As you can see, the Colosseum is huge, and I have no doubt it impresses you. Yet even though it still looks marvelous, it is but a fraction of its former glory. As a result of fires, earthquakes, and plunder, two thirds of the original building has been destroyed. The Colosseum was originally built by Vespasian’s son, Titus. It would have taken a lot of planning and hard work, considering it was built in a valley in which there had previously been a lake, and also how quickly it was finished. The Colosseum started being built in 70 AD, by slaves.
It was finished in 80 AD. It was capable of seating 45,000 spectaters, and a further 5,000 standing. There were many entrances, eighty in total. Nowadays you can only see a few of them left standing. The Romans were extremely good at dispersing large crowds quickly. People could access their seats via a Vomitaria, which is Latin for ‘rapid discharge’. The English word ‘vomit’ is derived from it. They could get everyone out in a matter of minutes. If you look above, you can see the remainders of a velerium, a retractable awning.
It was made of canvas and ropes, and covered almost two thirds of the Colosseum, which is a big achievement considering its size. There was a section for each type of citizen. The bottom row was for Roman senators, behind that, were middle class citizens, then lower class, then foreigners, and at the very back, were the slaves. The best seats were raised about two metres above the arena, for safety. Also, the animals and gladiators were kept in by a fence. Spectators would have found their seats through arches numbered I – LXXVI (1-76).
The four main entrances were not numbered. This is all shown clearly in the seating plan to my right. The arena would have been covered in about 15cm of sand, to absorb blood. There would also be many trap doors in the arena, to let animals leap up. Sometimes, people were hired to make the Colosseum look like a real jungle, or a similar scene, using elaborate scenery, and often real plants. This would allow a theme to be put to a killing, which would make it all the more exciting. The main thing shown in the Colosseum was the Gladiator shows.
However, there were also things like animal hunts, and sometimes sea fights. Gladiators were criminals, or foreigners, or sometimes Christians. The main types of gladiators were Thracian’s from Thrace, which we know as Bulgaria, Gaul’s from Gaul, modern day France and Samnite’s from Samnium, which was in the centre of Italy. Thracian’s were usually quite lightly armed, with a round shield and a curved dagger. Gaul’s had a round shield, sword and a helmet distinguished by the image of a fish (as you can see). Samnites were the most heavily armoured, bearing a large rectangular shield and an axe.
If they were set against a retiarus (net-fighter) they were called secuters (pursuers). The retiarus was lightly armed, with nothing but a net, a trident, a dagger and a shoulder guard. This sort of competition was one of the most favoured, because of the contrast, many mosaics and pots were made of it. The secuter would be heavily armed and always attacking, representing brute force, whereas the retiarus was lightly armed, and always retreating. It represented skill and cunning. Before a gladiator could fight, he had to submit his weapons to an official, possibly the Emperor.
The blades were only kept if they were sharp enough. At the beginning of the show, the competitors would parade around the arena. They would stop in front of the Emperor’s box, raise there weapons and say “Hail, Caesar, we salute you, we who are about to die. ” Then, it all began. Gladiators would usually fight to the death, but if the defeated man had fought a good battle, there was a chance for his life to be spared. It was called an ‘appeal to the finger’. He had to hold up a finger in admit of defeat, and to plead for mercy.
It was mainly down to the crowd as to whether he would live or die. ‘Thumbs pressed’ probably meant to sheath the sword, and ‘thumbs turned’ probably meant to kill. We know all this from primary resources, such as this pot. It was like a death sentence to be a gladiator, which is a reason why it seems so immoral to most people, considering there is no death penalty in places like Europe. Being a gladiator could be a very lethal experience, as shown in the flask. Even if a gladiator one a battle, this had no influence on the next, as there could be animals involved, or a stronger man.
A man called Martial once gave this advice to gladiators “when you fight in a show, if you beat your opponent, don’t let him go! ” This was after a gladiator made the mistake of sparing his rival, who later fought another battle with him and killed him. Within the arena, there was no justice, no second chances, and barely any time to think. It was a cold hearted blood bath. Not all gladiators had an awful life though. Some became champions, and consequently, heart-throbs. They were admired for their bravery and strength.
