The Roman Coliseum

We have all seen pictures of the Roman Coliseum, it is a monumental structure in modern day Rome even now in it’s state of decay and disrepair…Imagine the glory and splendor of it when it was new and fresh, how the ancient Romans viewed it as the centerpiece of their eternal city…How the Emperors used it over the years to curry favor with the masses with their extravagant, lavish productions like gladiatorial combats, to punish and persecute their enemies, reward their friends, and provide excitement and spectacle to the Roman people…

Bread and circuses kept the average Roman happy while the Roman Emperors played their deadly, vicious game of power politics behind the scenes, and the spectacles and entertainment went on and on and on….Remember this was in an era long before television, movie theaters, computers, or even radios had ever been dreamed of….Everything was live and in living color, and what you saw at the Coliseum always brought the crowds to their feet in roaring approbation….(The original spelling is Colosseum, but I will use the modern version of Coliseum.)



According to my Google sources: “The Roman Coliseum was officially opened in 80 A.D. By Emperor Titus as a gift to the Roman people with 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights. After four centuries of active use, the magnificent arena fell into neglect, and up until the 18th century it was used as a source of building materials. Though two-thirds of the original Colosseum has been destroyed over time, the amphitheater remains a popular tourist destination, as well as an iconic symbol of Rome and its long, tumultuous history….

Measuring some 620 by 513 feet (190 by 155 meters), the Colosseum was the largest amphitheater in the Roman world,  made of stone and concrete. The distinctive exterior had three stories of arched entrances–a total of around 80…Archaeologists believe that The Coliseum contained both drinking fountains and latrines…The Coliseum was as tall as a 12 story building…

Inside, the Colosseum had seating for more than 50,000 spectators, who may have been arranged according to social ranking but were most likely packed into the space like sardines in a can (judging by evidence from the seating at other Roman amphitheaters).

Awnings were unfurled from the top story in order to protect the audience from the hot Roman sun as they watched gladiatorial combats, hunts, wild animal fights and larger combats such as mock naval engagements (for which the arena was flooded with water) put on at great expense. The vast majority of the combatants who fought in front of Colosseum audiences in Ancient Rome were men (though there were some female gladiators). Gladiators were generally slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners of war….

Many Roman Emperors enjoyed the spectacles that the Coliseum had to offer and many of the gladiatorial games were financed by the Emperors themselves…The history of the bloody arena continues through the reigns of various emperors, the emergence of the new Christian religion, the horror stories of the deaths of Christian martyrs in the Coliseum, the Gladiator fights and the killing of thousands of exotic animals in ancient Rome…There was even an Emperor who took great delight in participating in the gladiator games-The Emperor Commodus….Commodus was the Emperor featured in the Russel Crowe movie Gladiator….The Roman Emperors and the Coliseum played a huge part in the history of the persecution of the Christians….

coliseumcommoduscoliseumcroweand commodus



Encircling the arena was a wide marble terrace (podium) protected by a wall within which were the prestigious ring-side seats or boxes from where the Emperor and other dignitaries would watch the events. Beyond this area, marble seats were divided into zones: those for richer private citizens, middle class citizens, slaves and foreigners and finally wooden seats and standing room in the flat roofed colonnade on the top tier reserved for women and the poor.

It was on top of this roof platform that sailors were employed to manage the large awning which protected the spectators from rain or provided shade on hot days. The different levels of seats were accessed via broad staircases with each landing and seat being numbered. The total capacity for the Colosseum was approximately 45,000 seated and 5,000 standing spectators….

The scene of all the action –the sanded arena floor– was also eye-catching. It was often landscaped with rocks and trees to resemble exotic locations during the staging of wild animal hunts. There were also ingenious underground lifting mechanisms which allowed for the sudden introduction of wild animals into the proceedings. On some occasions, notably the opening series of shows, the arena was flooded in order to host mock naval battles.

Emperors were usually present, even when they had no particular taste for the events such as Marcus Aurelius. Titus and Claudius were noted for shouting at the gladiators and other members of the crowd and Commodus himself (as noted above) actually enjoyed performing in the arena hundreds of times

However, blood sports and death were the real purpose of the spectacular shows and an entire profession arose to meet the massive entertainment requirements of the populace – for example under Claudius there were 93 games a year. Spectacles often lasted from dawn till nightfall and the gladiators usually kicked-off the show with a chariot procession accompanied by trumpets and even a hydraulic organ and then dismounted and circled the arena, each saluting the emperor with the famous line: Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you!



The following blood sports between various classes of gladiators included weapons such as swords, lances, tridents, and nets and could also involve female combatants. Next came the animal hunts with the bestiarii — the professional beast killers.

The animals had no chance in these contests and were most often killed at a distance using spears or arrows. There were dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, bears, elephants, leopards, hippopotamuses and bulls but there were also events with defenseless animals such as deer, ostriches, giraffes and even whales. Hundreds, sometimes even thousands of animals, were butchered in a single day’s event and often brutality was deliberate in order to achieve crudeliter — the correct amount of cruelty.

The Colosseum was also the scene of many executions during the lunch-time lull (when the majority of spectators went for lunch), particularly the killing of Christian martyrs. Seen as an unacceptable challenge to the authority of Pagan Rome and the divinity of the Emperor, Christians were thrown to the lions, shot down with arrows, roasted alive and killed in a myriad of cruelly inventive ways.

coliseumgladiators1coliseum martyrs

As cruel and bloodthirsty as these ancient Romans were, their participation in these games was a historical fact and a tool the ruthless Emperors used to keep the population amused, diverted and in line…The Roman Emperor had absolute power of life and death over his enemies, but the Roman people themselves took the spectacle of cruel death to the level of a sport, often applauding the finesse, grace and skill of certain gladiators, who became crowd favorites, and demanding the death of those who they felt performed poorly….

The Roman Emperors knew their people and gave them what they wanted to ensure keeping themselves in power as long as possible….Gladiatorial shows turned war into a game, preserved an atmosphere of violence in time of peace, and functioned as a political theater which allowed confrontation between rulers and ruled.

This has just been a broad overview….Tomorrow, we will take a closer look inside at some of the actual gladiators, the mentality of the crowds, and the cruel and bloodthirsty events that went on inside the Coliseum, not all that long ago, really..…..

For more information on the Coliseum, visit “Colosseum-Ancient OR “History of the Colosseum-Roman Colosseum”

For more articles by John Whye, click on

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