This site has been chosen as a benchmark because it is the universally recognized symbol of the glory of the Roman Empire. It represents the Roman genius for engineering, construction, and innovation in architectural design in the Ancient world. Located in a valley between the Palatine, Esquiline, and Caelian hills, three of the original "Seven Hills of Rome," the Colosseum occupied a prominent site in the ancient Imperial city of Rome, Italy. Begun by the Emperor Vespasian (the first of the Flavian line) in the year 70 AD, the Flavian Amphitheater, as it was originally known, was completed in June of 80 AD Although the start date of 70 is somewhat in dispute (the historian G. Cozzo puts the groundbreaking at 76 AD, for example, and other sources cite 71 AD), the completion date of 80 AD is well documented. Historians guess that construction required approximately ten or twelve years. Hence, for this document, the dates of construction will be listed as 70 AD -80 AD
The architect of the Flavian Amphitheater is unknown. Emperors are associated with specific architects, but because the Colosseum was constructed during the reigns of no less than three emperors, the architect's identity has proven elusive to historians. During Vespasian's rule, the lowest three tiers were built; the job of finishing would fall to his sons, Titus and Domitian (Vespasian's successors, in that order).
It is also unknown when the structure began to be popularly referred to as the "Colosseum" or "Coliseus," rather than the Flavian Amphitheater. Writings of the Venerable Bede in the 8th century represent the first appearance of such a reference in writing. It is believed that upon demolition of the colossal bronze statue of Nero (Vespasian's predecessor) that once stood in front of the amphitheater, the name "Colosseum" became associated with the building.
The Colosseum, which appears to be circular, is actually an ellipse. Its long axis runs WSW- ESE and measures 617' on the exterior and 283' on the interior. The ratio of these axes is 1.2 to 1.3. Its short axis measures 513' on the exterior and 178' on the interior. The seating is set at a grade of37 degrees. In height, the building stands 159' high. A skeletal structure, the Colosseum is constructed of a variety of stones including marble, travertine, yellow tufa, gray tufa, and peperino; additional materials such as concrete, wood, and bricks were also employed.
On the exterior, the Colosseum is an endless array of arches. The first three tiers consist of 80 travertine arches, each flanked by attached columns rendered in a different architectural order. All of the arched openings are 13'9' wide, although they vary in height, and are separated by piers that measure 8' 11" in width. The arches of the lowest tier, which appear Doric at first glance but are actually Tuscan, are 23' 1" high. Ionic columns frame the arches of the second story; the arches at this level are 21 '2" high. The third story features attached Corinthian columns on the piers between the arches, and the height of these arches is slightly less than that of the second story below. Topping this composition is the fourth floor, the attic, also constructed of travertine. The attic features a full wall with 40 slightly jutting pilasters (attached columns that are rectangular rather than round) with Corinthian capitals that divide 80 panels. These panels were originally adorned with gilt-bronze shields. 40 rectangular windows are placed at regular intervals around the attic story. Additionally, 40 small windows that did not coincide in size or in shape with the windows above them were placed at the lower portion of the attic story. Topping the entire structure is a heavy cornice with consoles, or brackets.
On the attic story, 240 wooden poles were affixed to support the velarium, or canvas awning, which would protect the crowd from the unbearable heat of the Roman sun.
Inside, the Colosseum is a marvel of complex planning and engineering with distinct systems for entrances, exits, and seating; pipes for draining water from the building as well as for the lavatories; and the labyrinthine series of holding pens and corridors for competitors and animals below the arena's floor. All walkways and stairs are symmetrical throughout the building. It is said that the Colosseum is so masterfully planned, that even with a full complement of 50,000 spectators, the building could be emptied in a matter of minutes. (Note that the figure of 50,000 spectators is somewhat of an approximation. Much archaeological and historic study has gone into determining the building's exact seating capacity.)
