The Colosseum is probably the most famous landmark in Rome. Built in the 1st century AD, this great arena could seat 45,000 spectators and was the largest Roman amphitheater in the world.
It hosted gladiatorial combats, spectacles with wild beasts and possibly the execution of early Christians. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was believed to be a place of martyrdom and was therefore regarded as a sacred place
Construction on the Colosseum began under Emperor Vespasian (69-79) and was completed under his son Titus (79-81) in 80 AD. It was built on the site of an artificial lake created by Nero in this valley between Rome’s many hills, in front of his Domus Aurea palace.
The arena was then known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, after the family name of the emperors who built it. The name “Colosseum” was not used until 7th century, and derives from the colossal statue of Nero that once stood here. After Nero’s death, the statue was transformed into a representation of Helios, the sun god. It remained standing until the Middle Ages, when it was probably melted down for its bronze.
The amphitheatre was used for gladiatorial combats, mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The inaugural festival of the Flavian Amphitheatre, which was the largest amphitheatre in the world, lasted 100 days, during which over 5,000 wild beasts were killed in the arena.
The arena was restored in about 230 AD by Emperor Alexander Severus (222-35). The statistics of those who met their deaths at the Colosseum during another festival, held in 240 AD, are staggering: 2,000 gladiators; 70 lions; 40 wild horses; 30 elephants; 30 leopards; 20 wild asses; 19 giraffes; 10 elks; 10 hyenas; 10 tigers; 1 hippopotamus; and 1 rhinoceros.
The Flavian Amphitheatre was damaged by fire and earthquake several times but was continually restored until the end of the 5th century. Gladiatorial combats were outlawed by the Christian emperor Honorius in 407 and fights with wild beasts were banned in 523. After this, the arena went out of use.
According to the bishop and church historian Theodoret, Honorius was moved to ban the bloody spectacle of the gladiators because of a simple monk named Telmachus:
Telemachus is the only Colosseum martyr of whom there is any evidence. The long-held belief that scores of Christians met their deaths here in the 1st to 3rd centuries has no evidence to support it and may only be a legend.
However, it is perfectly possible there were martyrdoms here, since Christians are known to have been executed in other Roman amphitheatres, such as the one at Lyon and in the Circus of Nero on Vatican Hill (see St. Peter’s Basilica).The belief that Christians were martyred here was a fairly early one, as reflected by the response of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) to the Byzantine emperor’s request for some Roman relics: among the relics given was a bag of sand from the Colosseumfloor. The Colosseum fell into disrepair shortly after its closure in 523. In 526, the barbarian Totila and his forces destroyed parts of it in order to take the valuable bronze clamps that held the stones together. After that, Romans freely helped themselves to the great arena’s stones in order to build their houses.
In this period the Colosseum was also used as a Christian burial ground. Early Christian tombs have been found in three areas around the amphitheatre: in the foundations on the north and east sides and on the exterior ground near the present entrance.
In the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was situated on the most important pilgrim route in Rome, which led from St. Peter’s to theLateran, and a small suburb grew up around it. In this period the great arena was thought to be a Roman temple to the Sun because of the Colossus statue of Nero-turned-Helios that stood next to it.In the 13th century, the Colosseum was fortified and occupied by the Frangipani family and the suburb around it became a prosperous area of Rome. However, the area later fell prey to malaria and was abandoned.Looting of the stone continued on-and-off until the 18th century, when Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) declared the Colosseum sanctified by the blood of early Christian martyrs and added Stations of the Cross to the arena. After this it was restored and excavated, a work that continues to the present day.
Romantic travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries were smitten with the great ruin of the Colosseum. Among these were Charles Dickens, who wrote in 1846:
The Gladiatorial games and Gladiator history ended during the reign of the Emperor Honorius. A victory over the Goths was being celebrated at the Roman Colosseum but was interrupted by an Egyptian monk named Telemachus, pleading for the games to stop. He was killed but his plea was the catalyst which ended the gladiatorial games. The Emperor Honorius, decreed the end of gladiatorial contests in 399 AD. The last known gladiator fight in the city of Rome occurred on January 1, 404 AD which finished gladiator history in Rome.
The Colosseum of Rome was built in bricks and covered with travertine in a valley among the Palatino, Esquilino and Celio hills, after having dried a small lake that Nerone was using for the DomusAurea. The building consists of four floors, with a total height of 52 metres and an extension covering an elliptical area of about 19000 square metres, it is without a doubt the most renowned symbol of Rome all over the world. For the enjoyment of the inhabitants of Rome, here fights between gladiators or against wild animals and fabulous spectacles as “naumachie”, real naval combat in the arena filled with water, were organized. Under the arena of the Colosseum were numerous corridors and rooms used for housing the gladiators and the ferocious beasts that could be brought to the centre of the arena thanks to a series of elevators and ramps.