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THE COLOSSEUM EXPLAINED - Page 2



ultra-wide photo of the Colosseum interior in 2016
The Colosseum interior in 2016
Image by Michal Goszczynski CC BY 2.0

On Page 2 of my exploration of the Colosseum, I focus on the events held in its huge arena and why the Romans had a fascination for so much brutality. I then explore the seating arrangements, how 50,000 spectators were able to quickly enter and exit, the canopies that covered the arena, and the history of damage and restorations to the Colosseum.

To jump to a specific topic, please use guide below or keep scrolling and explore.




VIOLENCE AND BRUTALITY IN THE COLOSSEUM?


Beyond a history of brutality, the Colosseum also symbolized what it was to be Roman. For example, the gladiatorial fights symbolized the important Roman concept of Virtus, which was so important that it had its own deity.


ROMAN VIRTUS



image of Virtus symbols signifying courage, valor, and manliness
Roman Virtus - Manliness, Courage, Valor, Strength

To the Romans, Virtus meant courage, valour, strength, and manliness, exemplified when a gladiator was victorious, and also when he lost and then calmly accepted a killing blow. In either case, the Gladiator demonstrated Virtus and, if he won the fight, he further demonstrated that the gods favoured him.

Furthermore, the animal hunts symbolized Rome's proud history of subjugating all the lands and the wilds around them. And the bloody executions symbolized merciless Roman justice and the upholding of Roman Law - an affirmation of belief and a deterrence against criminality.


gladiator helmeted and holding a knife menacingly
Gladiators swore an oath to endure being burned, bound, beaten, and killed by the sword

The Romans prized strength of character, strength of their armies, strength of their Emperor, and the strength of their gods. Showing too much mercy and leniency towards enemies and criminals was a sign of weakness - a danger to their very way of life. Every time a scene from one of their mythologies was re-enacted in the Colosseum during an execution, for example, it was an intense life and death affirmation of their beliefs. The Colosseum was spectacle, illusion, propaganda, theatre and mass entertainment that satisfied the needs of the Roman people and their rulers.


gladiator holding his helmet and posing with one arm across his chest
Romans idolized strong and brave men fearless of death who would protect the Roman Empire - the SPQR - at any cost.

It has been estimated that at least 400,000 people died in the Colosseum over the course of its 443 years of operation (80 to 523 AD). It has also been estimated that over 99% of the people killed in the Colosseum were pagan criminals and slaves, and only a minimal number were Christians, who were killed mainly in the Circus Maximus and the Circus of Nero years before the Colosseum was built.

The number of animals killed during the Colosseum's four centuries of operations was undoubtedly much higher than the human figure - easily one million or more. For example, during the 100 days of festivities celebrating the opening of the Colosseum in 80 AD, 9,000 animals -- lions, tigers, bears, ostriches and hippos -- were killed. And to celebrate his victory over the Dacians, Emperor Trajan had 11,000 animals killed during his games over a 120-day period. In addition, it is believed that the North African elephant became extinct because of Roman amphitheatres.

It is probably fair to say that, while the Colosseum was a feat of brilliant Roman engineering, it was also a profound example of Roman brutality and the period of history which the Romans lived in. This giant amphitheatre was a slaughterhouse whose arena was covered in thick sand so the victims would not slip on the blood while "entertaining" the spectators.

Nevertheless, I think it is essential to understand that the Romans lived in brutal times, surrounded by brutal enemies who had almost destroyed them many times. Therefore, Roman values were a reflection of the times they lived in - it is not fair to judge them by our standards which they would likely consider weak, soft, and rather insane.

I am sure there are some parallels in our present time, such as extreme movie violence, which I discuss later. However, in my opinion, it is hard to think of any current form of sports or entertainment that compares, in scale and extent, to the brutality displayed in the Colosseum and the other 230 Roman amphitheatres in the Roman Empire.



SENECA'S LETTER ABOUT COLOSSEUM VIOLENCE


While the violence in the Colosseum was acceptable to the average Roman, it was not seen that way by all. A perfect example is the Roman stoic philosopher and writer of tragic plays, Seneca, who went to the Colosseum expecting light entertainment but instead came face-to-face with extreme and bloody violence. In a letter that has survived the ages, Seneca wrote a letter to his friend Lucilius, and he describes the bloodthirsty crowds he experienced one afternoon in the Colosseum. This is long but well worth reading:


The other day, I chanced to drop in at the midday games, expecting sport and wit and some relaxation to rest men's eyes from the sight of human blood. Just the opposite was the case. Any fighting before that was as nothing; all trifles were now put aside - it was plain butchery.

The men had nothing with which to protect themselves, for their whole bodies were open to the thrust, and every thrust told. The common people prefer this to matches on level terms or request performances. Of course they do. The blade is not parried by helmet or shield, and what use is skill or defense? All these merely postpone death.

. . . 'Kill him! Flog him! Burn him alive!' (the spectators roared) 'Why is he such a coward? Why won't he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won't he die willingly? "

Unhappy as I am, how have I deserved that I must look on such a scene as this? Do not, my Lucilius, attend the games, I pray you. Either you will be corrupted by the multitude, or, if you show disgust, be hated by them. So stay away.

- Seneca - Letter 7 - Moral Letters to Lucilius


As is pretty evident, the Colosseum was not for the faint-hearted. I once read a fascinating true story about a Roman named Alypius, who, though he detested violence, was nevertheless persuaded by friends to see the games. At first, he resisted looking at what was happening in the arena, and he hid his eyes. However, he soon found himself wide-eyed and fascinated by the violence and excitement. He became addicted to the games and attended regularly. Eventually, he outgrew his addiction to violence and became a Christian Bishop.