One recent scholar has described the interior thus:
On both the ground and second floors double ambulatories run right round [the building], intercommunicating through archways and lit from the external arcades; the barrel vaults roofing them spring from a slightly projecting course of travertine. The inner ambulatory on the second floor is divided vertically in two. The third story has two corridors, as wide as those below but lower, and above the outer one a third occupying the depth of the cornice, attic, and base of the fourth story, lit by small windows in that base. There are other corridors running behind the podium, under the gangway between the first and second tiers of seats, and below the second tier. The wedge-shaped spaces of the substructure of the auditorium lead off from the ground floor ambulatories, and were arranged alternately in the following manner: one staircase to the first floor, with two flights, one of which was closed in below, and one passage to the central corridor, by means of which one reached the podium. All these corridors are barrel vaulted, running in at right angles to those of the ambulatories and thus buttressing them to a certain extent; the external thrust is taken by the great travertine piers, their blocks held together with bronze dowels. ... All the seating was raised above the arena, on a podium of 12' high, with square niches on the face and a rainwater channel 2' away from it. ... The third tier and top portico are more difficult to reconstruct; they had great granite and cipollino marble columns with Corinthian and Composite capitals. There were at least 11 rows of seating and 53 of benches. (Lugli, p. 21-23.)
The Colosseum was built on the site of the Golden House of Nero, or Domus Aurea, Nero's palace which contained a lake. In fact, the Colosseum sits on the exact spot where the lake was once situated. Thus, Roman engineers and builders had to drain the lake before construction could begin. While this decision to construct a monumental public building of enormous weight on a drained lakebed would seem to be needlessly difficult, there were political and practical reasons that this particular site was chosen. Politically, as Nero (Vespasian's near predecessor) was despised by the populace, Vespasian's actions represented a direct refutation- of Nero's policies and the tenor of his reign. The Domus Aurea was said to contain a round room that rotated continuously, day and night, driven by an underground water wheel. Additionally, every surface in the Domus Aurea was gilded in gold. The great fire of 64 AD decimated the city and destroyed a significant portion of the DomusAurea. After the fire, rebuilding on the Domus began, but ended with Nero's suicide in 68 AD Nero's immediate successor, Ottone, continued construction of the Domus, but with the ascendancy of the Flavians (beginning with Vespasian), construction was terminated. Vespasian had the building demolished, and in a gesture of good will towards the populace, deemed that a public building for the enjoyment of the people should be constructed on the site.
The Colosseum opened in 80 AD with a celebration of bloodshed, and unrelenting violence that lasted 100 days and thrilled the Romans. The entertainment included mass slaughter of wild animals, with 5,000 killed in one day alone. The gladiator fights, with which the Colosseum is associated, occurred in a seemingly endless variety: large group fights; lightweights against heavyweights; and chariot fights. With trumpets blaring, the arena then filled with water. Horses and bulls, trained to fight in water, were brought in. Gladiators in boats enacted the battle between Corinth and Corfu. As the celebration continued, there were more bloody reenactments of battles, with fire and blood in an endless supply; circuses; assaults by infantry and cavalry; hunting scenes; massacres; bullfights; and chariot races.
The Colosseum continued to be used for gladiatorial fights and bestial slaughter into the 6th century AD. There is no mention of it for 500 years in the historic record. During medieval and modern times, the Colosseum was used for bullfights and plays; damaged by several earthquakes; owned by various families as well as the Holy See; almost converted to a wool factory; severely cannibalized of building materials; converted to a dung heap; almost altered into a cemetery; and, in an act that began preservation of the relic, consecrated by Pope Benedict XIV in 1744. By the 18th century, archaeological excavations had begun, and in the 19th century, restoration work started.
This site can be used to address the following themes of World History as recommended by the New York State Regents.
1. The Roman Empire - The Colosseum is recognized internationally as a symbol of the Roman Empire. The Colosseum is testament to the Empire's technological ability and their practice of incorporating various aspects of the lands they conquered, from technological achievements to exotic animals. The Roman Empire was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and fell in 476 AD. A study of the Roman Empire is a classic study in "civilization" following a course in which the civilization grew, flourished, dominated world politics and warfare, and eventually collapsed. Throughout the vast Empire, the Colosseum alone stands as the icon that represents the whole of Roman History.
