10 Fascinating Facts About the Roman Colosseum

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!

colosseum in romeFind out amazing facts about the Colosseum - when, how, and why it was built, what happened in there, and what was there before it!

Facts About the Roman Colosseum

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:

How, when, and why the Colosseum was built

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

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. 

who commissioned the colosseum?

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.

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 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.

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 that was a feature of Roman architecture)

How old is the Rome Colosseum?

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.

How many people could fit in the Colosseum? 

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.

Who built the Colosseum underground?

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.

what did the colosseum look like?

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:

colosseum model from museumWhat did the Colosseum look like in Ancient Rome? When you visit the Colosseum, you will see this model in the permanent exhibit there.
colosseum sketchDid the Colosseum have a roof? This rendering of the Colosseum from Ancient Rome, which you can see in the permanent exhibit of the Colosseum in Rome, shows the "velaria", or wings that were used to cover the Colosseum in inclement weather or during hot summers.

How big is the Roman Colosseum? How tall 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 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.

3 - The Colosseum got its nickname from Nero's giant statue

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.

a sign on the colosseum wall naming the "flavian amphitheater"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.

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.

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.

Want more information about the Colosseum in Rome and how to visit it?

 Check out my YouTube videos!

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

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.

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, 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

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5 - It was free for Romans to attend the games

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.

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.

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.

6 - Not all events and games in the Colosseum ended in death

There was a daily schedule of events in the Roman Coliseum:

  • 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 a bow and arrow from the security of their seat. The emperor Commodus, depicted in Ridley Scott's movie Gladiator, was one emperor who enjoyed shooting at animals during these hunts, and was supposedly very good with a bow and arrow.
  • 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 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.

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.

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!

  • 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.

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!

galleria borghese floor mosaic showing gladiatorsAnother floor mosaic from the Galleria Borghese depicting gladiator contests

Myth or Facts? - were Christian martyrs fed to the lions?

Probably not.

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 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.

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 was the colosseum destroyed?

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.

colosseum paintingIn this painting, which you can see when you visit the permanent museum inside the Colosseum, the Colosseum is shown as it was when the powerful Frangipani family had control over it in the 13th century.

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.)

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

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.

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 walls 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.

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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. 

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

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Facts About the Roman Colosseum Today

10 - The Rome 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 12 million visitors in 2023.

line to get into the Rome ColosseumWhat country is the colosseum in? Located in Rome, Italy, it's one of the top tourist attractions.

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:

Want more facts about the Roman 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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