I first viewed Rome’s grand memorial to gladiators in 1967. I was as impressed with the number of feral cats living in the ruins as I was with the structure. Massive renovations have taken place since. Today’s Colosseum is crowded with tourists instead of cats. We joined the throngs.
Originally the Colosseum was known as the Flavian Amphitheater, after the family of emperors who built it. Nero, who had a bad case of self-adulation, built a huge statue of himself nearby. It was known as the Colossus. At some point, the name was applied to the Colosseum. A later emperor, by the way, removed the head from Nero’s statue and affixed his own stone likeness on top. Why pay for a whole statue? It became the custom with each succeeding emperor. So much for everlasting fame…
When completed in 80 AD, the Colosseum could seat 50,000 screaming people. Some 2000 gladiators killed each other and 9000 animals over the 100 day inauguration.
While their taste in entertainment might be questionable, the Romans’ engineering abilities were superb. The Colosseum is high testament to this. Modern stadiums are still built on a similar model, designed to move large numbers of people in and out quickly. I was amused to learn that the Romans called the entrance/exit passages vomitoria– hence our word, vomit.
Spectators were issued tickets on pottery shards that listed their entrance gate, section, row and seat numbers. The higher your rank, the better your seat. The top rows were saved for slaves, foreigners and women. Some people, such as actors and gravediggers, weren’t allowed in the Colosseum at all. Now we elect actors as presidents and governors. Gravediggers are still gravediggers.
The top could be covered for bad weather by a large canvas awning that was put up and taken down by sailors from Rome’s navy. The true gem of engineering was the floor, however, which covered a network of tunnels and cages where wild animals and props were stored. Eighty different elevators operated by pulleys served to bring scenery and wild animals to the surface. You might be in the middle of an African jungle for one scene and a Greek city the next.
And you never knew when or where the next wild animal might pop up, which could be bad news for gladiators. Cats at the Colosseum then meant lions and tigers with long claws and sharp teeth, oh my. There were also elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and even giraffes–although I can’t imagine why or how you would fight a giraffe. I once chased a herd across the Serengeti Plains in a Volkswagen beetle, however.
Gladiators came from the ranks of slaves, poor people, and criminals. (Contrary to legend, there were very few Christians.) The most successful earned fame, fortune and freedom. Rick Steves, in his book on Mediterranean Ports, reports they even gave endorsements. I can see it in neon lights, “Barbarian Bob eats at Papa’s Pizzeria.”
NEXT BLOG: We will go next door to the Colosseum and explore the ancient Forum, the seat of government for the Roman Empire.