They were especially popular with women. As shown in one inscription: ‘Vercunda, actress, love’s Lucius, gladiator. ‘ Animal fights and hunts were in huge demand in ancient Rome. The Empire was glad to spend its money on exotic animals, so it was a good trade to be involved in. Animals such as elephants, lions and bears were the most popular, though many other species were also hunted. Nowadays the way they treated the animals would be absolutely unacceptable. It would be animal abuse.
Martial describes some of the things they did with the animals. we have seen a leopard with a yoke on his spotted neck, and furious tigers enduring patiently the blows of a whip” “a huge boar with a purple muzzle; buffaloes dragging chariots and an elephant dancing for his swarthy master. ” Other ways in which we know that all this is true, is from things like mosaics. Animal hunts were a hunt to the death. Animal on animal, or Bestiarii (Beast Fighters) against animals. The pot and carving both show Bestiarii’s. A famous Bestiarii was Carpophorus, who was known to have killed a bear, a lion and a leopard single handed.
Occasionally an Emperor would partake in an animal battle, to prove their power, but it wasn’t equal. Emperor Commodus used to show off his excellent archery skills, by shooting a pack of lions, from the safety of the Imperial Box, however. Suetonius said that Nero once had a “lion drugged so that he could safely face it before the entire amphitheatre, and then either kill it with his club or strangle it”. The Romans were proud of the numbers of animals they’d killed. The Emperor Augustus showed off about having 3,500 animals killed in his shows.
Seventy years later Titus outdid him by having 5,000 killed in one day. Not all Romans were passionate about the shows that went on in the Colosseum. Sometimes, people thought about it in the way most people would consider it nowadays; brutal and pointless. In part of a letter of Cicero’s, where he describes Pompey’s Games, he says “what civilised man can enjoy the sight of a feeble man being mauled by a powerful beast, or a noble beast being pierced by a spear. ” However, even though it is shocking the way they treated animals, things like bull fights and fox hunts should be taken into consideration.
Bull fights are still allowed in Spain, and the bull rarely lives. It could be interpreted quite similar to gladiator fights, because if the audience think the bull has given an exceptional performance, they will wave white handkerchiefs. Like how the Roman’s used thumbs up/down. Also, successful bull fighters are popular with the ladies, similar to good gladiators. Clearly some civilised men can enjoy the sight of a noble beast being killed. Fox hunts also, are a cruel pointless sport. In some ways it is worse than bull fights, because at least in bull fights it is a quick painless death.
If people nowadays can still encourage sports like this, maybe it’s not so hard to understand the Roman’s love for gladiator fights. The Naumachia, sea fights, were fought in an artificial lake between Tyrian and Egyptian ships. Fights like these only took place on special occasions because they took a lot of preparation. The arena had to be made watertight; at least five feet of water would’ve been needed to make the ships float. This would’ve been extremely hard in the Colosseum because of all the entrances. On the rare occasions they actually happened however, the sea fights were wildly popular, because of how rare and exciting they were.
A particularly famous sea fight was staged by Emperor Claudius. It was to celebrate a tunnel that had been built through a mountain, from the Fucine Lake to the River Liris. The Emperor provided warships manned by 19,000 men. The warships were encircled by rafts to prevent escape. Crowds of people came from miles around to see the show, but there was a problem. When they opened the waterway, it became clear that it was not deep enough, and thus needed to be widened. However, to the horror of the spectators, the force of the water burst through and carried away everything in sight.
Overall, it is clear that the Romans were very different to people nowadays. Violence to them was just am extremely popular sport. It was a way for Emperors to show their power off to the people, and to outdo previous Emperors. The Venerable Bede once said “as long as the Colosseum stands, so shall Rome; when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world” The Colosseum did stay standing a long time after Rome, and it still is standing today, even though it is missing about a third. The Romans were clearly brilliant architects to pull off such a magnificent building.