This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 859 published on 1 July 1978.
The Romans had a love of spectacle that was all their own. No society, before or since, has shown itself ready to spend quite so much time and money on wildly expensive outdoor entertainments. And, fortunately, nobody else has ever shared the Roman enthusiasm for horror. This has come down in history as a terrible warning of the kind of thing that might happen to any nation which is prepared to rate thrills as more important than anything else.
As early as the 6th century B.C. the Emperor Tarquin had built in Rome a 370 metre long, 82 metre wide arena known as the Circus Maximus. It was essentially a chariot racing track, although on occasion it was given over to wild animal hunts or the staging of mock battles.
The seating area, which had a capacity of 30,000, was divided into three sections by horizontal gangways, into which opened the underground stairways that gave access to the individual blocks of seats.
Although the seats were eventually to be made of stone, they were made of wood during the early years of the Circus, with disastrous results. The whole arena was twice destroyed by fire, and during the reign of Antonius Pius the wooden seats collapsed, killing more than a thousand spectators. Later there was a similar disaster, in which no less than 13,000 people are said to have lost their lives.
Just who did plan the amazing structure that followed the Circus Maximus is not known. Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, it would not be named the Colosseum for nearly eight hundred years. Whoever the Colosseum’s unknown architect may have been, he got his chance to produce his masterpiece through a shrewd bit of public relations work on the part of the Emperor Vespasian, who in the year A.D. 70 decided to hand back to the citizens of Rome part of the city that the infamous Emperor Nero had stolen from them in order to build his Golden House.
The Golden House had been the result of Nero’s sudden desire for a country mansion in the middle of Rome, and great areas of working class houses had been ruthlessly demolished in order to provide a suitable vista of parkland. Vespasian was well aware that feelings of discontent were still running high among the Roman poor, so he announced that they should have an amusement centre set in what had been the hated Nero’s garden. This amphitheatre was to be the most impressive of its kind the world had ever seen.
The site for the new building had, in fact, been an ornamental lake and, as it had been fed by natural springs and streams, elaborate drainage work had to be carried out. Fortunately, one of the secrets of the success of Roman builders was that they had invented concrete, a material that enabled them to produce their majestic domes and arches not only strongly but at little cost.
It also enabled them to cope with such problems as disused lakes in a manner that would not be considered out of place today. They simply laid down a seven metre thick “raft” of concrete made with pozzolana, the local volcanic sand, thereby producing a mixture that actually hardened on contact with water. Another characteristic was its incredible toughness.
The Colosseum that was raised above the huge slab of concrete was 170 metres long, 155 metres wide and 45 metres high. Impressive though the figures may be, the result looks even larger. Unlike earlier amphitheatres, all the seats, except the wooden ones in the attic, were of marble, and the sheer weight of such masonry must have posed a major problem for the unknown architect.
He solved it by making a framework of great limestone piers, around which he built a series of concrete walls and by constructing a complex system of vaulting that supported both the seating and the corridors that served it.
This seating was a model of its kind, and provided accommodation for 50,000 spectators. Each seat was numbered and had to be claimed by the production of a clay ticket, the holder of which entered through one of no less than 76 entrances. Stairways and thoroughfares were made unusually wide so that the arena could be emptied quickly if the crowds became unruly.
The top of the building was open to the sky, but if the sun was too hot for comfort an enormous awning could be drawn across in order to provide shade. This was hauled into position by ropes that were tied to beams fixed in the upper cornice of the amphitheatre and operated by a special corps of sailors. In spite of the sheer size of this awning, it seems to have worked quite well except in a high wind, when it tended to flap like a giant sail.
The spectacles staged in the huge, sanded arena were elaborate and usually revolting in their calculated cruelty. Beneath the arena was a complex of passages and rooms where stage properties could be stored and where gladiators waited to make their appearance. There were also cages for wild animals that could be raised to ground level by an ingenious systems of trapdoors and pulleys.
A typical afternoon’s entertainment consisted of fights between gladiators, or between gladiators and wild beasts. The gladiators were professional fighting men, specially trained and highly skilled. Some were prisoners of war, some slaves, some criminals condemned to a calling that almost always ended in death. A few were free men who fought from choice. The toughest of them had a considerable following which would turn up to cheer their favourite and lay bets on his chances of victory.
Defeated gladiators were usually killed on the spot, but long lived ones could hope to be given their freedom as a reward for their skill. The slaughter of Christians was not, as is generally supposed, a major event. Most of them were martyred at the same time as criminals were executed, as a kind of curtain raiser to the main event.
Why such a gifted and hard working people as the Romans would have enjoyed such sights is difficult to understand, but eventually they fell out of favour and the Colosseum became a fortress. Earthquakes shook down a considerable part of the outer arcade during the 13th and 14th centuries, and for many years the great heap of fallen material provided a quarry for the builders of palaces and churches during the Renaissance.
Today, this man-made marvel remains as one of the great tourist attractions of the world. Floodlit with great skill, it looks at its most dramatic at night, when visitors do not see the squads of workmen who daily do their best to repair damage done by soil subsidence and the vibrations of Rome’s 20th century traffic.
This article and image(s) are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.