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From left:
Temple of Venus and Rome;
Colossus of Nero;
Arch of Constantine;
bottom right, two "Ludi gladiatoria" or gladiators' schools.

Coliseum Composite.

69-79 A.D.

Obverse and Reverse of Coin of the Roman Empire bearing profile of
Emperor Vespasianus

The Roman Emperor, Vespasian, a humble Sabine of no noble birth, brought stability after turmoil. Like Augustus and Constantine, Vespasian saved the Empire at a time of great chaos. After the disastrous rule of the Year of the Four Emperors, Vespasian's steady hand and no nonsense policies helped save the Empire from financial ruin and set it back on the right track.

Vespasian rebuilt the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva which had burned down and raised a majestic shrine to Pax, the goddess of Peace. In 72 A.D. Vespasian began construction of the most renowned of Roman buildings, the Flavian Amphitheatre to give the Colosseum its real name. He was firm, but not oppressive and kept control over the Praetorian Guard, the maker and unmaker of emperors, by appointing his son Titus to its command. After a full life of sixty-nine years and having served Rome well for 10 years, he died a natural death. This was most unusual for that time and place. Sensing his death was near, Vespasian kept his bluff humour by remarking, Vae! put deus fio, "Alas, I think I am becoming a god." He asked to be helped to his feet saying, "An emperor should die standing." And he did.

There is no indication anywhere as to the name of the Colosseum's architect. It was inaugurated in 80 A.D. by Vespasian's older son, named like himself, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, Titus, known as "the darling of mankind" because of his gentle and generous nature, died in the second year of his reign. Further modifications were made to this structure The structure by his brother, Domitian (81-96), "a genuine tyrant," who succeeded him.

The Colosseum received its name, not from its great size, but from the colossal statue of Nero portrayed as Apollo located nearby. On its pedestal, this monster image, stood 153 feet high. (See above) Much of Rome was rebuilt after the great fire which flamed, as Nero fiddled! In addition to the statue, a Golden House was constructed, .parts of which were entirely overlaid with gold and encrusted with jewels and pearl. Compartments in the ceiling revolved and scattered flowers and pipes sprayed fragrances upon the guests. The Golden House must have been a magificent sight - the Roman Versailles. At its dedication, all Nero said in praise of this magnificent structure was, "At last I have begun to live like a gentleman." At Nero's death, the Romans hastened to obliterate all traces of his work.The great amphitheatre was built over the ruins of Nero's Golden House..

Titus's inauguration was a solemn event marked by 100 days of activities. One ancient writer recorded that during these festivities, 9000 wild animals were killed and some 2000 gladiators were slain.

The 157-foot high elliptical amphitheatre, measuring 620 by 513 feet, has 80 external openings on each storey. Those on the ground level open to the tiers of seats on the four floors. The first three were built with arches and adorned by half-columns of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders respectively. Unlike the Greeks, who used columns for structural support, the Romans constructed them on the frame of the building for decorative purposes. The top floor had rectangular windows decorated with Corinthian capitals. The arena in which the spectacle took place was surrounded by a fifteen-foot wall.

Time-Ravaged Flavian Amphitheatre

The Colosseum
Pining for its Pins
photo by
G. Wilson

The external part of the Colosseum was made of travertine stone of which it is estimated 3.5 million cubic feet were used in its construction. The stones, some of which weighed five tons, were held together not with mortar but with pins of iron and other metals. We were told that many of the iron pins were removed by barbarian invaders, who besieged Rome during the fall of the empire. Seating 80,000, the Colosseum was elipse-shaped and measured a third of a mile [1790 feet] around. The facing of parts of it was a kind of stucco made of sand, lime, marble dust and water. It was laid on in several coats three inches thick, took a high polish and lasted on some areas of the Colosseum for twenty centuries.

The Colosseum had 80 entrances, two of which were reserved for the emperor and his suite. The structure could be emptied in a few minutes.

Entrance and Exit for Feral Cats
photo by
G. Wilson

Globe-trotting Gladiators

Behind the Scenes of the Spectator Sport

The arena, which was 287 feet by 180 feet, consisted of wooden base that was covered with sand, the Latin word for which is "arena". It was surrounded by a fifteen-foot wall topped with an iron grating to separate "the brutes from the beasts." At the long end of the arena were two entrances. Through one of them dead gladiators and wild beasts were carried. The other admitted the procession of gladiators who paraded before the emperor declaring:

Ave, Caesar, Morituri te salutant!

"Caesar, we who are about to die salute you."

"Fancy the crowd in the Great Amphitheatre, which held more than eighty thousand spectators, with the purple and gold awnings spread to protect them from the blazing sunchine, the auditorium perfumed with scents and cooled by fountains. The arena at their feet was flooded with water to present a naval combat. Rome is a city wrapped in profound peace, still dreaming amid its splendours that it is the mistress of the world."

[The Grandeur That Was Rome. by J.C. Stobart]

Spectators were protected from the burning sun by a velarium, a canopy hoisted only by selected seamen using a system of pulleys. The seating section contained a special area of cushioned seats, one of which was reserved for the Emperor and the other for important dignitaries who were his guests.

Subterranean Scene of Much Sorrow
photo by
G. Wilson

Subterranean Corridors, Cages and Chaos
photo by
G. Wilson

Reconstructed Underground Structure of the Colosseum

As early as the 3rd Century BCE, human blood was believed to reconcile the dead with the living, The Romans originally sacrificed prisoners of war or unfortunate slaves as a way of placating gods. Blood sports in the Colliseum began as part of the funeral rites alacating the deceased. They eventually became bored with bloodletting in this manner and decided to liven up the spilling of blood by inventing various entertaining ways of killing captives. Hence, the fight to the death and thus began the Romans love affair with gladiatorial combat. The popularity of these spectacles and the Romans outrageous thirst for blood sports entertainment soon elevated this funerary rite into a spectacle of death and slaughter that gripped the Roman world from the lowliest slave up through the seats of power and eventually to the Emperor himself.

