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10 Fascinating Facts About the Roman Colosseum

Want to know some of the most fascinating facts about the Roman Colosseum?

Like how, when and WHY it was built? What happened in there - to both humans and other animals? And  why it has holes in it? Find out here!

the colosseum in romeFind out why the Colosseum has holes, and other fascinating facts about the Roman Colosseum


Facts About the Roman Colosseum

I could easily list hundreds of facts about the Colosseum!

I've tried to keep it to ten, which I think answer the questions I hear the most...but actually, I've peppered this page with quite a few more fun facts about the Roman Colosseum, like where we got the word "vomit" from, and how it was nearly turned into a wool factory...

facts about the roman colosseum - How, WHEN and Why it was built

1 - The colosseum was built on the site of a giant man-made lake

The decadent, egotistic emperor Nero had built a gigantic villa for himself, called the Domus Aurea.  It included an enormous man-made lake.

After Nero committed suicide in 68CE, the senate issued a Damnatio memoriae on him, meaning, let's condemn his memory and remove all traces of him.

A couple of years later, emperor Vespasian decided to remove Nero's lake and put an arena there, to entertain the people and make them focus on fun and forget the hated Nero. In doing so, Vespasian also showed the Romans he was a man of the people, unlike Nero who'd taken all that land just for himself.

2 - The colosseum was built in UNDER 10 Years, mostly by jewish slaves

Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus had conquered Judea (Jerusalem), and had brought back with them many spoils of war, including artefacts from the temple. (This story is depicted on the Arch of Titus, just near the Colosseum inside the Roman Forum.)

arch of titus depicting romans bringing back spoils of war from judeaThis closeup of the inside of the Arch of Titus shows the Romans returning victorious after destroying the temple in Jerusalem, and bringing back Jewish prisoners of war, and items from the temple.

They also brought back with them about 100,000 Jewish slaves. Many of these men were put to (unpaid) work doing the hard stuff like dragging quarried Travertine rock from Tivoli all the way to Rome. (Other more skilled citizens of Rome, such as architects, artists and engineers, were paid to do the more artistic and specialized work.)

Vespasian began work on the Colosseum in around 70 or 71 CE. He died in 79 CE and his son Titus became emperor. Titus finished the Colosseum in 80 CE. A few years later, the last emperor of the Flavian Dynasty, Titus' brother Domitian added the highest tier, and also the Hypogeum, or underground complex, where animals and fighters were held until showtime.

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One of the most basic facts about the Roman Colosseum - how big is it?

The Colosseum is elliptical, and is 189 meters (615 ft) long and 156 meters (510 ft) wide with a base area of 24,000 m² (6 acres) and a height of 48 meters (157 ft.)

The Colosseum was then, and still is today, the largest amphitheater in the world.

3 - the colosseum got its nickname from nero's giant statue

The amphitheater was made by one family, Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian of the Flavian Dynasty. It was named for them: The Flavian Amphitheater.

a sign on the colosseum wall naming the You can see a couple of inscriptions on the walls of the Colosseum that refer to the "Flavian Amphitheater", it original name.

Back to ego-maniac Nero - he'd also had a giant 100-foot bronze statue made of himself.

After Nero's death, Vespasian replaced the face and called it a sun-god statue.

The statue was later moved (with the help of 24 elephants) by the Emperor Hadrian, in 124 CE, to just next to the Amphitheater. 

a sketch of what the giant colossus of nero might have looked like next to the colosseumThis sketch shows what the giant colossus of Nero, turned into Helios, the sun god, might have looked like once the Colosseum was built.

The statue is long gone, and nobody knows where it went.

There was never a clear rendering of it, so any depiction you see today, including on this page, are guesses as to how it looked. But it was called a Colossus, and many scholars believe this is where the Flavian Amphitheater got its current nickname.

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the base for nero's colossus is still visible next to the colosseumMost people have no idea that the original base that Hadrian had built for Nero's colossus is still standing, right next to the Colosseum.