2. Hierarchies - Roman society was based on a strict system of hierarchies. Even in the Colosseum, these hierarchies were reinforced and conformed to. Women and the lowest classes were only allowed to sit in the uppermost tiers, while the senators, upper classes, and the emperor himself would sit closer to the spectacle. Social hierarchies are considered a key component of civilization and are recognized in many cultures.
3. Christianity - Rome presents a fascinating opportunity to study a society where one religious system replaced another. In the early days of the empire, Roman religion was pantheistic, based on myth, and pagan. Eventually, Christianity, a monotheistic religion, came to dominate the empire. As this transition was occurring Christians were violently persecuted and sent to their deaths in the Colosseum.
4. Judaism - Jews coexisted with Romans before the rise of Christianity. Early Christians were called Nazarenes, and had been Jews.
5. Imperialism - Rome at first was designed to be a democratic society but soon developed into an Imperialistic society. Led by the Emperor, the Roman Empire spanned a vast geographic area with over fifty different provinces. During the height of the Roman Empire, Egypt, Mesopotamia and parts of modern day Britain were part of this Imperial government. As a result of the size of the empire, the Roman government employed a vast army and used various political tactics and public policies to appease the public. In Rome the Colosseum played a central role in maintaining political control over the public. The gladiatorial games and events, held at the Colosseum, were also held elsewhere in the Empire, though on a smaller scale.
6. Persecution - In 249 AD the emperor Decius initiated violent persecution of Christians. A great deal of this persecution occurred at the Colosseum. The years between 303 and 313 AD represented the period of greatest persecution of Christians.
7. Expansionism - The Roman Empire covered a vast geographical area, much of which had been ceased through warfare. Throughout this vast Empire, Roman customs were adopted while many areas maintained their own cultural systems. The Roman Empire exacted a high degree of political domination and it was said, "all roads lead to Rome". Throughout the Empire, the practice of Bread and Circuses was used to maintain control of the populous and all knew of the spectacle of the Colosseum.
8. Public Spectacles and Amusements - The Colosseum was the scene of much public spectacle and amusements. The Colosseum was home to the gladiatorial games. The construction of the Colosseum was focused on providing an arena that would seat thousands, hold slaves, captives and gladiators, hold wild animals and enable to re-creation of battles. The gladiators were skilled fighters who were trained in their particular sport and they often faced captives of conquered lands. The Colosseum played a key role in the policy known as Bread and Circuses. When the public was uneasy or dissatisfied with the emperor, games were often held at the Colosseum to appease the masses. The Colosseum was the arena for Roman citizens entertainment. Are there sports today that resemble gladiator battles? Are boxers, wrestlers, or other athletes the modem descendants of gladiators?
9. Urbanism - Rome was not only the core of a vast, flourishing empire, it was also a vital urban center. The technological achievements of the Colosseum are a testament to the Romans contributions to engineering, urbanism and urban planning.
In English this site can be used to learn about mythology, word origins, literature and travel diaries.
Familiarity with the Colosseum will lead students to an understanding and a context within which to place the stories of Roman Mythology. Who were the Roman gods? What feats did they accomplish? What were their powers? How were they similar to or different from Greek gods?
Learning some basic Latin words and phrases can help students who may be reading classical poetry and literature and can help students understand the Latin roots of many English words, thereby increasing their vocabulary.
There are connections from the Colosseum to numerous aspects of western literature. For example, a study of the Colosseum is a good jumping off point for a reading of any of the Shakespearian plays that are based on Roman history and events. Great modem poets have been inspired by the Colosseum's might, its endurance, and its mass. Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are among the poets who have written about the Flavian Amphitheater. In addition to Shakespearean drama, students can use the Colosseum to read George Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion," which takes place in the Colosseum.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, traveling to Rome and Greece became de rigeur amongst well- to-do Americans, British, and western Europeans. In the days before cameras and videotape, travelers kept detailed travel diaries with accurate descriptions of the sites of antiquity. Charles Isadore Hemans, Johann Wolfgang Yon Goethe, and Thomas Cole were among those whose diaries have been republished.
