Colosseo Romano


“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.” Lord Byron. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1812.

Sure, this is a given when you’re in Rome, but there’s more to the Colosseum than cool panorama pictures and tales of brave gladiators. No other place embodies the best and the worst of Rome so perfectly. This architectural marvel, featuring multiple innovations and incredible feats of engineering, was made to serve the most cruel blood sport. As you walk through it, imagine 50,000 to 80,000 cheering Romans gambling, drinking, and eating under the velarium, a large sail that provided shade for the spectators. The Colosseum came alive with theatrical stage sets, exotic animals, public executions, and, of course, gladiators.

“It was a building of an elliptic figure, founded on fourscore arches, and rising, with four successive orders of architecture, to the height of 140 [157] feet. The outside of the edifice was incrusted with marble, and decorated with statues. The slopes of the vast concave which formed the inside were filled and surrounded with sixty or eighty rows of seats, of marble likewise, covered with cushions, and capable of receiving with ease about 80,000 spectators. Sixty-four vomitories (for by that name the doors were very aptly distinguished) poured forth the immense multitude; and the entrances, passages, and staircases were contrived with such exquisite skill that each person, whether of the senatorial, the equestrian, or the plebeian order, arrived at his destined place without trouble or confusion. Nothing was omitted which, in any respect, could be subservient to the convenience and pleasure of the spectators. They were protected from the sun and rain by an ample canopy, occasionally drawn over their heads. The air was continually refreshed by the playing of fountains, and profusely impregnated by the grateful scent of aromatics. In the centre of the edifice, the arena, or stage, was strewed with the finest sand, and successively assumed the most different forms. At one moment it seemed to rise out of the earth, like the garden of the Hesperides, and was afterward broken into the rocks and caverns of Thrace. The subterraneous pipes conveyed an inexhaustible supply of water; and what had just before appeared a level plain might be suddenly converted into a wide lake, covered with armed vessels, and replenished with the monsters of the deep. In the decoration of these scenes, the Roman emperors displayed their wealth and liberality; and we read on various occasions that the whole furniture of the amphitheatre consisted either of silver, or of gold, or of amber. The poet who describes the games of Carinus, in the character of a shepherd attracted to the capital by the fame of their magnificence, affirms that the nets designed as a defence against the wild beasts were of gold wire; that the porticos were gilded; and that the belt or circle which divided the several ranks of spectators from each other was studded with a precious mosaic of beautiful stones” Edward Gibbon. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. London. Frederick Westley and A.H. Davis. 1837.

Colosseo by Pixabay

The Colosseum’s historic name is the Flavian Amphitheater 70 – 80 CE. This, the most monumental amphitheatre in the Roman empire, was built by Vespasian and Titus over an artificial lake created by Nero. The Flavian dynasty (Vespasian was the first of this family) desired to symbolically return Rome to the people after the extravagant excesses of Nero. Vespasian’s motivations were political⏤remove a hedonistic, Nero indulgence, and replace it with an arena of free bloodsport games for the people. While appreciating the beauty of the Colosseum it is important to remember that its raison d’etre was political⏤please the people by providing them the most savage display of violence. Cue Russell Crowe screaming “Are you not entertained?”

The Colosseum was begun by Vespasian in 70 CE and completed by Titus in 79 CE. It is the largest amphitheater in the world. It is estimated to consist of 100,000 cubic meters of travertine, which was brought from Tibur (Tivoli). Scholars have counted an estimated 300 tons of iron clamps holding the stone blocks together. These clamps would have been where the present day holes are. The Flavian Amphitheater could hold an estimated 50,000-80,000 people.

Detail of Roman concrete in the Colosseo (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

Perhaps the greatest Roman invention of all is what enabled the Colosseo to be: concrete.