Facts about the roman colosseum - what went on in there

4 - Over a million animals, and nearly half a million people died in the colosseum

When Titus inaugurated the amphitheater in 80 CE, he held 100 days of activities. In that time, over 9000 animals were killed, and according to some, 5000 of them were killed in a single day. Around 2000 people died as well.

mosaic showing gladiators against beasts in the colosseumIn this mosaic from the Galleria Borghese, we see historical evidence of gladiators fighting wild beasts in the Colosseum.

About 30 years later, the Emperor Trajan held 123 days of games, in which thousands of people and animals were slaughtered.

The animals came from all over the Roman empire. They were of a vast variety of species, from lions, tigers and bears, to horses, ostriches, rhinos and crocodiles.

There was such a global demand for wild animals over the hundreds of years the Colosseum was in use, some animals disappeared entirely from their natural habitat, leading to eventual extinctions of some species

5 - it was free for Romans to attend the games

The Colosseum could seat between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Entrance to the games was free. 

Spectators were given numbered pottery shards as tickets. These indicated the appropriate section and row, according to their social status. Women and slaves were at the very top.  

There were 76 entrances for spectators, and they were numbered. You can still see the numbers today.

closeup of original number over entrance to rome colosseumA closeup of one of the entrances to the Colosseum - with the original Roman numerals indicating which section it was and where spectators should sit

Four other entrances were reserved for the emperor, and for other people of importance including patricians, visiting dignitaries, and Vestal Virgins.

A retractable awning called the Velarium could be pulled almost entirely over the structure, providing cover and in case of rain or heat.

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One of the stranger facts about the Roman Colosseum involves the Vomitoria

The word "Vomit" comes from "Vomitorium" - from the verb meaning "to disgorge."

The vomitoria were the passageways that ran along the entire building behind and and beneath the seating tiers, to help with the flow of spectators. 

Because of the "vomitoria", The Colosseum could be filled or emptied  in 15 minutes.

6 - NOT ALL EVENTS AND GAMES IN THE COLOSSEUM ENDED IN DEATH

There was a daily schedule of events in the Colosseum:

  • In the morning, there were animal shows. Sometimes it was just a parade.  Or, there may have been animal hunts, called venationes, in which whole stage sets would be used to replicate a hunting environment. Emperors sometimes took part in these, shooting at animals with bow and arrow from the security of their seat.
  • Part of the animal games were the Bestiarii - gladiators trained to fight the wild animals, sometimes with background scenery.
  •  And, still part of the animal portion, sometimes condemned criminals were sentenced to fight wild animals, with nothing to fight with or protect themselves with.
  • During these animal games, animals did not always die, although they did more often than not.

There were 36 trap doors in arena allowing for elaborate special effects.

Often animals, many of whom had been starved and/or beaten, were kept underneath the floor, in the Hypogeum, and then raised up to the Colosseum floor at showtime.

what a trapdoor in the colosseum floor looked likeYou can see this model of a trapdoor that was used in the ancient Colosseum in Rome, when you take a tour of the underground (Hypogeum)

You can take a tour of the Colosseum underground, and you will see this trapdoor, along with the tunnels and more details about how things worked when there were games in the Colosseum.

I highly recommend it!

  • At noon, there were executions, sometimes using torture, sometimes using wild animals to attack a tied up prisoner.
  • In the late afternoon, the most "interesting" and important part of the day's schedule was the gladiator fights. In some cases, battles were re-enacted. In some cases it was a fight to the death, but sometimes it was just a fight between gladiators, with neither dying.
galleria borghese floor mosaic showing gladiatorsAnother floor mosaic from the Galleria Borghese depicting gladiators

Myth or Facts about the Roman Colosseum - were Christians fed to the lions?

Probably not.

Or at least not specifically because they were Christian. There is no historical evidence that Christians were condemned to be eaten by lions, or otherwise executed in the Colosseum, purely for their faith.

But by now, the Colosseum has become a symbol of Christian martyrdom, and every Easter, the Pope walks the Via Crucis, finishing at the Colosseum.

Facts about the Roman Colosseum - when they stopped using it and what happened next

7 - THE COLOSSEUM WAS USED THROUGHOUT THE MIDDLE AGES AND RENAISSANCE, BUT NOT FOR GAMES

The last gladiatorial games were held in 435 CE. The last animal hunts stopped in 523 CE, despite a ban on animal sacrifice more than 200 years prior. It simply became too expensive to procure these wild animals, to house and train gladiators and to continue putting on the sometimes elaborate spectacles.

