The Colosseum

The Colosseum was constructed between 72 AD and 80 AD during the reign of Emperors Vespasian (who started it) and Titus (who completed it). Further modifications were made during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Since these three Emperors are known as the Flavian dynasty, the Colosseum is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater.

With a capacity of 50,000 to 80,000 spectators, the Colosseum was the largest amphitheater built at the time. It was used for gladiatorial contests, where armed combatants (several who were slaves) had violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals and condemned criminals. The arena was also used for large public spectacles like mock sea battles, animal hunts, re-enactments of famous battles etc. During the inaugural 100 days of games initiated by Emperor Titus in 80 or 81 AD, over 2,000 gladiators and 9,000 wild animals were killed.

Unlike earlier Greek theaters, the Colosseum is an entirely free standing structure. The layout is an ellipse,189 meters or 615 feet in length, and 156 meters or 510 feet in width. The central arena is an oval, 87 meters or 287 feet long and 55 meters or 180 feet wide. It is surrounded a wall 5 meters or 15 feet high, above which there are multiple tiers of seating. Senators and the Vestal Virgins (priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth) sat in the lowest tier, in special boxes located at the north and south end of the arena, respectively. Some of the names of 5th century Senators can still be seen carved into the stonework. The non-senatorial noble classes sat one tier above the Senators. The next tier of seating was divided into two sections – the lower part for wealthy citizens, and the upper part for poor citizens. The final tier, added by Emperor Domitian, was a standing room only gallery for the common poor, slaves and women. To enable quick entry and exit for large crowds, the arena had eighty entrances at the ground level, 76 of which were used by ordinary spectators.

By the early medieval period, (5th to 10th century AD), the building was used for other purposes, including housing, a fortress and even a Christian shrine. During the 16th and 17th century, a theory was propogated that the Colosseum was a sacred site where Christians had been martyred. For this reason, Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the building to the Passion of the Christ and installed Stations of the Cross. However, no historical evidence has been found to support this belief.

Today, the Colosseum is one of the iconic sites in the world, and is classified as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Millions of tourists from all around the world visit the ancient arena each year.


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