The Colosseum

By: Claudia Hossain

     In 2007, the Colosseum was voted as one of New Open World Corporation’s New Seven Wonders of the World. By far one of the greatest works of architecture in both the ancient and modern world, the Colosseum stands today in the heart of Rome the most famous amphitheater in existence. Amphitheaters, by definition, are large, tiered, outdoor arenas. The Roman Colosseum, however, is more than just a simple stadium. Historians believe the Colosseum was originally used for everything from gladiatorial games to mock sea battles, and in its history, the Colosseum has been further utilized as a hospital, fortress, quarry, and Christian shrine. The sheer magnitude of its architectural mastery coupled with its impressive history establish it as an icon of the ancient Roman empire and a definitive seventh wonder of the world.

    Originally commissioned by the emperor Vespasian and finished by his son Titus, the Colosseum has stood just east of the Roman Forum since 80 A.D. Emperor Vespasian, the founding father of the Flavian dynasty and the first emperor following the death of Nero, commissioned the structure as a gift back to the Roman people (“Colosseum” 1). Lands Nero had originally claimed for his own were returned to the people and the Colosseum was built atop a portion of it. Able to fit upwards of fifty thousand people, the Colosseum is an “…ellipse 1,719 feet in circumference and 159 feet in height, with an arena 282 by 177 feet(“The” 1)” The first three floors feature Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, and an elaborate system of rooms, passageways, and vaults were arranged beneath the arena’s floor. “The interior’s intricate system of substructures beneath the arena seems to indicate that it could be flooded for mock naval battles(“Colosseum” 1)” Construction was financed by the spoils of the Judaic war, which provided much wealth from confiscated gold and the sale of captives as slaves (Vet 527).The Colosseum took approximately ten years to build, and remained in service for approximately four and a half centuries (Wushanley 334).

     The main function of the Colosseum was to host public events meant to distract and socially control the public, namely gladiator fights, mock naval battles, and wild animal hunts which featured tigers, elephants, lions, antelopes, cranes, and many others (Wushanley 334). Essentially, in many of these scenarios, gladiators, criminals, animals, etc. fought each other to the death. While the arena was open to all Roman citizens free of charge, seating was done according to social status with the more elite members of the social hierarchy being able to sit at marble seats towards the bottom. At the initial opening of the Colosseum, one hundred days of ceremonial games were hosted, claiming the lives of over five thousand men and wild animals in combat (“The” 1). In general, an event would be preceded by a procession led by the sponsor of the event, followed by a procession of the animals, gladiators, or criminals who would be participating. Spectators could place bets on competitors, adding to the overall excitement of the games. Bloody executions and fights were accompanied by less violent shows, such as jugglers, before the final performance of a gladiator contest. Each gladiator had a characteristic weapon and was pitted against an animal or another gladiator with a different skill sets to increase competition. Victorious fighters were admired as celebrities and bestowed with prizes such as money, a crown, and other trinkets; meanwhile, dead fighters would be carried out a specially designated gate by a figure dressed up as Pluto, the god of death, or Charon, the ferry man of the underworld (“The” 1). The games eventually became far too expensive for the government to fully subsidize, and as such, laws were eventually passed limiting what expenses could be made to keep costs low. As costs continued to rise and public support waned, gladiator fights gradually diminished, finally being abolished in the early fifth century CE (Vet 528).


     Following the end of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum fell into a steady period of disrepair until essentially being adopted by the Catholic Church. Centuries of abuse including two major earthquakes and a great fire, left the Colosseum in disrepair before undergoing various renovations during the middle ages including being used as a castle, cemetery, and fortress. Likewise, ruling parties and contractors freely scavenged the Colosseum for stone, marble, bronze, and other building supplies. Multiple palaces and churches were built from parts of the Colosseum, with a reported 2,522 cartloads taken alone in the year 1451-1452 to build walls around Rome and various Vatican edifices (“The” 1). Finally in 1743, just before the 1750 Jubileum, Pope Benedetto XIV dedicated the church that was built inside the Colosseum to S. Maria della Pieta. By 1749, Pope Benedetto XIV “declared the monument a public church, consecrated to the memory of the Passion of Christ and His Martyrs…” which thoroughly ended the removal of any more stones from the Colosseum (“The” 1). The Colosseum was then adorned with the stations of the Via Crucis, and it, too, became a public church. Rumors that the Colosseum was a major site of Christian martyrdom were for all intents and purposes unfounded; yet nonetheless, they saved it from absolute destruction as pope after pope passed ordinances sanctifying it.

     The Colosseum today stands as one of the most noted tourist attractions in the world, with millions visiting it every year. With the emphasis on tourism now being placed on it, the Italian government invested in a major restoration, spending approximately $19.3 million between 1993 and 2000. To contrast its bloody history, the Italian government regards the Colosseum to be a symbol against the death penalty and has it light up a gold color whenever a person sentenced to death is liberated or when a nation abolishes capital punishment (Young 1). Likewise, despite not technically having a claim to Christian martyrdom, the Colosseum remains a vital venue for Roman Catholic ceremonies with the Pope going through the stations of the cross every Good Friday.


"Colosseum." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 860. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 Apr. 2010.

"The : The Resourceful Site on the Colosseum." the Resourceful Site on the Colosseum. Web.

Vet, Thérèse de. "Coliseum." Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Ed. H. James Birx. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2006. 527-529. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 Apr. 2010.

Wushanley, Ying. "Coliseum (Rome)." Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Ed. Karen Christensen and David Levinson. Vol. 1. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing, 2005. 334-335. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 Apr. 2010.

Young, Gayle. "On Italy's Passionate Opposition to Death Penalty." CNN-y. CNN, 24 Feb. 2000. Web.

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"The : The Resourceful Site on the Colosseum." the Resourceful Site on the Colosseum. Web.