Facts About the Roman Colosseum and exactly when the last Gladiator games in the Colosseum

In researching when the last gladiator games were held in the Rome Colosseum, I found two dates: January 1, 404, and the year 438.

The first date, January 1, 404, is part of a Christian story about a monk, Telemachus, who was horrified by the bloodshed he witnessed, and tried to stop a contest between two gladiators. The enraged crowd stoned him to death. The Christian Emperor Honorius, touched by the monk's actions, banned gladiator fights from that day. The monk Telemachus subsequently became a saint.

The second date, the year 438 (less precise as to the exact date), is when the Emperor Valentinian III  banned the games permanently.

So it may be that there is a discrepancy in when the gladiatorial games in the Colosseum definitively ended, perhaps depending on your point of view and/or field of study. It may also be that both are correct, and that it took more than one emperor to finally ban the games for good.

The underground (hypogeum) was filled in, and for a few centuries, the Romans used the Colosseum as a place to live, grow gardens, conduct business, run workshops, and quite a few other things.

thomas cole painting of the rome colosseumA Thomas Cole depiction of the Rome Colosseum painted in 1832

One of my favorite odd facts about the Roman Colosseum is that in the late 16th century, Pope Sixtus V tried to turn the Colosseum into a wool factory to give prostitutes other employment. He died in 1590, and the project never got off the ground (no pun intended.)

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One of the more curious facts about the Roman Colosseum is that it's an important place of study for botanists

A lot of plant life flourished inside the Colosseum, certainly after it was no longer used for games.

In 1643, botanists began cataloging the plants inside the Colosseum and found several hundred different species of plants growing there. There are fewer species now but it's still a unique flora ecosystem.

8 - WHY THE COLOSSEUM HAS HOLES

The Colosseum was built from travertine stone and tufa, both local, limestone-based stones. 

Mortar was not used - iron clamps held the stones together instead.  The outside would have been impressive, covered in marble. The niches held statues. 

holes in the rome colosseumYou can easily see holes all around the stones of the Colosseum, in particular on the inner building. That's from the iron clamps that used to hold the stones together.

An estimated 200-300 tons of iron clamps were used.  In the middle ages, all that iron was simply pilfered, and used for other things, mostly weaponry.

So now we are left with a lot of holes.

9 - MUCH OF THE ANCIENT COLOSSEUM was used to build other structures IN ROME, NAMELY SAINT PETER'S BASILICA

Over the centuries, there were quite a few natural disasters, including fires and earthquakes, that caused  destruction of the Colosseum.

Earthquakes in 847 CE and 1231 CE caused most of the damage you see today.

the inner shell and outer wall of the Rome colosseumYou can see the inner shell of the Colosseum, and, part of the outer wall, which remained standing after several earthquakes

And in those days, there was no reason to rebuild it.

On the contrary, it further helped provide people with building material for other projects, as pieces of the Colosseum fell to the ground during the quakes.

The Colosseum had a marble façade, and marble seats on the inside. When they were looking around for material to build the (new) Saint Peter's Basilica in the 15th century, they figured the Colosseum was the closest "quarry."

So when you visit Saint Peter's today, you are also visiting part of the Colosseum. 

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parts of the colosseum were used to build Saint Peter's basilicaSaint Peter's Basilica was built using materials from the Rome Colosseum

Facts About the Roman Colosseum Today

10 - THE COLOSSEUM IS THE MOST VISITED SITE IN ITALY

Other than the Vatican (which is not part of Italy), the Colosseum is the most visited site in Italy, and the most visited monument in Rome, with 4-5 million visitors a year.

line to get into the Rome ColosseumThe Colosseum is the most visited monument in Italy.

Want to avoid the huge lines at the Colosseum? Go here.

Want to book a tour of the Colosseum? Go here.

Want more facts about the Roman Colosseum?

If you would like more details and facts about the Roman colosseum, and its history, building materials and other data, there is also an excellent, well-researched privately published website, The Colosseum.

You will also find more facts about the Roman Colosseum at the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Rome

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