The Colosseum, A Brief History

The Colosseum, A Brief History

It is the most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand, majestic, mournful sight, conceivable. Never, in its bloodiest prime, can the sight of the gigantic Colosseum, full and running over with the lustiest life, have moved one heart, as it must move all who look upon it now, a ruin... it tops the other ruins: standing there, a mountain among graves: so do its ancient influences outlive all other remnants of the old mythology and old butchery of Rome. 

Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy, (1846).

And so we have the account of a visitor to Rome, almost 200 years ago, none other than the famed author, Charles Dickens. Describing, as he saw it, the colosseum we see today. A monument in the shadow of no other. A seemingly immovable, permanent fixture in the landscape of the ancient city. Instantly recognisable to all the world over. Dickens’ description adds but a snippet to the long history of the Colosseum.

A Brief History of the Colosseum

Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) had lived through the turbulent reign of Emperor Nero (54 – 68 AD) and bore witness to his unpopularity amongst the Roman population. Nero had seized much land in and around the site of the Colosseum following the infamous Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. Nero built himself a magnificent palace the Domus Aurea. This was surrounded by a huge lake. Vespasian set about to return the land to the people and symbolically decided to build his amphitheatre on the site of the lake. Much of Nero’s palace was destroyed and the Amphitheatre was hailed as a centre for the people of Rome. The site of this monument was also located in the city centre, in the very heart of Rome in comparison to other amphitheatres which were located on the outskirts of the city.

The Colosseum was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian (of the Flavian dynasty) around 70-72 AD. He would not see the completion of this massive project during his lifetime. It was his son, Titus who officially opened the Colosseum in 80 AD and dubbed the monument the Flavian Amphitheatre. The opening of the Amphitheatre was a time of celebration and 100 days of games followed.

Cassius Dio writing some 150 years after the event described the inaugural games:

There was a battle between cranes and also between four elephants; animals both tame and wild were slain to the number of nine thousand; and women (not those of any prominence, however) took part in dispatching them. As for the men, several fought in single combat and several groups contended together both in infantry and naval battles. For Titus suddenly filled this same theatre with water and brought in horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that had been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land (animals specially trained to swim). He also brought in people on ships, who engaged in a sea-fight there, impersonating the Corcyreans and Corinthians;

There, too, on the first day there was a gladiatorial exhibition and wild-beast hunt, the lake in front of the images having first been covered over with a  platform of planks and wooden stands erected around it. 

 On the second day there was a horse-race, and on the third day a naval battle between three thousand men, followed by an infantry battle. Cassius Dio, Roman History

Cassius Dio, Roman History

Some of the games described might seem rather familiar – gladiator fights and the slaughtering of animals. But naval battles? Indeed historians and archaeologists have debated Cassius’ claim that naval battles were fought in the Colosseum. Indeed some have suggested a floodable channel was incorporated into the building. What a sight that would have been!

The Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre in the world upon construction. The capacity was approximately 50,000. The size of this monument is a colossal 83 x 48 metres.

Any Roman citizen was entitled to enter the Colosseum and watch a show. Entry was free, the amphitheatre was intended to be a place of entertainment for the people. Prior to the days’ events, Romans were given tickets. Each person entered through one of 76 gates which corresponded to their seat number. 4 additional gates were unnumbered. These were the reserved entrances of the Emperor, magistrates, Senators and the like. Seating was allocated according to social rank.

  • In the first tier, or the Podium was at the lowest level (and closest to the stage). Here sat the most important Romans – the Emperor, Vestal Virgins and Senators.
  • The second tier, which was slightly higher was reserved for non-senatorial nobles, often referred to as knights.
  • Ordinary Roman citizens usually referred to as the ‘Plebians’ sat in the third tier. The lower seats were accorded to the wealthier Plebians, whereas poorer men sat in the upper seats.
  • On the very top tier, women and freed slaves were seated.

Given this system of eating based on social rank, Romans were unable to buy tickets to get better seats!

The Colosseum’s Early History

Under Emperor Domitian (81 – 96 AD), brother of Titus and son of Vespasian, an underground structure or hypogeum was added to the monument. This consisted of two levels of tunnels, cages and holding areas under the main floor of the arena. The addition of this structure would have meant the end of naval battles in the Colosseum (if there had ever been any). 80 vertical shafts provided access for caged animals, gladiators and props to the main floor of the amphitheatre. This underground network can still be seen today.

The hypogeum could be accessed from outside of the amphitheatre via a network of tunnels enabling gladiators, animals or prisoners to enter (and if fortunate exit) the Colosseum.

The Colosseum’s Daily Schedule

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The day’s events usually followed a familiar pattern:


The morning saw the animal shows. These varied. Sometimes exotic animals from around the Roman Empire would parade through the Colosseum. Elephants, lions, panthers, leopards, hippos, crocodiles, ostriches and bears to name but a few could appear either as part of a circus act (some taught to perform tricks) or find themselves the subject of a hunt. Performers would re-enact hunting scenes with the aid of props which appeared at certain times from the hypogean. Sometimes the Emperor would shoot at the animals with his bow from the safety of the Podium.


Midday saw the executions of criminals. Sometimes torture was used. Often prisoners would be thrown into the arena with no weapons to be ripped to pieces by a wild animal.

Late Afternoon:

The main event was held in the latter part of the day – the gladiator shows. Gladiators, usually slaves or ex-slaves would fight for the entertainment of Rome. Sometimes they would re-enact battles. Other times they were to fight to the death. Most of the gladiators were men although there were some female gladiators too.

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The Colosseum Throughout the Centuries

The Colosseum was badly damaged by fire and earthquakes in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries and underwent massive repairs. Gladiator fights receive their final mention in the 5th century and in the 6th century the games revolved around animal hunts.

It seems that when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, so did the Colosseum. The splendour of Rome, the iconic colosseum fell into history.

In the early medieval period, Romans would keep their livestock in the abandoned Amphitheatre. Eventually, it was used as housing.

In the 14th century, the Colosseum was badly damaged by an earthquake. The rubble became a quarry for marble and stone and was used to build many palaces, hospitals and churches in the surrounding area.

In the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV declared the Colosseum was a holy site since many Christians had been martyred there. He forbade any subsequent removal of stone or marble. Subsequent Popes have sought to protect the ancient Amphitheatre.

Living History – The Colosseum Today

Today the Colosseum attracts around 5 million visitors each year. It remains Italy’s most visited tourist attraction (The Vatican attracts more visitors, however, it is not part of Italy).

We visited the Colosseum on our recent trip to Rome. The photos from this trip have been used throughout this post. Walking through the columns of this colossal building, you can almost hear the cheering of the crowds, the panting of the beasts and the sense of anticipation! You really feel a part of history when you walk through the Colosseum!

I hope you enjoyed this brief history of the Colosseum! For visitors information regarding the Vatican City, see my recent post.


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