometimes it was used as a feudal castle, and once it was even converted into a workshop for producing nitre. In the end of XIII century the Colosseum was transformed into a quarry. Its materials were used for constructing twenty-three houses of prominent aristocratic families, six churches (in XIV—XV centuries), chancellery of the Roman Pope (1495), even the bridges (XVI). In 1704 free materials of the Colosseum were used for building a harbor. Now instead of a gigantic construction there is only the hull of the grand Amphitheatre. Nevertheless, the ruins of the Colosseum still impress by their grandeur.

In 1997 a rather interesting study was done, measuring The Flavian Amphitheatre with the help of modern laser and infrared techniques. This survey has given us some information about  the deformation of the structures, and a very precise map of this gigantic construction. Moreover, it renewed an old dispute between the archaeologists concerning the form of the Colosseum – they still are not sure whether it is elliptic or ovoidal.


Parker J.H.The Flavian amphitheatre, commonly called the Colosseum at Rome: its history & substructures compared with other amphitheatres. Oxford :James Parker and Co. London: John Murray, Albemarle-Street. 1876.

Doreen Yarwood. The Architecture of Europe. New York: Hastings House, 1974.

Roger H. Clark and Michael Pause. Precedents in Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1985.



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