Rome’s Colosseum… Where Hippos and Rhinos Once Fought

The Colosseum in Rome

Rome’s Colosseum lit up at night.

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.

Cat in Colosseum.

This is the one cat I found in the Colosseum. I am sure it had aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, kids, etc. somewhere. But check out the stance… ears back, paw posed to strike. He was ready to take on a gladiator, or at least a camera toting tourist.

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.

Painting in the Colosseum that illustrated a typical crowd cooking, eating, fighting and drinking.

The early Roman crowds have arrived for their day of entertainment at the Colosseum in this illustration of the upper tier. Cooking, eating, drinking, fighting and betting were all part of a typical day. As was carving graffiti  on the benches. (Illustration from Colosseum exhibit)

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.

This illustration from the Colosseum exhibit shows a cutaway of the floor.

This illustration from the Colosseum shows a cutaway of the floor with its elevators, wild animals and gladiators. (Illustration from Colosseum exhibit)

This illustration shows what the Colosseum would have looked like with it's awning.

Here’s what the Colosseum would have looked like with its awning. (Illustration from Colosseum exhibit)

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.”

Looking down into the basement of the Colosseum where wild animals, props and scenery were stored.

Looking down into the basement of the Colosseum where wild animals, props and scenery were stored.

This photo, taken from the opposite end of the Colosseum provides a perspective on what the original floor might have looked like.

This photo, taken from the opposite end of the Colosseum provides a perspective on what the floor might have looked like. Only about a third of the original Colosseum remains.  While earthquakes have done their share of damage, much more was done by Romans taking building blocks and iron supports for use in other construction throughout Rome.

A window view out of Rome's Colosseum.

We started our tour on the upper level of the Colosseum. In addition to providing views into the arena, the walkway provided views of the surrounding city and Rome’s ancient Forum. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Peggy took this photo from the lower level looking up at the upper level. (photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Peggy took this photo from the lower level looking up at the upper level. Special tours also take visitors to the lower, basement level. (photo by Peggy Mekemson)

A basement view of Rome's Colosseum.

A close up view of the basement. Imagine it filled with lions, hippos and giraffes.

Roman emperors loved their triumphal arches even more than they loved statues. It provided a very public opportunity to show how great they were. The Arch of Constantine is located right next to the Colosseum.

Roman emperors loved their triumphal arches even more than they loved statues. It provided a very public opportunity to show how great they were. The Arch of Constantine is located right next to the Colosseum.

The Arch of Constantine in Rome.

A second perspective on the Arch of Constantine. This photo was taken earlier in the day.

A final view of Rome's Colosseum at night.

A final view of Rome’s Colosseum at night.

NEXT BLOG: We will go next door to the Colosseum and explore the ancient Forum, the seat of government for the Roman Empire.

 

 

 

 

23 comments on “Rome’s Colosseum… Where Hippos and Rhinos Once Fought

  1. Seeing the Colosseum at night is a “must see.” It was quite magical and my imagination went wild!

  2. Beautiful piece of architecture.. once more, I am amazed at this amazing piece of history..great pictures!!

  3. I think it was interesting that there were 80 elevators that could bring animals up in lots of different places and i thought it was interesting that there were so many feral cats in the Colosseum.BRICE CART

    • The elevators would be down right spooky if your life depended on where the next animal might appear! As for the cats, they are common at ruins throughout the Mediterranean. Thanks for your comments Brice.

      Curt

  4. Unbelievable photos C & P, and great anecdotes. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for the compliment. I am, truth be told, a terrible horse woman. Just a wannabe. But! Max wants one of those hats. 😀

  5. I had absolutely no idea the Coliseum housed wild animals in that magnitude. While a movie is but a movie (imagination), “Gladiator” depicted a scene where a lion came onto the field.

    An you used the term “inauguration”… leading up to…what? Regardless, 2,000 gladiators perished each “season”? I read somewhere recently they also uncovered remains from female gladiators.

    Peggy’s photos are wonderful as always…

  6. Another post to show my boy. And he knows all about the ferals – from the neighborhood – as well as a lot about the gladiators from his study of Ancient Rome. Beautiful shots he will love. SO interesting! All the best in the coming year, my friend.

  7. To think of them capturing hippos and rhinos to fight is just so depressing. These are essentially peaceful grazers who never hassle you if all you want to do is take their photo, or leave them in peace.

  8. I really struggled with mixed emotions when visiting the Colosseum. Marveled at the skill of the architecture and how they could fill it with water for mock sea battles, then the cringe set in as I read the details of just how many animals and people were slaughtered for entertainment there. If ever a place were to be haunted, this would be the place.

    Your photos are just stunning. An excellent post.

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