As Rome grew, so did the cost of the fights. It became a kind of status symbol for rich and powerful families of Republican Rome to attempt to outdo each other. The wealthier and nobler the host, the gorier the gladiators and more spectacular the show. The heroes of the show - the gladiators - were the stars of the time. They included fighters who became well known. One of whom was the Myrmillo, who entered combat wearing only a loincloth and belt. He was armed only with a standard gladius and ascutum, [sword and shield] a distinctive helmet and greaves [ pieces of armor designed to protect the shin].

Did gladiators usually fight to the death? The image of a row of gladiators standing before their emperor reciting the fateful words, "We who are about to die salute you," is a powerful but somewhat misleading one. Convicted criminals faced a fiercesome end always, but many gladiators were professional fighters who regularly appeared in the colosseum contests and became very popular, comparable to sports stars today. Women worshipped their particular hero, often etching their names on jewellery. One young Roman woman's amulet from the 2nd century AD was discovered bearing these words: "Verecunda loves Lucius the Gladiator!" If their fights were regularly won, they retired famous, free and rich.

Gladiators could even earn money for their madness and buy their freedom.

Death was always possible for sponsers - nearly all games had sponsers - who might specify fighting to the death. This was costly since they had to compensate the trainer for his gone gladiator. Barring accidents and specified fatal fighting, gladiators fought for the day they received their wooden sword - a symbol of their retirement and freedom.

Supreme events pitted man against man in duels or en masse. Fed a rich banquet the night before, they entered the arena the next day and paraded from one end of it to the other. They were classified according to their weapons. The retiarii entangled opponents in nets and dispatched them with daggars. Secutores were skilled in shield and sword; laqueatores were slingshooters; dimachae fought with a short sword in each hand; essedarii fought in chariots; bestiarii contended only with beasts.

Any reluctant to fight to the death were prodded with hot irons. In the ancient Roman games, slaves dressed as the god Mercury were employed to prod fallen gladiators with red-hot cauterizing irons to check whether they were really dead or only pretending. A wounded gladiator lived or died by the turn of a thumb: up for life; down for death.

Winner declared in Roman Mosaic

Gladiatorial shows retained a religious component throughout most of their history and many of the people who participated in the masqueraded as gods. When the gladiators were proved to be very definately dead, they were dragged away by attendants dressed as Pluto, the god of the underworld or as Charon, the ferryman, who carried the souls of the recently deceased across the river Styx.


The Retiarius [net fighter] was probably the most easily identified gladiator fighting. He came to kill with only a net, trident and a dagger with and a manica [ a quilted arm-guard] on his left arm with a metal shoulder guard attached to it to protect himself.


The Secutor who was created specially for combat with the Retiarius, this guy was pretty heavily armoured and protected in comparison to his rival but was slow and cumbersome with poor vision due to his helmet which went a long way to balancing the contest.


Then there's the lesser known gladiators like the Anabata who apparently fought blind! The Crupellarius who were heavily armoured gladiators with a complete covering of steel and the Essedarius who was a gladiator who fought from a chariot.

Chaos in the Colosseum

The simplest event held in the amphitheatre was an exhibition of exotic animals that included elephants, lions, tigers, crocodiles, hippopotami, apes, panthers, bears, wolves, giraffes, ostriches, leopards and rare birds. They could simply be paraded around in humorous costumes, made to fight each other or hunted to death with arrow and javelins. Under Nero 400 tigers fought with bulls and elephants. Caligula oversaw the death of 400 bears. Animals slow to anger were driven to madness with lashes, darts and hot irons. Praetorian guards fought panthers, bears and lions. Condemned criminals were sometimes dressed in skins to resemble animals and thrown to ravenous beasts.

Gladiatorial combats were said to have been of Etruscan origin. They first appeared at Rome in the early part of the third century in connection with funeral displays. From every African expedition, wild beasts were brought home to be slaughtered in the Roman amphitheatres. These bloody shows indicated the real tastes of the Romans from the earliest times. On one occasion, when the music of some Greek flute-players failed to please a Roman audience, the presiding magistrate ordered the unlucky artists to fight one another and the hoots of the crowd instantly transformed to rapturous applause.

Emperors like Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian loved these spectacles and even took part in them. Hadrian is supposed to have stepped into the arena and succeeded in killing a lion. Emperor Commodus is thought to have been the son of a gladiator. He attended the gladiatorial school or Ludus and boasted that he had defeated 1000 gladiators. Fighting an emperor would have been a no win proposition!

Darkness and Death in the Underground
photo by
G. Wilson

Relief of Gladiators Battling Beasts

Romans defended the gladiatorial games leading to death on the grounds that such victims were condemned to death and that their sufferings deterred others from serious crimes. They believed the courage with which doomed men were trained to face wounds and death inspired others to greatness. Not all Romans rejoiced at the outrages in the arena.

Cicero was revolted with the slaughter. "What entertainment," he asked, "can possibly arise to a refined and humanized spirit from seeing a noble beast struck to the heart by a merciless hunter or one of our own weak species cruelly mangled by an animal of far greater strength?" But he added, "When guilty men are compelled to fight, no better discipline against suffering and death can be presented to the eye."

Seneca thought it no greater madness that, "Man, a sacred thing to man, is killed for sport and entertainment."


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