This story points to the power of the Colosseum mob and the extreme violence which had a seductive effect on the human psyche. Even today, in some movies, we see person after person being shot, stabbed or blown up, often with much blood and gore. The popular movies Kill Bill, Kill Bill 2 and the TV series A Game of Thrones are perfect examples. There is something about extreme violence that many people find endlessly fascinating, it would seem. This is not a judgement - it is a simple statement about one of the realities of human nature and something we should remember when judging Roman sensibilities.


photo of scene from movie 'Kill Bill' showing Kiddo standing above restaurant carnage
Restaurant scene from Kill Bill (2003)
Image courtesy of Mirimax Films - Fair Usage (Educational)

Sometimes, the violence actually could be too much for the bloodthirsty crowds, as recounted by the Roman author and philosopher, Pliny the Elder. In 55 BC, 125 years before the Colosseum was completed, General Pompey hosted an event in the Circus Maximus where men armed with spears killed 20 elephants.


image of elephants being speared to death in the Circus Maximus
Elephants being killed in the Circus Maximus by Bestiarii

The shrill cries of the dying and desperate elephants actually moved the spectators to tears, and they rose up in anger and cursed General Pompey, who was sitting above them. This event shows us that the ancient Romans were not entirely heartless - there actually was a limit to what they would tolerate. In the quote below, Pliny the Elder recorded that sad elephant massacre in the Circus Maximus:


But those Elephants of Pompey being past all hope of escaping and going clear away, after a most pitiful manner and rueful plight that cannot be expressed, seemed to make moans unto the multitude, craving mercy and pity, with grievous plaints and lamentations, bewailing their hard state and woeful case: in such a way that the peoples ... with tears in their eyes, for very compassion, rose up all at once from beholding this pageant, without regard of the person of Pompey that great General and Commander, ... (and they) fell to cursing him, and wishing all those plagues and misfortunes to light upon his head; which soon after ensued accordingly.

- Pliny the Elder, Natural History, VIII.7.20


It is said that Pompey was forced to flee from the angry crowds. And, seeing as how Pompey was murdered and decapitated six years later in Egypt, it seems as if the crowds' curses were realized, as Pliny the Elder wrote in the quote above (... "which soon after ensued accordingly").





HOW MANY SPECTATORS COULD THE COLOSSEUM HOLD?


The Colosseum could seat 45,000 in its Cavea and an extra 5,000 on the top floor, including standing room only - for a total of 50,000 spectators. Based on studies of many other Roman theatres, it has been calculated that, apart from dignitaries, the common people were packed in at a spacing of about .46 metres (1.5 feet) per person - pretty tight.


image showing dense Colosseum crowds
A fraction of the 50,000 Colosseum Spectators

You will read that the Colosseum held up to 70,000 or even 87,000 people, a high figure based on a misunderstanding of the recorded data for Region 3 of ancient Rome. Emperor Augustus divided the city of Rome into 14 regions, and the Colosseum was located in Region 3 Isis and Serapis ("Regio III Isis et Serapis ") The ancient document shown below is for Region 3, and it specifies that the Colosseum has 87,000 loca ("amphitheatrum qui capit loca LXXXVII") with a line above the Roman number for "87" that multiplies that figure by 1,000.


image of 'Discriptio XIII regionum urbis romae' that shows the amount of space allocated for Colosseum spectators
DISCRIPTIO XIIII REGIONVM VRBIS ROMÆ
4th Century Statistics of Main Buildings in Region 3 of Rome

The word loca refers to pedes which means how many units of seat spacing there are and not how many people can be accommodated in the Colosseum (see quote below). Becauses each spectator required approximately half a metre (1.5 feet) per person of space, a realistic figure is probably around 50,000 maximum spectators on average, based on dividing 87,000 loca by half a metre. It is interesting, though, that Google translates the Latin word loca as meaning places. Some scholars think that the 87,000 figure in the ancient document exaggerates the space available.



The statement in the Regionary Catalogue (Reg. III), that the amphitheatre had 87,000 loca, cannot refer to persons but to pedes, and even so, it is probably incorrect, for the total seating capacity cannot have exceeded forty-five thousand ... with standing room on the roof for about five thousand more.
- Samuel B. Platner, A Topographical Dict. of Ancient Rome


Certainly, there were probably times when the crowds were packed into the Colosseum like sardines in a can. But I would imagine that the Senators and Equestrians, sitting in the Podium and Maenianum Primum sections of the Colosseum - almost a third of the available seating space - would not have allowed their privileged space to be invaded by hordes of commoners. Thus, there were definite physical limits in the Colosseum that suggest the 50,000 maximum spectator figure is realistic.




CROWD CONTROL - FILLING & EVACUATING THE COLOSSEUM


Surprisingly, the Colosseum could be filled with spectators quickly, and it has been estimated that a full Colosseum could be emptied in 15 minutes. So how was this accomplished or even possible? Below, I will show the Romans' various methods to manage Colosseum audience traffic and seating. Through an efficient ticketing system, numerous entrances, numerous exits, and a well-designed system of passageways and staircases, the Romans developed a system still used today in many arenas and stadiums.


TICKETING SYSTEM


photo of Roman tesserae tokens
Tesserae
Entry to the Colosseum was rigidly and clevery controlled. Although admittance to the Colosseum was free, it was still controlled through tokens (tickets) marked with the entrance number, floor and a seat number. A ticket to an amphitheatre event was called a Tessera which typically was a small clay coin marked with the entrance number and other details.

Tesserae (plural of Tessera) were also used throughout the Roman world as tokens that people could exchange for food or money - these were known as "Tesserae Frumintariae" and "Tesserae Nummariae." To the right is an image of what these small, clay coin-like tokens looked like. As far as I can tell, no actual Colosseum Tesserae from ancient times have been found.


