To this day the Roman Colosseum remains one the most talked about buildings from the Roman era. In fact the word “Colosseum” is the most popular search term for any building on the internet (or so Italian tourism would have you believe).
So who built the Colosseum, when was it built and why?
The original name of the ancient Roman Colosseum was in fact Amphitheatrum Flavium, often referred to in English literature as the Flavian Amphitheater, the present day Italians refer to it as il Colosseo. The name Flavium is the family/dynasty name of the Roman Emperors who built the Colosseum.
The present day name “Colosseum”, or rather “Colosseo”, is said to have come from the colossal 35m (115 feet) high bronze statue of Nero, The Colossus, that stood between the stadium and the Roman Forum. The stadium was referred to as “the Amphitheater by the Colossus”, and it is thought that this was corrupted to Colosseum. This is certainly probable after the bronze statue fell (probably in the 4th Century, used for its bronze content) and was largely forgotten.
Why was the Colosseum built? The building of the Ancient Roman Colosseum was widely regarded as a political move of the time, intended for entertaining and, possibly more importantly, distracting Rome’s population from more serious issues of the time such as oligarchy, nepotism and corruption in the senate and church (hmmm, some things don’t change).
When was the Colosseum built? Construction of the Ancient Roman Colosseum was started by Emperor Vespasian in 70 A.D. After Vespasian’s death in 79 A.D. his son Titus completed and inaugurated the Roman Colosseum in 80 A.D. The opening ceremony is documented to have lasted 100 days and between 5000 and 11000 wild animals were killed.
Further alterations and improvements were made to the Roman Colosseum by Emperor Titus’ younger brother, Emperor Domitian, who included a series of underground passages and rooms (the hypogeum) to lodge the slaves and wild animals. A gallery was also added to the top of the Colosseum to increase its seating capacity to around 65 000 people.
So what of the relevance to modern Stadia?
I have had the privilege to meet, chat to and attend lectures given by Mick Upton who apart from being a legend in the Event Industry and a founder of Showsec, published a fabulous book charting the history of and relevance of the past to present day.
Mick Upton in his book Ancient Rome to Rock n Roll (Entertainment Technology Press 2007) said:
“The leisure security industry that exists in many forms today, can trace its origins back over 2000 years to measures that were introduced to control mass crowds at Greek Theatres, sports events and Roman Games. Evidence from ancient venues that still exist indicate by their architectural design that both the ancient Greeks and Romans were aware of the need for good crowd management and crowd control in order to maintain security at massive events.”
Just look at the similarities to the Colosseum to the Queen Elizabeth Park Stadium the soon to be the home of West Ham. What is amazing is that in 2000 years the principles of great stadium design still holds true to a Roman architect.
Roman Colosseum Architecture and Engineering
The amphitheater was mastered by the Greeks and was usually built into a hillside(s) thereby taking advantage of the natural slope of the banks to create seating which overlooked the lower arena – as was done with the Circus Maximus which sits in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills. The ancient Roman Colosseum was the first free-standing amphitheater.
It has an elliptical (oval) plan with a length of 189m (620 feet), height 48m (158 feet) and width 156m (512 feet). The central area of the arena is 88m (287 ft) long and 55m (180 ft) wide. The wall surrounding the Arena and protecting the spectators was 5m (15 ft) high.
The ancient Roman Colosseum was designed (as with so many other ancient Roman buildings) using the principle of the Arch. There are 80 entrance arches that run along the perimeter of the external and internal walls and many more also run to the center (like spokes from a bicycle wheel) creating the internal corridors and tunnels that run around the structure.
The large perimeter wall structure is made up of 3 sets of columns, Doric (at the bottom) then Ionic and then Corinthian. The uppermost section of the perimeter wall is referred to as the attic and was constructed with Corinthian pilasters, every second span receiving a window.
Running the circumference of the top perimeter wall were 240 wooden beams which supported the Valerium (awning), this was used to shield the crowds from from the rain and heat. The Valerium was anchored to bollards on the ground and supported by corbels built into the upper perimeter wall. The canvas, ropes and netting which made up the Valerium were operated by hundreds of sailors employed from the Roman naval headquarters. When fully deployed the Valerium could cover most of the seating, leaving just the arena exposed to the elements.
Estimates put seating capacity at anywhere between 60.000 and 85.000 people, but around 65.000 seems to be the generally accepted figure. With a crowd this enormous the ancient Roman Colosseum experienced similar logistics to modern stadiums, one of them was how quickly people could be seated or evacuated. The Romans had a similar system of numbered entrances and staircases to modern stadiums (or is it rather the other way around) this ensured rapid entry and exit.
Seating was strictly according to social class, the closer to the central arena, the higher your rank in society. The emperor and Vestal Virgins occupied boxes at the central narrowest points of the stadium, while the senators would sit at the same level at the ends of the stadium. Next up were the nobel men and knights, then the wealthy citizens and then the poorer plebeians (citizens).
The arena had a wooden floor and was covered by sand – the latin word Arena means sand, and is still used in the Spanish language. Below the arena floor was the hypogeum, an ingenious system of tunnels and chambers for slaves, gladiators, wild animals and hoists and pulley houses.
Various underground tunnels connected the stadium with stables and the gladiator barracks. The emperor also had his own private tunnel to enter the stadium.
Fascinating, and I am absolutely intrigued that design and use of stadia can be so similar! Granted we may not have gladiatorial fighting to the death these days, but massive gatherings of tens of thousands still bear witness to the spirit of the contest between two teams or contestants in sport.