Completion of the Colosseum in Rome

The Colosseum in a 1757 engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The Colosseum in Rome stands as an iconic symbol of ancient Roman engineering and culture. Its completion marked a significant milestone in Roman history, representing the grandeur and power of the Roman Empire. This monumental structure has endured centuries, captivating millions with its architectural marvel and historical significance.

History of the Colosseum

The construction of the Colosseum stands as one of ancient Rome’s most ambitious architectural projects, reflecting the grandeur and the engineering prowess of the Roman Empire at its zenith. Begun by Emperor Vespasian around 70-72 AD, the Colosseum was conceived as a monumental gift to the Roman populace, symbolizing both a break from the tyranny of Nero’s rule and the Flavian dynasty’s commitment to public welfare and entertainment. By choosing the site of Nero’s extravagant Domus Aurea for its location, Vespasian sought not only to repurpose the land for public use but also to erase the opulence of his unpopular predecessor and return a portion of the city to the people.

The architectural and engineering marvel that is the Colosseum was unprecedented in scale and complexity. Its elliptical design, covering about six acres, featured a sophisticated system of vaults and arches, allowing for the accommodation of up to 50,000 spectators. This vast audience could witness a variety of spectacles, ranging from gladiatorial combat and wild animal hunts to elaborate re-enactments of famous battles and mock naval engagements, known as naumachiae. The ability to host such diverse events underscored the Colosseum’s versatility and the ingenuity of Roman engineering.

Upon Vespasian’s death in 79 AD, his son Titus took up the mantle of completing the Colosseum. The structure was inaugurated in 80 AD with a grand celebration that lasted 100 days, featuring games that showcased the empire’s wealth and power. These games were not only a form of entertainment but also a tool for political propaganda, reinforcing the emperor’s generosity towards the populace and the might of the Roman state. The Colosseum quickly became the heart of public life in Rome, a place where citizens of all classes could gather and be entertained, transcending social boundaries for a brief moment.

The Colosseum’s enduring legacy as a symbol of Rome’s imperial might and architectural innovation was further solidified by subsequent emperors, including Domitian, Vespasian’s younger son, who added the hypogeum—a network of underground tunnels and cages where gladiators and animals were held before contests. Over the centuries, the Colosseum has withstood earthquakes, fires, and stone plundering, yet it remains a potent symbol of Roman history and culture.

Architectural Features

Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant (Hail, Cesar, those who will die salute you), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859

The architectural design of the Colosseum is a testament to the advanced engineering and architectural knowledge possessed by the Romans. Standing at an impressive height of over 48 meters (about 157 feet) and encircling a perimeter of 545 meters (approximately 1788 feet), the Colosseum not only dominates the landscape of ancient Rome but also holds the title of the largest amphitheater ever constructed. Its massive scale and the ability to host tens of thousands of spectators underscore the ambition and resourcefulness of Roman engineering.

The exterior facade of the Colosseum is a marvel of classical architecture, characterized by four levels of arched entrances framed by engaged columns. These columns progress through the three classical orders: the ground level features the sturdy and simple Doric order, above which the Ionic order adds a touch of elegance, and the third level displays the ornate Corinthian order. The fourth and topmost level diverges from this pattern, utilizing flat pilasters that echo the Corinthian style. This ascending order of architectural sophistication not only provided visual variety but also reflected the Roman mastery of different architectural styles.

Decorative elements and statues once adorned the arches of the Colosseum’s exterior, bringing to life the façade with depictions of gods, heroes, and scenes of Roman triumphs. Though many of these details have been lost to time, they would have added to the grandeur and symbolic significance of the structure, reinforcing the might and cultural achievements of the Roman Empire.

Inside, the Colosseum’s arena floor, constructed from wood and covered in sand (“arena” is Latin for sand), was the stage for the diverse range of spectacles that captivated the Roman public. The sand served practical purposes, absorbing blood from the combatants and providing a versatile surface for the different types of events held within the amphitheater.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating architectural features of the Colosseum is the hypogeum, a complex subterranean network of tunnels and chambers lying beneath the arena floor. This underground system was a feat of engineering in itself, equipped with lifts and trapdoors that allowed for the dramatic appearance of animals and performers directly into the arena, adding an element of surprise and spectacle to the events. The hypogeum housed gladiators, prisoners, and wild animals before they were brought into the arena, creating a bustling backstage area hidden from the view of the audience above.