80 ENTRANCES

In addition to the ticket system, the crowds could enter the building quickly and efficiently through 80 entrances all along the outside of the Colosseum - and there were approximately 72 exits in the inside seating area known as the Cavea. In addition, large passageways and staircases connected entrances and exits all along the perimeter of the structure.



Just 20 of the 80 Colosseum arched entrances

Of the 80 arches along the bottom, 76 were entrances for the general public, while the remaining four arches were grand entrances reserved for dignitaries and Gladiators.

     
Only 32 of the entrances for the general public still exist - entrances number 23 to 54 - the rest were destroyed when the southern section of the Colosseum's outer rings collapsed during the 1348 AD earthquake.

     
The four grand entrances were located at the North, South, East and West points of the structure - and only one of them still exists, located between entrances 38 and 39. The gladiators used two entrances, one for the living and one for the dead. Each of these entrances had a name, which I explain below.

     
The grand entrance known as the Porta Libitina, named after the Roman goddess of funerals and burials, was the doorway through which the corpses of gladiators who died were transported out of the Colosseum.

     
The other grand entrance was the Porta Sanivivaria, through which victors and those allowed to survive the contests left the arena.

     
The final two grand entrances were reserved exclusively for the use of the emperor, Senators and Vestal Virgins. It is more likely that the emperor entered the Colosseum via tunnels for reasons of privacy, security and convenience.



In the image above, you can see entrances 52, 53 and 54 (Roman numerals LII, LIII, LIV). These entrances represent just three of the 32 that survived - the others were destroyed when the southern side of the Colosseum collapsed due to an earthquake in 1348. This calamity was followed by another earthquake a year later in 1349, and another serious earthquake in 1709. It is rather incredible that the Colosseum is still standing at all after so many earthquakes - a testimony to its robust construction and foundation.



VOMITORIUMS

Just as important as the numerous ground floor entrances were the numerous exits into the seating area that were distributed all throughout the Cavea. These exits numbered almost as many as the entrances, approximately 72 versus 80.


diagram showing two Roman vomitoriums inside a roman amphitheatre
Diagram of Roman Vomitorium exits/entrances

The Roman term for entrances and exits was Vomitorium, a word that is often confused with the myth that rich, gluttonous Romans would stuff themselves with food and then use a "vomitorium" to purge themselves so they could then eat more - this is not true. A vomitorium really is just a Roman Latin term for an entrance or exit that "vomits" people very efficiently. Thus, the Colosseum crowds could enter and exit quickly because of the combination of 80 entrances, wide and encircling arcade of passageways, and numerous staircases and exits on each level of the Colosseum seating area (Cavea).


diagram of Colosseum seen from above and showing all the interior Vomitorium exits/entrances and staircases
Diagram of Colosseum Cavea showing inner seating Vomitoriums

The Colosseum Cavea seating area was divided into the Summa, Media, and Ima Cavea, meaning the High, Middle and Low seating sections, as shown in the diagram above. The Media Cavea held 40 Vomitoriums while the Ima Cavea had 32 Vomitoriums - thus the number of exits inside the amphitheatre almost matched its total outside entrances.


diagram showing one end of the colosseum with numerous vomitoriums in the Ima and Media Cavea sections
Reconstructed image of Colosseum showing numerous Cavea Vomitoriums

These images of the Colosseum vomitoriums throughout the seating area make it very clear how masses of people could quickly and efficiently enter and exit the Colosseum Cavea. This system is still used today in stadiums and arenas simply because it works so well. When you look at the image above, you could be looking at any stadium or arena today in the modern world. The Roman architectural plan is still used simply because it works so well.

Anyone who goes to a modern sports arena, for example, knows how important it is to have numerous ways to enter and exit the building, especially when there are big crowds of people to deal with. And, just like today, in the event of a crisis such as a fire or an earthquake, it was also crucial for the Colosseum audience to exit as quickly as possible without crushing each other.



COLOSSEUM PASSAGEWAYS AND STAIRCASES

While having many entrances and exits was crucial, equally important was having an efficient system of passageways and corridors that quickly gets you from outside to your seat, and vice versa. The people who designed the Colosseum did a great job designing a stadium that moved people around the structure as efficiently as possible. Having lots of passageways, exits and entrances sure does help move things along.

Each entrance and vomitorium was connected to corridors and passageways shown in the images and watercolour painting below. These passageways formed arcades all around the perimeter of the Colosseum. Passageways also led to large staircases designed to accommodate large crowds as they climbed or descended the multiple levels of the Colosseum.


two photos showing the interior passageways of the Colosseum in year 2024
Interior passageways made of Travertine stone within the Colosseum - not all have been cleared
Photo from my Feb. 2024 Rome Trip

All throughout the Colosseum, one can find evidence of wise and effective planning regarding the flow of people throughout the structure. The watercolour painting below shows Colosseum passageways that could accommodate the traffic flow of many people at once. During its period of operation between 80 and 523 AD, however, these Colosseum passageways would have had barriers, probably iron gating, to separate the different classes of spectators. In the 1700s, as shown in the next photo, the inside corridors of the Colosseum were partially filled with sediment and debris.


watercolour image by John Warwick Smith of Colosseum  passageways filled with dirt and debris in the 1700s
Inside the Colosseum passageways in the 1700s
John Warwick Smith ca. 1776-1781

Below is a view of a Colossseum passageway in winter of 2024 - this ground-level passageway is a current view of the drawing above. All the piles of dirt and debris have mostly been cleaned up, and just like in ancient times, these corridors still easily accommodate the thousands of visitors that enter every day. These passages are actually quite broad and very solidly built - you can tell they were designed to move people quickly and efficiently through the complex. I believe this passageway is located at ground level.


