The Colosseum was a ‘marvel’ of Rome when it was new, almost nineteen hundred years ago, partly because of its size and partly because the circumstances under which it was built made it one of the world’s great ‘gallery plays’. ‘Here, where the far-seen Amphitheatre lifts its mass august,’ wrote Martial, ‘was Nero’s mere.’ Vespasian had drained the artificial lake in the gardens of Nero’s Golden House and begun upon its site this vast theatre for the games and spectacles dear to Roman hearts, which his son Titus was to finish.
Nero, last emperor of the line of Caesar and Augustus, had died by his own hand, hated by the people and the army and declared a public enemy by the Senate. Within a year, the Roman legions nominated three successors, also doomed to quick and violent deaths. Vespasian, the final candidate, was more fortunate. A popular general, who was waging a successful siege against Jerusalem when he was chosen emperor, he returned to Rome and set about the task of blotting out the evil memory of Nero.
A man of humble birth and shrewd common sense, without the legendary glamour of the Julian dynasty, he, together with Titus, succeeded in building up the prestige of the new imperial line, largely through a far-reaching programme of public works by which the people were given back as recreation centres much of the land which Nero had confiscated for his own pleasures. Suetonius echoed the popular response to this policy in a remark concerning Titus, probably written within half a century of that emperor’s death: ‘He took away nothing from any citizen. He respected others’ property, if anyone ever did… And yet he was second to none of his predecessors in munificence.’
The Colosseum was practically ready for use when Vespasian died in A.D. 79. Titus opened it, still unfinished, in A.D. 80, with magnificent gladiatorial games and naval contests for which the arena was flooded. It was completed by Domitian, Titus’ brother and successor, but had to be restored several times because of fires due to lightning.
Standing isolated beyond the Forum, in the low spot between the Palatine, Esquiline, and Caelian hills, this new amphitheatre was easily accessible from the heart of the ancient city, yet isolated enough to permit the easy movement of crowds. It could seat about forty-five thousand, and probably had standing room for about five thousand more in its upper gallery.
Its great oval shell was about one-third of a mile in circumference, its longer axis measuring about 617 feet, its shorter about 512. The long axis, whose entrances were used for processions, runs parallel with the Roman Forum, roughly southeast and northwest. The imperial seats were at the south side, facing along the shorter axis, to give a closer view of the spectacles. Immense awnings, handled by sailors from the imperial fleet, sheltered the spectators.
Though the exterior of the great building is impressive by reason of its severe and solid bulk, its outstanding feature was its perfect adaptation to the handling of large and potentially unruly crowds. Seventy-six of its eighty arcades were numbered; the tickets bore corresponding numbers, so that holders could find their way directly to their seats from the appropriate entrance without crowding the corridors. It was a structure to delight the practical Vespasian and the architectural engineers who had built it.
The Colosseum’s builders followed much the same principle as that employed in steel construction today, except that for the skeleton framework of piers and arches they used hard travertine stone. The outer walls are of the same stone; the inner ones are composed of several kinds of stone and concrete, with or without brick facings. Metal cramps reinforced the joining of the stones; the holes now so noticeable in the walls were made in the centuries following the decline of Rome by those who dug out these cramps for their metal or for the lead which was sometimes used with them.
The tradition that Christians by the thousands were martyred in the arena grew up in comparatively late times. Some may have suffered here during various persecutions, but, needless to say, not in those of Nero’s day, as the site was then the emperor’s lake. The last gladiatorial games were held in the Colosseum in A.D. 404; emperors from the time of Constantine had tried to stop them without success. The last recorded animal sports are mentioned in 523.
The ancient Romans called this building the Flavian Amphitheatre from the family of Flavius to which Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, belonged. The present name came into use some time during the early Middle Ages. The first-known mention of the amphitheatre as the Colosseum is in an eighth-century Latin work traditionally ascribed to the English monk and historian, Bede. The writer of this work quotes a current Saxon pilgrim’s proverb: Quandiu stabit Coliseus, stabit et Roma; quando cadet Coliseus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus, which today is best known through Byron’s translation in Childe Harold:
‘While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall:
And when Rome falls–the world.’
Some have held that this proverb referred not to the amphitheatre but to the colossal bronze statue of Nero which stood nearby, remodelled by later emperors as a sun god. No one knows just when this colossus fell-the last known reference to it in ancient times was in A.D. 354 when it was mentioned as the ‘crowned colossus’ in connection with a spring festival of garland sellers along the Sacred Way.
It had probably disappeared by Bede’s time, for the eighth-century Einsiedeln Itinerary did not mention it, although its fame lingered throughout the Middle Ages. It seems more likely that such a proverb would grow up about an immense and enduring building than about a statue which was only one of several of its kind in Rome, and that the building was first called ‘colossal amphitheatre’ and then ‘colosseum’ because of its great size.