Connections between this site and science are geology, engineering, wind velocity, biodiversity and human body chemistry.
The geology of the Colosseum site and its components are relevant to the science curriculum. The Colosseum was built on top of a drained lakebed. Students can explore the geology of the site and consider what special problems the Romans may have faced in the construction of the Colosseum. Additionally the Colosseum is built of travertine and various types of tufa, have students explore the properties of these materials and consider why they might have been chosen for the construction of the Colosseum.
The Colosseum was well-known as a feat of engineering. Explore the interior water systems of the Colosseum making comparisons to modem systems. Consider how effective the water systems of the Colosseum might have been. The sub-level beneath the arena floor contained a vast network of passageways and holding pens for the animals. Additionally, there were wooden hoists that lifted gladiators and/or animals directly onto the arena floor. How were these hoists constructed? What mechanisms did they employ? What relation do they bear to modern trap doors on a stage?
The ve/arium, the canopy that was stretched over the top of the Colosseum in intense sun or rain, had to be operated by 100 expert sailors with extensive knowledge of wind velocity. Consider how different wind speeds and directions might have affected the massive canvas valerium.
Identify and research the many animals that competed in games at the Colosseum. The Romans captured many of these animals. Students can consider the effect of the capture and slaughter of these animals on animal populations and biodiversity. Make modern comparisons to hunting identifying how some animals have been hunted to extinction.
Gladiators must have had adrenaline coursing through their veins as they faced down another gladiator or a wild animal. What are the biochemical changes that are produced when fear is present? What changes in brain activity take place? Do humans and animals have the same biochemical response to fear?
Connections between this site and mathematics are Roman numerals, geometric shapes and proportion and ratio.
Students may reinforce and enhance their knowledge of Roman numerals using the Colosseum. One of the most common uses of Roman numerals today is on cornerstones showing the date of a building's construction. Have students locate several examples of such cornerstones and "'translate" the Roman numerals. What is different between this system and ours?
Explore the geometry of the Colosseum, which is actually an ellipse, not circular. Define an ellipse and explore how can its area and perimeter be found? Determine these measurements for the Colosseum. Identify other geometric shapes that can be found on or within the structure of the Colosseum and how they too can be measured.
Amphitheaters were built on the basis of a ratio. In the Colosseum, what was this ratio? From what was it derived? Are modem arenas built according to a similar ratio? What are other applications of the same principle?
Some recommended activities to use with the site are to view the movie Gladiator in which the Colesseum was recreated using computer imaging, perform anyone of Shakespeare's plays that are set in Ancient Rome, write a poem that pays tribute to the Colosseum, build a model of the Colosseum and make conjectures about how the valerium would work including a working valerium in the model.
Some local buildings which relate to themes addressed in this unit and could be used for additional study are:
Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, Ashe Stadium or Madison Square Garden - All are examples of modem arenas.
Grand Central Terminal - designed based on the Roman Baths of Caracalla
Some recommended activities to use on a visit to this site are not applicable. It is unlikely that the students will visit the Colosseum. However, if students did visit a modem arena, it would be interesting to ask them to compare the types of spectacles, which took place in each place and compare the technological advancements in each. Students might also compare the measurements or seating capacity of the two.
Some other ideas, which could be explored or expanded on having to do with this site, are Create a map of Rome at the time of the Colosseum's construction. Which buildings still stand? Which buildings pre-date the Colosseum? Which buildings are contemporaneous with the Colosseum?; Research the changing role animals have played in terms of providing entertainment for humans; Study the reigns of Nero and Vespasian. Compare and contrast these two rulers. What programs did each initiate? What kind of warriors were these two leaders? What building programs did these emperors embark upon?; Create a mosaic (in the style of a Roman mosaic) that illustrates a tale from Roman mythology.; Visit the Roman collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cozzo, Giuseppe. The Colosseum. Fratelli Palombi Editors; n.d.