As you arrive at the Colosseum, take a few minutes to simply absorb the audaciousness of the Romans. Find a good viewing point, usually along the fence of the Roman Forum between the Colosseo metro station and the Arch of Constantine. The Romans brought 100,000 cubic meters of travertine stone from Tivoli and used 300 tons of iron make the clamps to hold the stone together. And they did this without electricity (No power tools!), without computer models, and without fossil fuels (No trucks to bring stone! No gas cranes!). Despite its horizontal design, the Colosseum still moves your eyes upwards. This visual effect is achieved by the variation in the columns. There are three column orders (from bottom to top): Tuscan (similar to Doric), Ionic, Corinthian, and a longer simplified Corinthian. Note that the top columns are nearly 1.5 times taller than the bottom Tuscan.

Now walk to the east side of the Colosseum, in the direction of Via Labicana. As you walk through the throngs of people, remember that this contemporary chaos would be a quiet day at the Colosseum compared to a day in the Roman era. The Colosseum currently allows 3,000 visitors at once. In the Roman era, historians estimate that between 50,000 to 80,000 people attended a day at the games! They managed this by assigning each attendee a numbered seat. The most prominent existing vestige of the seating system are the Roman numerals above the ground floor archways. These numbers marked an entrance/exit called a vomitorium. Thanks to these, the entire mass of people could be “vomited” out in a short time.

“We are confronted visually with a series of squares within the framing of the arches. These are not accidents, but details of design, which reflect the architect’s preoccupation with principles of number, and provide the viewer (however unconscious he or she may be) with a steady and harmonious rhythm in the façade. The ordered beauty and formal regularity of the Colosseum’s exterior is created by three storeys of superimposed arches with engaged (ie semi-circular) columns. These columns are of different orders on each storey (Tuscan at the bottom, then Ionic, with Corinthian columns in the third storey). The fourth higher blind storey is punctuated by pilasters, decorated with Corinthian capitals.” Keith Hopkins, 2011


Interior View of the upper level of the Colosseo (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

“Inside, the theatre must have been even more impressive when the three tiers of seats were filled with all sections of the populace. Encircling the arena was a wide marble terrace (podium) protected by a wall within which were the prestigious ring-side seats or boxes from where the Emperor and other dignitaries would watch the events. Beyond this area, marble seats were divided into zones: those for richer private citizens, middle-class citizens, slaves and foreigners and finally wooden seats and standing room in the flat-roofed colonnade on the top tier reserved for women and the poor. On top of this roof platform sailors were employed to manage the large awning (velarium) which protected the spectators from rain or provided shade on hot days.” Mark Cartwright, 2012



Marble block in the Colosseo (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

This marble block records two epigraphs, including the inauguration of the Flavian Amphitheater.


Reconstructed seating in the Colosseo (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)


Trap door in the arena floor in the Colosseo (Photo by JW Bailly/CC BY 4.0)

“In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators.  The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering.  The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword.” Seneca, Moral Epistles

“I think one of the most exciting things about visiting these monuments – like the Parthenon, or the Colosseum, etc. – is in going to see what our predecessors saw, but differently. I think the buzz you get from going to, say, the Colosseum is not just: ‘Oh my goodness, this is where gladiators fought and bled their guts out on the sand!’ But also: ‘This is where Byron came.’ And: ‘This is where Henry James came.’ There’s a sense of revisiting the recent as well as the remote past – and wondering, ‘Does it look the same to me as it did to Byron?’ Is it oppressive to be seeing through the eyes of these other people – or is that actually a wonderful enjoyment of historical ‘thickness’?” Mary Beard, 2007


Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.

Claridge, Amanda. Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Gibbon, Edward. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. London. Frederick Westley and A.H. Davis. 1837.

Kleiner, Diana E E. Roman Architecture: A Visual Guide. Yale University Press, 2014.

Korn, Frank J. A Catholic’s Guide to Rome: Discovering the Soul of the Eternal City. Paulist Press, 2000.

Macadam, Alta, and A. B. Barber. Rome. Blue Guides Limited, 2020.

Steves, Rick. Rick Steves Italy. Avalon Travel, 2019.

Testa, Judith. Rome Is Love Spelled Backward: Enjoying Art and Architecture in the Eternal City. Northern Illinois University Press, 1998.

John William Bailly  14 April 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: