Colosseum – Rome, Italy

Rome’s great amphitheater was commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian in AD 72 on the marshy site of a lake in the grounds of Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea. Deadly gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights were staged free of charge by the emperor and wealthy citizens for public viewing. The Colosseum was built to a practical design, with its 80 arched entrances allowing easy access for 55,000 spectators, but it is also a building of great Classical beauty. The drawing here shows how it looked at the time of its inauguration in AD 80. It was one of several similar amphitheaters built in the Roman Empire, and some survive—at El Djem in North Africa, Nimes, and Arles in France and Verona in northern Italy. Despite being damaged over the years by neglect and theft, it remains a majestic sight.



The emperors of Rome held impressive shows, which often began with animals performing circus tricks. Then, on came the gladiators, who fought each other to the death. Gladiators were usually slaves, prisoners of war, or condemned criminals. When one was killed, attendants dressed as Charon, the mythical ferryman of the dead, carried his body off on a stretcher and sand was raked over the blood in preparation for the next bout. A badly wounded gladiator would surrender his fate to the crowd. The “thumbs-up” sign from the emperor meant he could live, while “thumbs-down” meant that he would die. The victor in a gladiator fight became an instant hero and was sometimes rewarded with freedom.



Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Founder of the Colosseum) was Roman emperor for a decade from AD 69. At that time, Rome was in complete disarray, the legacy of Emperor Nero’s reign. Vespasian’s rule is noted for the stability and relative peace he brought to the empire. He instigated a number of building projects, including a temple dedicated to Claudius on the Celian Hill; a Temple of Peace near the Forum; and, most famously, the Colosseum. At the time of his death in 79, the amphitheater was still incomplete, and it was left to his sons and successors, Titus and Domitian, to finish the work.



The stadium was built in the form of an ellipse, with tiers of seats around a vast central arena; The different social classes were segregated, and the consul and emperor had their own separate entrances and boxes. A complex of rooms, passages and elevators lay in the subterranean area (beneath the arena), and this was where men, animals, and scenery were moved around. Cages for the animals were found at the lowest level, beneath the wooden arena floor. When the animals were needed, the cages were moved upward to the arena by means of winches and the animals were released. A system of ramps and trap doors enabled them to reach the arena.


Vomitoria were wide corridors situated below or behind a tier of seats, through which thousands of spectators could file in and out quickly.

Outer Wall

Stone plundered from the facade during the Renaissance was used to build several palaces and bridges, and part of St. Peter’s.

Beneath the Arena


In the late 19th century, excavations exposed the network of underground rooms where the animals were kept.


These anchored the velarium.


This huge awning shaded spectators from the sun. Supported on poles fixed to the upper story of the building, it was hoisted into position with ropes anchored to bollards outside the stadium.

Colossus of Nero


The Colosseum may have acquired its name from this huge gilt-bronze statue, which stood near the amphitheater.

Gladiator Graffiti


Gladiators fought one-to-one, as shown in this graffiti from the Colosseum. A secutor gladiator carrying a short sword is pitched against a retiarius gladiator armed with a trident and a net.

Internal Corridors


These were designed to allow the large and often unruly crowd to move freely and to be seated with in 10 minutes of arriving at the Colosseum.

Inner Walls

These were formed of brick.

Entry Routes


Used to take the spectators to their seats, these were reached by means of staircases to the various levels of the amphitheater.


This large terrace was where the emperor and the wealthy upper classes had their seats.

Arched Entrances

All 80 entrances were numbered. Each spectator had a tessera (small square tile) with an entrance number stamped on it.



Borage, a herb

By the 19th century, the Colosseum was heavily overgrown. Different microclimates in various of the ruins had created an impressive variety of herbs, grasses, and wild flowers. Several botanists were inspired to study and catalog them and two books were published, one listing 420 different species.


AD 72: The Colosseum is commissioned by Emperor Vespasian.
81-96: The amphitheater is completed during the reign of Empero Domitian.
248: Games are held to mark the 1,000th anniversary of Rome’s founding.
1980: Rome’s historic center is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

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