Photo taken in February 2024 showing a ground level outer passageway in the Colosseum.  The passageway is quite 
broad and the ceilings are high.  The travertine structure is very solid and large and filled with holes caused by 
pillaging over the centuries
Inside the Colosseum passageways in 2024
Photo from my Feb. 2024 Rome Trip

Often, staircases and some particular passageways would be wider at one end and narrower at the other in order to work with the flow of crowds and help avoid jamming. The images below show examples of Colosseum staircases leading from one level to the other. Notice the high ceilings and wide staircases. During its peak, these Colosseum staircases would have been decorated and painted in vivid colours and frescoes. Notice also the ever-present holes in the walls where iron clamps were dug out over the centuries by pillagers.


photo of colosseum staircase and vomitorium photo of colosseum staircase

In conclusion, the effective use of numerous entrances, exits, wide passageways and staircases in the Colosseum created a system that allowed for the fast, efficient movement of spectators from a ground entrance to their to seat and vice-versa. It is no coincidence that even today, many sports arenas follow basically the same architectural principles developed by the Romans. It was a system that did its job well and a testament the brilliance of Roman engineering.




SEATING IN THE COLOSSEUM


In Roman times, the seating area of any theatre or amphitheatre was called the "Cavea. The Colosseum's Cavea was divided into many sections based on people's class, function and gender. Senators, for example, sat closest to the arena while women sat furthest away on the top floor. The Emperor had his own private box, separate from everyone else. The diagram below shows all the divisions of the Cavea seating section:


diagram of the Colosseum seating arrangement of the cavea showing how seating was divided by society class
Seating arrangements inside the Colosseum Cavea

The actual seats themselves were made from travertine, a kind of limestone that is not a type of marble. Unfortunately, because of hundreds of years of pillaging, virtually all the seats in the Colosseum are now gone. However, in the 1930s, a small area in the Podium section was reconstructed using remnants of the original travertine discovered during excavations.


photo containing three photos of Colosseum marble seats with closeup showing name carved on seat where senators sat in the podium
Travertine marble seats in the Colosseum cavea - bottom right shows name carved into seat

The three-image collage above shows that section from the side, then from the front and, finally, a closeup of a few seats to show how dignitaries often had their names carved on the seat. This gives you an idea of how the seating in the Colosseum looked; however, be advised that the actual Podium seating had only about three rows going across, not eight. Just like the First Class section of a plane today, the Roman Senators had much more space afforded to them than what is portrayed in the reconstruction.





THE VELARIUM



reconstruction image of Colosseum showing whole velarium awning structure above the amphitheatre
Colosseum Velarium seen from above

No discussion of the Colosseum would be complete without mentioning the Velarium - the vast, circular awning that was suspended above the Colosseum to give relief from the Sun to many of the spectators. Anyone who has been in Rome in July and August will certainly remember how glaring and hot the afternoon Sun is. Providing shade in the Colosseum was not a luxury - it was a necessity.


painting showing what the Colosseum velarium looked like from below where the spectators sat on fourth floor
Colosseum Velarium seen from underneath

The Velarium did not cover the whole amphitheatre. It covered only outer areas of the seating, leaving the middle still exposed to the Sun. Since the higher classes sat in the front and the lower classes sat further back, it is ironic that it was the common folk who benefitted most from the Velarium's protection.

Nevertheless, the Emperor, Senators, Equestrians and other dignitaries who were seated close to the arena surely must have found other ways to provided their own shade - small awnings, Umbraculums (parasols), a Petasus (hat with broad rim), were used. In addition to the use of the Velarium, spectators were also cooled by mists of sprayed water scented with balsam, a practice they called Sparsione, which I discussed at length earlier in the "The Roman Practice of Sparsio" section.


Velarium of the Colosseum can be seen in background high above several gladiators standing in the  colosseum arena
The Colosseum Velarium seen in the distance overhead

In the next section, I take a detailed look at the clever and complex system of masts and ropes the Romans used to suspend and adjust the Velarium above the cavernous and high Colosseum.





THE VELARIUM MAST SUPPORTS



photo of colosseum top area showing holes where velarium masts were supported and also showing the corbel stone
structure that the velarium masts rested upon
Colosseum corbels that supported the Velarium masts all along the top edge of the building

The Velarium was suspended on wooden masts that stood all along the top part of the fourth floor wall. These masts rested on Corbels, stone structures that jutted out from the wall, which can be seen in the photos above and below.

The word Corbel derives from the French word "corbeau" for crow. I have calculated that there were 235 Corbels, based on one Corbel below each foruth floor window and five between each window, as seen in the image below of the Colosseum's third and fourth floor.


diagram showing how the number of corbels and masts that supported the velarium are calculated based on 
 80 arches per level and five masts between each 4th floor window Number of total Colosseum masts & corbel supports

Since there are 40 windows (every second arch of a total of 80 arches), there are 39 spaces between each window that contain five more Corbels each. Thus, the total number is 40 + (5 x 39) = 235 mast supports. In the photo above, you can see how the masts rested on a Corbell as they extended above the Colosseum through a square hole in the top edge of the Colosseum.

The 235 masts provided the pathway for ropes to suspend the Velarium high above the spectators sitting in the Cavea below. The image at the start of this section shows the masts and rigging at work, where you can see the ropes heading down towards the ground.

The fabric of the Velarium, probably linen, was attached to the masts by long ropes operated by Roman sailors. It is said that 100 sailors were required to keep the Velarium functioning by pulling or loosening the rope rigging. After adjusting the ropes, they would fasten them to stone anchors on the ground all around the Colosseum perimeter.


photo of Colosseum's arena wide expanse seen from 
above while standing on the top floor of the structure
Colosseum arena seen from top floor. It is amazing how the Romans were able to cover nearly this entire expanse with a retractable canopy suspended by 235 wooden mast supports

The concept of suspending large awnings over structures did not begin just with the Colosseum. Large awnings were being used at least since the time of Caesar to provide protection from the burning Sun in theatres, forums, and street areas.

