The sun was shining and with Roma pass in hand, our family hit the road for another big day of touring. This day we would be on our own, doing that which we don’t really enjoy, trying our luck with a tour group in front of the coliseum.
Like most European cities, the transit system is amazing. Easy to get around on and low cost. The Roma pass gets you into a number of the sites at one set fair, worth the investment. Our first stop was the Coliseum and it is as jaw dropping as you would expect. It soars above you, one has to wonder at the effort involved to build it (not Pyramid in scope, but close).
Like so many Roman buildings, where the pagan gods once ruled, Christian symbols now rule.
Of course the tour was filled with fascinating facts around how the Coliseum was used. What I didn’t know was that it use to have a lake and that the original gladiator battles were not on the sand and wood floors that we see below, but in small ships.
The Colosseum was used to host gladiatorial shows as well as a variety of other events. The shows, called munera, were always given by private individuals rather than the state. They had a strong religious element but were also demonstrations of power and family prestige, and were immensely popular with the population. Another popular type of show was the animal hunt, or venatio. This utilized a great variety of wild beasts, mainly imported from Africa and the Middle East, and included creatures such as rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, elephants, giraffes, aurochs, wisents, barbary lions, panthers, leopards, bears, caspian tigers, crocodiles and ostriches. Battles and hunts were often staged amid elaborate sets with movable trees and buildings. Such events were occasionally on a huge scale; Trajan is said to have celebrated his victories in Dacia in 107 with contests involving 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators over the course of 123 days.
During the early days of the Colosseum, ancient writers recorded that the building was used for naumachiae (more properly known as navalia proelia) or simulated sea battles. Accounts of the inaugural games held by Titus in AD 80 describe it being filled with water for a display of specially trained swimming horses and bulls. There is also an account of a re-enactment of a famous sea battle between the Corcyrean (Corfiot) Greeks and the Corinthians. This has been the subject of some debate among historians; although providing the water would not have been a problem, it is unclear how the arena could have been waterproofed, nor would there have been enough space in the arena for the warships to move around. It has been suggested that the reports either have the location wrong, or that the Colosseum originally featured a wide floodable channel down its central axis (which would later have been replaced by the hypogeum).
The floor shows you how it would have been, the sand to sop up the blood and prevent slipping.
There was a lot written about Vespasian, with this quote catching our attention:
It was Vespasian who began the construction of the Colosseum:
Construction of the Colosseum began under the rule of the Emperor Vespasian in around 70–72AD. The site chosen was a flat area on the floor of a low valley between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine Hills, through which a canalised stream ran. By the 2nd century BC the area was densely inhabited. It was devastated by the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, following which Nero seized much of the area to add to his personal domain. He built the grandiose Domus Aurea on the site, in front of which he created an artificial lake surrounded by pavilions, gardens and porticoes. The existing Aqua Claudia aqueduct was extended to supply water to the area and the gigantic bronze Colossus of Nero was set up nearby at the entrance to the Domus Aurea.
Although the Colossus was preserved, much of the Domus Aurea was torn down. The lake was filled in and the land reused as the location for the new Flavian Amphitheatre. Gladiatorial schools and other support buildings were constructed nearby within the former grounds of the Domus Aurea. According to a reconstructed inscription found on the site, “the emperor Vespasian ordered this new amphitheatre to be erected from his general’s share of the booty.” This is thought to refer to the vast quantity of treasure seized by the Romans following their victory in the Great Jewish Revolt in 70AD. The Colosseum can be thus interpreted as a great triumphal monument built in the Roman tradition of celebrating great victories. Vespasian’s decision to build the Colosseum on the site of Nero’s lake can also be seen as a populist gesture of returning to the people an area of the city which Nero had appropriated for his own use. In contrast to many other amphitheatres, which were located on the outskirts of a city, the Colosseum was constructed in the city centre; in effect, placing it both literally and symbolically at the heart of Rome.
The Colosseum had been completed up to the third story by the time of Vespasian’s death in 79. The top level was finished and the building inaugurated by his son, Titus, in 80. Dio Cassius recounts that over 9,000 wild animals were killed during the inaugural games of the amphitheatre. The building was remodelled further under Vespasian’s younger son, the newly-designated Emperor Domitian, who constructed the hypogeum, a series of underground tunnels used to house animals and slaves. He also added a gallery to the top of the Colosseum to increase its seating capacity.
In 217, the Colosseum was badly damaged by a major fire (caused by lightning, according to Dio Cassius) which destroyed the wooden upper levels of the amphitheatre’s interior. It was not fully repaired until about 240 and underwent further repairs in 250 or 252 and again in 320. An inscription records the restoration of various parts of the Colosseum under Theodosius II and Valentinian III (reigned 425–450), possibly to repair damage caused by a major earthquake in 443; more work followed in 484 and 508. The arena continued to be used for contests well into the 6th century, with gladiatorial fights last mentioned around 435. Animal hunts continued until at least 523.
Once again I was amazed at how the artefacts of history are sitting everywhere, ready to be touched (so different than in North America where they are well behind the velvet rope or glass wall). Below is a piece of a column, ready for sitting upon …
It was an amazing morning and we finished with lunch at a small cafe across the street near Largo Agnesi, enjoying organic food and fresh cappuccino. The Palatine was next ….