Includes origins of the Colosseum; information about the amphitheater form; detailed information about structure and construction, such as: the foundations; working methods and materials; scaffolding; worksites; the arena; the hypogeum; the animal lifts; stage scenery and equipment; the velarium; more.
Gabucci, Ada, ed. Tguide
he Colosseum. J. Paul Getty Museum; Los Angeles. 2001.
Chapters from different contributors include: The World of the Gladiators; The Colosseum in the Urban and Demographic Context of Imperial Rome; The Gladiators: The Architecture and Function of the Colosseum; The Colosseum Through the Centuries; and the Water System of the Colosseum. Lushly illustrated.
Goldman, Norma. "Reconstructing the Roman Colosseum Awning," in Archaeology (March/April, 1982), p. 57 - 65.
Excellent information about the velarium.
Lugli, Giuseppe. The Flavian Amphitheatre. Bardi; Rome. 1969.
Excellent, scholarly, and short overall introduction and background.
Pearson, John. Arena: The Story of the Colosseum. McGraw-Hill; New York. 1973.
Includes 151 black-and-white illustrations. Good general background, plus detailed information about the 100-day celebration that marked the opening of the Colosseum; construction details; the political context within which the Colosseum was built; and a good chapter on the Emperor Vespasian.
Quennell, Peter. The Colosseum. Newsweek Book Division; New York. 1971.
Beautifully photographed; includes a chronology of Roman history; literary references; detailed construction information.
Szegedy-Maszak, Andrew. "A Perfect Ruin," in Archaeology (Jan./Feb. 1990), p. 74-79.
About how historically, travelers have reveled in enjoying the Colosseum as a ruin.
Teutonico, Jeanne Marie. "Colosseum Controversy," in Progressive Architecture (Nov. 1984), p. 29-30.
Interesting article about a controversial use of the Colosseum today.
Includes contemporary photos, plan drawings, 3-D spatial model, commentary, and resources.
Basic background with contemporary photos. Page also includes information on Constantine's Architecture. Rome's Beginning; Forums; Pantheon; Roman Walls; Roman Baths; Circus Maximus; Catacombs Roman Theaters; and Pompeii.
Architectural specifications, exterior and interior shots. Links: Roman architecture outside the city of Rome; the Capitoline; Arches; Roman secular buildings; the City of Ancient Rome; the Palatine Hill in Rome; the Roman Forum; Pompeii; Roman Architecture; and Construction Techniques.
(In Italian and English.) Site includes a history section (history, chronology, emperors, Middle Ages, quarry); a section on the games (munera, gladiators, Ad Bestias, Ludi, Hunts, Silvae, and Naumachiae); and a section on the architecture (description, construction-foundations, the site, the building, building strategy [in Italian only], marble, materials). Also includes FAQs and a web cam.
Nice website about Colosseum made by Italian High School students.
Includes a walk through the Colosseum
In 1998, as part of the PBS series Nova, experts hypothesized how the Romans protected Colosseum-goers from the sun. The experts-an engineer and a classicist-experimented with different methods. Site includes archived questions and answers with the experts and a teacher's guide.
Good architectural background with information about construction techniques and specifications. Includes image with reconstruction of Colossus of Nero in front and archival photos (1890-before excavations). Also includes pages on Roman Temples and Altars; Palaces; Civil Engineering; Monuments; Public Buildings; Sculpture; and Mosaics.
In Italian, English, Spanish, and French. Includes the Roman Gazetteer, a commented photo album of Roman towns and monuments. Also includes seven texts from antiquity (some translated into French and English, others only in Latin); a photo index; William Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (an 1875 encyclopedia in the public domain); and a Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by Samuel Bell Plater (a scholarly encyclopedia with hundreds of articles on the remains of antiquity within Rome).
Buildings for athletics in Ancient Greece and Rome. Has great aerial photos.
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