The Latin word for an awning is Vela, from which the word Velarium derives. It was not uncommon, when special events or games were being advertised, to see the words "Vela Erunt written. This statement announced to the public that, "There will be awnings," which probably made the event more attractive to people, especially in the hot weather.

This quote by Pliny expresses well the use of awnings in Rome and the effect they had on the people:


... Caesar when dictator stretched awnings over the whole of the Roman Forum, as well as the Sacred Way from his mansion, and the slope right up to the Capital, a display recorded to have been thought more wonderful even than the show of gladiators which he gave ... and recently awnings actually of sky blue and spangled with stars have been stretched with ropes even in the emperor Nero's amphitheatres.

Pliny, Natural History 19.23-25


It came as a surprise, when I first read that the Romans used awnings also to cover some of the forums and even some of the grand streets - how beautiful those awnings must have looked on a warm, sunny day. In my drawing below, I tried to imagine what the Forum of Nerva looked like on a hot summer day with awnings stretched across the forum to protect the people from the burning Sun.


My color drawing of what the Forum of Nerva looked like in 100 AD with vela awnings stretched across the forum to 
 help block the burning Sun on a hot summer day in Rome
Forum of Nerva covered with awnings on a hot summer day

What a comfort it must have been to the people below those vast expanses of colourful fabric as they strolled in the shade provided by those ancient Sun screens. Another interesting fact is that the large velarium-like awnings were made of linen, whereas smaller awnings used to shade market stalls were made of woven straw mats.

Interesting, Romans also covered their windows with a fabric device called a "Roman Blind." The ancient Roman blind was a wet piece of fabric that blocked the Sun's heat and helped also to stop dust and insects from entering homes and apartments.



image showing the whole Colosseum with its full velarium unfurled in the year 100 AD
Colosseum with Velarium extended over the Cavea in 100 AD

And I end this section with an image above of how the Colosseum, in pristine condition, looked when the Velarium was extended across the vast Cavea seating section below.




THE COLOSSEUM COLLAPSE OF 1349 AD


The alternating images below show the Colosseum as it looked in 320 AD and then how it looks in 2020 AD. The view is from the southern side. The image from the past is marked as the year 320 AD because the Arch of Constantine, seen in the bottom left, did not exist before that date.


recent photo of whole colosseum in 2020 AD from above showing collapsed walls on its southern side and what remains of the 
arch of constantine and the meta sudans painting of whole colosseum in 320 AD and also including the Arch of Constantine and the Meta Sudans and the Colossus of Nero
Colosseum in 320 AD and 2020 AD
Image courtesy of Google Earth

One of the first things people notice when viewing the Colosseum, is how a large section of the outer walls, all along its southern side, is missing. This obvious and extensive damage makes the Colosseum look broken, and the cause is due to earthquakes - especially the earthquake of 1349 AD, almost 700 years ago.

The collapse of the Colosseum's south-side walls affected only the outer two walls, as the inner wall still stands. As you can imagine, the amount of stone that fell during the collapse was enormous and, for centuries after, this massive pile of stone was used as a quarry. In just one year alone, in 1452 AD, 2,500 wheelbarrows of Colosseum stones were taken. Numerous buildings and other structures in Rome were built with Colosseum stone, such as the Ponte Sisto bridge, the Palazzo Venezia, St. Peters cathedral stairs, the 28 marble steps known as the Scala Santa, various city walls, the Basilica of San Marco, the Palazzi Senatrio, the Palazzo Farnese, the Palazzo Della Cancelleria, and the Palazzo Barberini.

The photo below shows how the Colosseum's outer walls are composed of three wall sections, the outer two of which are the sections that collapsed all along its south side in 1349 AD. This particular photo was taken where the Colosseum wall collapse begins on the northwest side of the Colosseum.


Colosseum cross-section diagram showing outer three walls - based on a sketch from 1581 recent photo of colosseum outside walls where earthquake damage caused collapse and showing clearing the structure
of the two outside walls

Colosseum's #1 and #2 walls collapsed along the southern side in 1349 AD
Sketch by Girolamo Fagiuoli 1581 - Photo is mine 2024

The sketch above by Girolamo Fabiuoli, made in the year 1581, shows a cross-section of the Colosseum. On the left side, you can see the two outer walls, numbered 1 and 2, and coloured blue, which collapsed all along the southern side of the Colosseum in 1349. The sketch also shows how the interior structure of the amphitheatre is composed of many arches that both support and connect the walls. You can also see the foundation the Colosseum rests upon with dark patches indicating where the brickwork and concrete forming the walls and arches connected.



BOLSTERING THE COLOSSEUM'S REMAINING OUTER WALLS




Over the past 200 years, brickwork and new columns have been added to the edges of the collapsed sections to bolster what remains - this work was commissioned by Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) after he took control of the Colosseum in 1814. He was determined to preserve what remained of the structure. Thus, he authorized the work to build a wall buttress in 1820 and the architect was Raffaele Stern. The Papal authorities authorized the work because, in 1806, another earthquake in Rome had done further damage to the fourth-floor area of the Colosseum's outer ring, and there was fear of a collapse.

NOTE: The Colosseum's wall buttresses are also known as "abutments." However, I prefer the term "buttress" because it actually means a supporting structure that props up and reinforces a wall, whereas an "abutment" is a bolstering structure at the end of certain bridges, as defined by Wikipedia.


thumbnail of Colosseum video showing its outer wall buttress supports via a drone flying above
VIDEO:  Colosseum from above - showing Northeast and Northwest wall buttresses
Video courtesy of Videvo

The buttressing work for the other side of the collapse - the northeast side of the Colosseum - was completed by Pope Leo XII in 1826 under the supervision of architect Giuseppe Valadier. Both the 1820 and 1826 wall buttresses are shown in the video above.

