What are some of the most fascinating facts about the Roman Colosseum?
Like how, when and WHY it was built? Who constructed the Colosseum? What happened in there - to both humans and other exotic animals? And why it has holes in it? Find out here!
I could easily list hundreds of interesting facts about the Colosseum!
I've tried to keep it to ten that I think answer the questions I hear the most.
But actually, I've peppered this page with quite a few more fun tidbits, like where we got the word "vomit" from, and how the Colosseum was nearly turned into a wool factory...
On this page, we'll cover:
The Roman republic had come to an end, and the time of the emperors and Imperial Rome had begun. A few centuries after the first emperor Augustus changed the face of Rome forever, the decadent, egotistic emperor Nero built a gigantic villa for himself, called the Domus Aurea.
It included an enormous man-made lake.
After Nero committed suicide in 68 CE, the Senate issued a Damnatio memoriae on him, meaning, let's condemn his memory and remove all traces of him.
A couple of years after Nero's death, Roman Emperor Vespasian was the victor in the civil wars that followed. He 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 Roman world he was a man of the people, unlike Nero who'd taken all that land just for himself.
Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus had conquered Judea (Jerusalem), and had brought back with them many spoils of war, including artifacts from the temple taken by soldiers in the Roman army.
This story is depicted on the Arch of Titus, just near the Colosseum inside the Roman Forum.
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 that was a feature of Roman architecture)
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.
It could seat from 50,000 - 80,000 people and was the first permanent amphitheater built in Rome, a marvel of the ancient world, right next to the roman forum.
A few years after the Colosseum was built, 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.
When you visit the Colosseum, you will automatically walk through the permanent exhibit there.
It's really fascinating and along the way, you'll get to see some renderings of how the Colosseum once looked, not only in Ancient Rome when it was filled with Greek and Roman art and sculpture, but also through the years:
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 in Rome Italy was then, and still is today, the largest of the Roman amphitheaters anywhere in the world, an iconic ancient stadium in Rome.
The amphitheater was built by one family, Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian of the Flavian Dynasty.
What was the Colosseum originally called?
It was named for the emperors that created it: The Flavian Amphitheater.
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.
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.
However, thanks to coins of the period, we do have some idea of what things looked like back then. (Coins, by the way, are also how we know how a lot of stuff looked in ancient Rome!)
But it was called a Colossus, and many scholars believe this is where the Flavian Amphitheater got its current nickname.
The word for Colosseum in Italian is Colosseo.
This is the name of the Metro stop at the Colossum.
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The main purpose of the Colosseum in Rome was to entertain the people.
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.
About 30 years later, 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 the eventual extinctions of some species.
The Colosseum interior capacity was 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.
Roman women and slaves were at the very top, down to the important men of the Roman senate at the bottom, closest to the arena.
There were 76 entrances for spectators, and they were numbered. You can still see the numbers today.
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.
One of the stranger facts about the Roman Colosseum involves the Vomitoria
The word "Vomit" comes from Vomitorium - 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.
There was a daily schedule of events in the Roman Coliseum:
There were 36 trap doors in the Colosseum 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.
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.
And, if you visit the Colosseum at night, you can see the arena floor, the trap door, the Hypogeum, and all the workings underneath, without the crowds!
I highly recommend both of these tours!
For us today all this violence on a regular basis seems extreme, but in the Roman world it was completely normal. The most successful became famous Colosseum gladiators, like modern-day celebrities!
Myth or Facts? - were Christian martyrs fed to the lions?
Or at least not specifically because they were Christian.
There is no historical evidence that early Christian martyrs 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.
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.
Colosseum facts - exactly when where 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.
How did the Colosseum break in places? There had been earthquakes over the centuries, which caused some of the marble and brick structure to fall down, but it never destroyed the Colosseum entirely.
But after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, it fell into disuse.
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.
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.)
One of the more curious facts about the 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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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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.
For lots more Colosseum in Rome information, such as how to get tickets, what to see, how to book special visits, and more, visit my related pages here:
All about the Rome Colosseum
If you would like more details and information 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 and other information on the Official Page of the Colosseum in Rome.
Finally, try the History Channel Colosseum page.
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