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The Roman Colosseum is one of the most famous structures in the world.  What went on there?  You’ve probably seen a gladiator fight or two in films, but chances are it was tame compared to the real-life action.


The ancient Romans were afraid of ghosts and believed that restless spirits of the dead could be appeased through bloodshed.  Thus, it was common that when a Roman noble died, his friends and loved ones would hire gladiators to fight to the death in a battle arranged especially for the funeral.

The first such battle was held in 264 BC, and over the centuries they became so popular that people began to hold them whether or not there was a funeral, just for the thrill of watching people die.

As these spectacles grew in popularity, larger and larger staging areas were needed.  In 69 AD, the Roman Emperor Vespasian ordered the building of the Flavian Amphitheater, Rome’s first permanent amphitheater.  Today it is known as the Colosseum.

Building the Colosseum allowed Vespasian to keep the more than one million citizens of Rome under control by quenching their thirst for blood in a way that did not threaten the Empire.  Just as the earliest gladiator battles had soothed uneasy spirits, the games at the Colosseum soothed the restless population of Rome.  And because most emperors were enthusiastic spectators at the games, it established a bond between emperors and the common person.

The Structure

The amphitheater was the largest building of its kind on Earth.  More than 150 feet high, it measured 620 by 513 feet and enclosed an oval arena that was 287 feet long by 180 feet wide.  It held 50,000 people.

Seating was arranged according to class:  the emperor, his Vestal Virgins, and other important officials sat in ringside boxes; behind them were tiers of marble seats divided into two areas:  one for “distinguished private citizens”; and another for the members of the middle class.  Behind the marble seats was a section for “slaves and foreigners”; behind that was an enclosed gallery set aside for women and the poor, with wooden seats much like bleachers in today’s baseball parks.

A Typical Day At The Colosseum

Festivities began at dawn and often lasted well into the night.  “Second-rate” events were scheduled during mealtimes, however, so that spectators could return home for lunch without missing much.  The feeding of Christians to the lions is believed by many historians to have been one of the mealtime events.

On the mornings of the games, the gladiators rode by chariot from their barracks to the amphitheater and marched into the arena up to the Emperor’s box, where they stuck their right arms straight out and chanted, “Hail, Caesar and emperor, those who are about to die salute you.”

The day often began with bloodless duels that mimicked the more violent events to come.  Women, or sometimes dwarfs or cripples, battled one another using wooden swords that were made to look like metal.

After this event ended, an attendant would blow the tuba, or war trumpet, to announce the beginning of the main event – most often a battle between gladiators.

The Gladiators

Finding enough gladiators to keep the bloodthirsty spectators happy was difficult.  Most were recruited from the ranks of slaves, convicts, or prisoners of war.  A handful were bankrupt nobles and freemen who needed money.  Recruits signed contracts in which they agreed to be “burnt with fire, shackled with chains, whipped with rods, and killed with steel,” and were trained in gladiator schools all over the empire.

Each gladiator was trained to use a particular set of weapons.  there were four main categories:

  1. The Samnite, who wore a helmet, a metal shin guard on the left leg, and a leather sleeve on the right arm; and carried a sword and shield;
  2. The Thracian, who wore no armor but carried a small sword and round shield;
  3. The Myrmillo, or Fishman, who wore a helmet and carried a small sword, sheld, and a stick weighted with lead;
  4. The Retiarii, who wore no armor and carried only a net, trident (three-pronged spear), and dagger.

Gladiators sometimes fought either one-on-one or two-on-two.  Other times, entire squads of gladiators battled it out.  As many as 2,000 men might battle in a single day, with half of them getting killed in the process.

Begging for Mercy

Gladiators usually fought to the death, although the loser had a chance of escaping with his life (but not his dignity) intact.  When it became clear to a gladiator that he was going to be defeated, he could cast away his shield and raise a finger on his left hand – this was the gesture used to throw oneself upon the mercy of the emperor.

The emperor would then ask the crowd to help him decide the gladiator’s fate.  They would shout Mitte! (“Let him go free!”) and give the emperor a thumbs-up, or lugula! (“Pay the penalty!”) and give the emperor a thumbs-down.  The emperor would then give either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and his orders would be carried out.

Animal Games

The Romans also loved to watch professional bestianii (“beast slayers,” who weren’t considered gladiators) kill fierce animals such as lions, tigers, bulls, or bears – or just about anything that could bleed to death.  Many of the events involved the killing of ostriches, deer, and even giraffes.

The Romans scoured the Empire and its provinces looking for things to kill; by the time the animal hunts were abolished in the sixth century AD, several species of animals, including the elephants of North Africa, the hippopotami of Nubia, the lions of Mesopotamia, and the tigers of Hyrcania had all been driven to extinction.

Some of the animal events involved audience participation.  Spectators were invited to throw spears from their seats or to use bows and arrows; at other events, skilled hunters entered the arena and chased down the animals with hounds.  At still other events, it was the wild animals who hunted people, when condemned criminals (or regular criminals, if condemned criminals were in short supply) would be thrown to them completely defenseless.

Water Sports

For really special occasions, the heavy wooden planks that served as the floor of the arena would be removed and the stadium flooded with water so that mock sea battles could be staged.  The Colosseum’s opening day celebrations in 80 AD had just such a sea battle; it involved hundreds of boats, more than 3,000 participants, and was watched by an estimated 50,000 spectators.  It was just as bloody as the regular gladiator fights; the only difference was that the gladiators were in boats.  the sea battle was followed by an animal hunt, in which more than 5,000 animals were killed.

The End

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 392, pressure began to build for the games to be abandoned.  In 404, a Christian monk named Telemachus tried to break up a gladitorial duel by jumping into the ring and physically separating the combatants . . . and was stoned to death by the crowd for his efforts.  The resulting scandal was so great that Emperor Honorius, who had previously been a fan of the games, abolished them later that year.

Was it a mistake?  As the empire made a transition from paganism to Christianity, critics predicted that abandoning the old religion and ways – under which the Roman Empire had risen to unparalleled greatness – would cause Rome to collapse.  The Colosseum closed amid dire predictions of doom.  “If the Colosseum falls, Rome falls,” the saying went.  Sure enough, in 410 AD, the Eternal City was sacked by Visigoths.

NOTE: The Colosseum looks like it’s been damaged by an earthquake, but actually most of the destruction has come at the hands of humans, who’ve plundered it for building materials over the centuries. (A lot of the stones were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica.)  The structure’s pockmarked appearance is due to the fact that during the Middle Ages – when metal was particularly hard to come by – generations of Romans pried loose the metal fittings that held the stones together.  Today gravity is the only thing that holds many of the stone blocks up; and thanks to the vibrations from auto traffic, the stones are slowly shifting and putting the entire Colosseum in danger of collapse.