Popes Gregory XVI in 1845, and Piux IX in 1852, contributed further towards preserving what remained of the Colosseum by authorizing more work on the buttresses at the bottom and top (east and west) locations of the Colosseum's outer walls. Just before the video ends, you can see the ruins of the huge Temple of Venus and Roma, the Arch of Constantine, and the circular foundation of the Meta Sudans fountain.


sketch of Colosseum abutement construction in the 1820s
Colosseum West buttress (abutment) being built in the 1820s

In doing research, I repeatedly found conflicting information regarding which buttress, west or east, was built first. Some sources claimed the eastern buttress was built first, while others claimed it was the western (northwest) buttress that was built first. Despite the confusion, almost always, the architect Rafaelle Stern is credited with being the first to design and build one of the Colosseum buttresses, and Giuseppe Valadier is also correctly credited with building the second buttress.

The quote below summarizes what I think, to the best of my knowledge, are the actual facts regarding the correct location and timeline for the construction of the supportive Colosseum buttresses (abutments):


Under Pius VII (1800-1823) it was deemed necessary to reinforce the remains of the outer ring. An abutment (buttress) of bricks (a.k.a. the "Stern abutment" from Raffaele Stern, the architect who planned it) was built to support the arches on the NW (northwest) side, and was completed around 1820. Later on, in 1826, the following Pope Leo XII had the other, more photographed abutment (east side) built by the architect Giuseppe Valadier.

Ada Gabucci, The Colosseum, 2002

And so, as you can see, the northwest buttress was built first in 1820 by Rafaelle Stern. The eastern buttress was built in 1826 by Giuseppe Valadier. Finally, I would like to mention and give credit to Carlo Fea (1753 - 1836), perhaps one of the most esteemed archaeologists of the early 19th century, who did much work in the 1810s to excavate and make recommendations on how to support, preserve and repair the Colosseum.




COLOSSEUM - FROM NEGLECTED QUARRY TO HOLY SHRINE


For much of its existence, the Colosseum was neglected and indeed cannibalized for its wealth of stone and metals. In fact, until 1675 AD, the Colosseum was not considered a holy place worth saving. Throughout the Middle Ages, for example, the Colosseum was never mentioned in any of the guide books or documents regarding holy places to visit in the city of Rome.

After the Colosseum was closed in 523 AD, it quickly fell into disarray, and the arena was frequently used as a graveyard because the Hypogeum below the arena had filled in with dirt and debris. Then, starting in the 800s and up to the severe earthquake of 1349, the Colosseum's extensive system of arcades and passageways were turned into stables, workshops, warehouses, and apartments.


Colosseum and surrounding vicinity in the Middle Ages - black and white sketch
Colosseum and neighbourhood in the Middle Ages

In the 1200s, Rome was controlled by warring families such as the Pierlionis and the Annibaldis. One family, in particular, the Frangipanis, took control of the Colosseum and turned it into a fortress until the mid-1200s, when Pope Innocenzo IV took over and forced them out. Up until Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), Popes were known as "Lord Popes," and they held ultimate power in the City of Rome.

In the 1400s, Pope Sixtus VI actually wanted to convert the Colosseum into a woollen goods factory that would employ the local prostitutes - this plan was stopped only by his sudden passing. And in 1671, Cardinal Palluzzo Altieri authorized bullfights to be staged in the Colosseum, which shows how little regard he had for any sense that the ancient structure was a shrine to heroes and martyrs of the Christian faith. Cardinal Altieri's plans angered and provoked the people of Rome to stop the bullfighting from happening.


image of Colosseum in the 1560s showing it in a bad state of repair
Colosseum in the 1560s by Battista Pittoni Vicentino
Colosseum is inundated with dirt and mud, and vegegation is growing on the ruins. Walls are not bolstered

One person, in particular, Carlo Tomassi, wrote a pamphlet in 1671 declaring the sanctity and religious significance of the Colosseum. His pamphlet was so successful that, within a few years, the Colosseum became a sanctuary, and all outside access to the structure was closed in 1675 by Pope Clement X.

In the 1740s, Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) established a "Via Crucis", ("Way of the Cross"), in the Colosseum. For Catholics, the "Way of the Cross" commemorates the passion and death of Jesus Christ through fourteen stations, usually with images (reliefs, sculptures) arranged along a path. People pray at each station as they proceed through the "Way of the Cross".




THE COLOSSEUM'S LONG HISTORY OF DAMAGE




Colosseum being damaged by fire, earthquakes, lightning, and a pillager with a pickaxe - colour drawing by atouchofrome.com
Centuries of fire, lightning, earthquakes and pillaging have assaulted the Colosseum

Visitors to the Colosseum will notice that its walls are pockmarked with holes. These were caused by centuries of digging out the metal clamps embedded in the walls. Visitors will also notice that half the outer walls and seats are missing, and the walls look rough and bare. Many damaging events have taken their toll on the Colosseum over its long existence.

There have been severe fires, often caused by lightning. Also, several earthquakes and centuries of pillaging have removed practically all of the Colosseum's marble facing, marble seats, vast amounts of travertine stone (shown below), and all the metal clamps that joined its stone structure together. Yet, amazingly, the ancient structure is still standing.


Photo of large block of classic roman travertine stone
A large block of classic Roman Travertine stone

It can be puzzling to understand how a fire could seriously damage a stone structure, especially the massive Colosseum. Stone might seem resistant to fire, but this is not always the case with marble and travertine stone. Also, even stone Roman buildings contained much wood in the roof, underlying supports, floors, and furniture. All this wood feeds the fires within a stone structure, resulting in destructive heat and smoke that can cause critical damage.

On an ongoing basis throughout Rome's history, temples, basilicas, and other stone buildings had to be repaired or even rebuilt because of fire. For example, the Basilica Julia had to be rebuilt at least three times due to fires (9, 199, and 283 AD).

While a stone like granite is highly resistant to fire, other types - travertine, for example - can crack, split apart, and become discoloured and smoke damaged. Massive fires could cause stone sections of the Colosseum to break off. The upper part of the Colosseum had extensive stands of seats and other sections that were made of wood. Below is a list of events that damaged the Colosseum over the centuries.


photo of holes in Colosseum walls due to pillaging for metal
Holes caused by pillaging of metal clamps in Colosseum walls



A PARTIAL TIMELINE OF COLOSSEUM DAMAGE

After reviewing many documents describing events that damaged the Colosseum, I have compiled a timeline below. Please note that this timeline is probably incomplete because, after 2,000 years, it is probable that not every single record of a fire or earthquake that damaged the Colosseum has survived. Nevertheless, I think the timeline will demonstrate how the Colosseum suffered many traumatic events.

•   
In 217 AD, the Colosseum was severely damaged by a fire that destroyed most of the wooden upper sections of its interior Cavea seating section. During the fire, stones from the upper levels fell down into the arena, damaging the wooden floor and entering the hypogeum below. I have included an actual record of the event below:

Roman historian Cassius Dio recorded that the Colosseum fire event of 217 AD happened on August 23, the festival day honouring the Roman God Vulcan (God of fire, volcanoes & deserts), known as the festival of Vulcanalia. In his recounting of the event, he refers to the Colosseum as the "hunting theatre" because of the Venatio hunting events held there every morning:


The hunting theatre was struck by thunderbolts on the very day of the Vulcanalia, and such a blaze followed that its entire upper circuit and everything in the arena was consumed, and thereupon the rest of the structure was ravaged by the flames and reduced to ruins. Neither human aid could avail against the conflagration, though practically every aqueduct was emptied, nor could the downpour from the sky, which was most heavy and violent, accomplish anything ...

(Cassius Dio 79.25.2-3)

His recounting of the event makes it clear that the fire was so intense that neither a strong downpour of rain nor the frantic efforts of people emptying the city aqueducts of water could quell the flames that "reduced to ruins" the whole Colosseum. Fire causes certain types of stone to splinter and crack. Marble can be reduced to a powder known as Lime.

•   
In 232 AD, there was another fire, and the repairs to the Colosseum took until the year 240 AD - it is recorded that more repairs had to be made in the years 250 and 320 AD.

•   
In the Historia Augusta -- a Roman collection of biographies of Roman emperors and colleagues from 117 to 284 AD -- it is mentioned that Emperor Elagabalus started repairs to the Colosseum in the years 218-222 AD, which were then continued by Emperor Severus Alexander from 222 to 235 AD.  Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, known commonly as St. Jerome, mentions in his letters that there was a Colosseum fire during the reign of Emperor Decius in the year 249 AD approximately.

•   
In the 400s, earthquake damage in 417 AD that had caused the upper part of the Colosseum to fall into the Cavea seating section was repaired by Emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III between 417 and 423 AD. It is also recorded that further repairs had to be made to the Colosseum in 467 and 472 AD, just four years before the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD. The last entry for repairs to the Colosseum was in 508 AD, fifteen years before the amphitheatre was closed and ceased operations for good in 523 AD.

•   
Barbarian invasion of Rome on August 24, 410 AD, also damaged the Colosseum when their destruction and blocking of crucial Roman sewage infrastructure led to the underground Hypogeum structure becoming filled with water, leaving it unusable.

•   
The years 847 and 1231 AD saw severe earthquakes that shook and destabilized the Colosseum so badly they caused cracking and falling stones that ultimately led to the collapse of the whole southern side's outer walls in 1349 AD.

It seems that it was necessary to repair the Colosseum regularly, and the main reasons were fire and earthquakes. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and the closing of the Colosseum in 523 AD, funding for repairs ended. And thus the Colosseum fell into a long period of decay that lasted until the early 1800s when efforts began to stabilize the structure.

Unfortunately, due to corrosive fumes and vibrations, a hundred years of vehicular traffic has further damaged the Colosseum. As a result, the city of Rome is seriously considering banning all traffic from the area and turning the site into a large park.



RESTORATION OF THE COLOSSEUM



photo of Colosseum wall with scaffolding used for restoration and cleaning of the Colosseum's outer walls from 2013 to 2016
Colosseum under renovation. Photo courtesy: Benjamin Sutton

Centuries of neglect changed slowly to respect and veneration in the late 1600s and 1700s, which then led to efforts to preserve and restore the ancient structure. But the change in attitude towards the Colosseum came a bit late. Unfortunately, almost two-thirds of the structure no longer exists; nevertheless, it is still impressive in its current state.

In the 21st century, the Colosseum is the number one tourist attraction in Rome, having received 7 million visitors in 2019. I am grateful that the Colosseum has survived so that we can still experience its historical and architectural grandeur that still shines brightly despite its ruined state.


photo of Colosseum after its travertine walls were cleaned in 2016 photo of dark and discoloured Colosseum outside walls before they were cleaned over three years from 2013 to 2016
Colosseum before and after surface cleaning
Images courtesy of Tod's Inc.

The first significant effort at reconstruction and preservation was the building of the Colosseum's outer wall buttresses (abutments), followed by work on the interior structure by G.  Salvi and L. Canina over a 21-year period (1831 and 1852). And in the 1930s, further restoration was done in the Cavea and Hypogeum.

Since 2011, thanks to the Tod's Company, efforts have been underway to clean and restore the Colosseum's outside surface, which was blackened by a patina of grime and soot from centuries of air pollution. It is said the structure was so dark that it seemed to fade into the background. However, the cleaning - completed in 2016 - has wonderfully restored the travertine stone to its former creamy lightness, and the Colosseum now stands out dramatically.

Rome's Archaeological Heritage Department has plans to do a major restoration to the Colosseum in the hope that its former greatness and majesty will be restored. So far, an estimated 25 Million Euros has been spent on different restoration projects, such as the Tod's Company's sponsored cleaning. In addition, other restoration work has been done on the fourth floor, where the best view of the Colosseum can be seen - it has now been opened to visitors.

There is also talk of completely rebuilding the arena floor and having performances happen again so that the Colosseum is once again an important entertainment venue for the City of Rome. However, rock music will not be allowed so that intense vibrations do not affect the Colosseum structure. Interestingly, the Colosseum is leaning slightly along its north-south axis. The northern end is 40 cm (16 inches) higher than the southern end - a slight "leaning tower of Pisa" effect that, apparently, presents no danger to the structure's overall stability.


photo of subway construction beside the Colosseum in 1940
Subway tunnel being built beside Colosseum in 1940

The photo above shows work being done on the north side of the Colosseum in the modern age. A subway tunnel was begun there in 1940, and because workers kept finding ancient Roman ruins and artifacts, the work progressed slowly. It is somewhat startling to see such a huge tunnel being dug so close to the Colosseum - I'm sure they made sure the ancient amphitheatre's foundation and structure were not compromised during construction. It also looks like this work might have affected the podium of the Colossus of Nero.




THE META SUDANS FOUNTAIN BESIDE THE COLOSSEUM



image recreation of what the  Meta Sudans looked like in the early 4th century AD
The Meta Sudans in 320 AD with Arch of Constantine
Meta Sudans reconstruction superimposed over current image of area

Imagine the thunderous roar of chariots racing around a towering, cone-shaped object - that was a Meta structure located at the two far ends of a Roman circus racecourse. But the excitement did not end there. Enter the Meta Sudans - an equally impressive structure that served as both a huge fountain and the crucial turning point for triumphant Roman processions arriving beside the Colosseum. As the procession made its way along the grand Via Triumphalis street, all eyes were fixed on the majestic Meta Sudans that marked the pivotal moment when the procession would veer left onto the Via Sacra, leading them straight into the heart of the ancient Forum Romanum (Roman Forum). It was a sight that left spectators in awe, a true testament to the grandeur and power of the Roman Empire.


photo showing whole width of Colosseum with the Meta Sudans fountain remains in the centre of the image
Meta Sudans fountain remains in 1893
Remaster of Public Domain Image

Built approximately 10 years after the Colosseum was opened in 80 AD, this unique fountain was the largest in ancient Rome. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the Meta Sudans was also one of the city's most prominent markers for parade traffic. There is also a legend that says injured Gladiators would go to this fountain to cleanse their wounds after fighting in the Colosseum. The structure was made of a large concrete core and bricks that was covered with marble. Only the concrete and brick core survived until it was demolished in the 1930s.


closeup of Meta Sudans remains in 1800s showing people sitting nearby
People sitting along the edge of the Meta Sudans pool remains - late 1800s

The photo above shows the size of the Meta Sudans relative to the people sitting along the far edge of the pool. At this point in time (late 1800s or very early 1900s), the structure was 9 metres (30 ft) high, and the pool was 16 metres (53 ft) wide but mostly filled in with dirt and debris.

However, when the Meta Sudans was new (90 AD approx), it stood at almost 17 metres (56 feet) in height - over five storeys tall - an impressive size for a fountain. The wide circular pool surrounding the fountain was 1.4 metres deep (4.5 ft). Furthermore, it was at the crossroads of major thoroughfares in the city's heart. It was also located at the very centre of where four regions of Rome met (Palatium, Templum Pacis, Isis et Serapis, and Porta Capena). This fountain was a marker in all kinds of ways. Unfortunately, the Meta Sudans's remains, like those of the Colossus of Nero's podium base, were removed by Mussolini in 1936 so they would not impede traffic around the Colosseum.

In the next photo, the Meta Sudans has been recreated within a recent photo of the area. This photo shows the overall structure of the fountain. The high cone above the base with statues has water running out of it. The water then runs down into a large and walled round pool that surrounds the inner structure. The Arch of Constantine stands very close by.



colour image from 1890s of Meta Sudans remains before they were destroyed by Mussolini in the 1930s so that traffic was not impeded around the Colosseum
Colour photo of Meta Sudans - 1890s - Hans Jakob Schmidt

The image above is an actual colour photo of the Meta Sudans and Colosseum from the 1890s, made using a photochromic process developed in the 1880s by Hans Jakob Schmidt in Switzerland. Interestingly, the Meta Sudans was also a marker just like the ones that existed in the Circus Maximus to indicate where riders and chariots should turn. Furthermore, it actually was a fountain because of water that oozed out of the stone "cone" and down into a surrounding, circular pool. In fact, this fountain's Latin name is "Meta (pillar) Sudans (sweating)" - which means "sweating turning post."

The next photo below shows what remains of the Meta Sudans in the year 2014. As can be seen, all that remains is a shallow, circular foundation with a cirlce of material in the centre. This was definitely a wide fountain and it must have been quite prominent in its prime.



This concludes the A Touch of Rome.com discussion of the Colosseum. This ancient and huge amphitheatre has had a long journey through time and has gotten quite a few bruises - but it is still here! And it is fascinating to hear that the Italian government plans to revitalize the structure even more by building a new retractable arena floor so that people can experience events once again in the Colosseum (minus the gladiators, of course !).

I hope you enjoyed this page and learned many interesting things about this iconic Roman structure.



SEE ALSO:

The links below offer additonal information about the COLOSSEUM, including entrance fees, hours, how to get there, etc.

A Tourist in Rome - Colosseum, part of the great "A Tourist in Rome" section at JEFFBONDONO.com.



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