If you are planning a trip to Italy’s capital, I’m positive that one of the first Rome attractions you’ll consider visiting is the Colosseum. Even if you are staying only one day in Rome. To know more about it, here are some interesting Colosseum facts, its gory history, and some tips and tricks to know before you go.
Hardly in need of any introduction, the Amphitheatrum Flavium is one of Rome’s most visited and photographed landmarks, one of those must-sees no guidebook would ever dare to forget, and one the Rome’s top archaeological sites. It must be its look, its majesty, or its ancient wisdom overlooking our whimsical modernity, but the Roman Colosseum never fails to attract thousands of people every day.
You don’t even need to make complicated planning to see this fabled place, it’s visible from many of the spots you’ll be likely visiting. If you are in Piazza Venezia, you can see it wrapped up in the maze of the city’s pollution, if you go up to the terrace of the Vittoriano Complex, yet again it will come up in your pictures. In a nutshell, if you are in the city center it’s almost impossible to avoid it. And if you want to make sure you reach it early morning, your best bet is to book a hotel near the Colosseum, which is also a fantastic area to stay in Rome with kids.
So, what’s so cool about the Roman Coliseum? Its architectural style? Ridley Scott’s influence on his audience? Read on and find out some historical and fascinating Colosseum facts!
READ MORE: If you want to delve deep into the history and architecture of this famous Rome landmark, check out our guide to the best Colosseum tours.
Table of Contents
- 1 Interesting facts about the Roman Colosseum
- 1.1 The Colosseum as a symbol of Roman engineering skills
- 1.2 In its original appearance, it was stunning
- 1.3 Is the Colosseum one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world?
- 1.4 The Colosseum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 1.5 The Colosseum is the world’s largest amphitheater
- 1.6 It took some 8 years to build
- 1.7 It officially opened in 80 AD
- 1.8 Its opening was a bloodbath
- 1.9 Shows carried on until the 5th century
- 1.10 What we see is a third of the original construction
- 1.11 It was consecrated in the 18th century
- 1.12 What’s with the holes dotting the Colosseum’s facade?
- 1.13 The name is a bit of a mystery
- 1.14 It reflected the layers of society
- 1.15 The wild animals used in the games came from different places
- 1.16 Gladiators fought against each other or against wild animals
- 1.17 The gladiators were required to act all the way
- 1.18 Winners became stars
- 1.19 The shows served emperors’ propaganda needs
- 1.20 It all started as a propitiatory ritual
- 1.21 Strength and pride were vital
- 1.22 During the shows, spectators played table games
- 1.23 Spectators cooked, ate, and drank during the shows
- 1.24 In the Colosseum, they ran naval battles
- 1.25 The Colosseum was also the place for death sentences
- 2 Visiting the Roman Colosseum: Know Before You Go
Interesting facts about the Roman Colosseum
The Colosseum as a symbol of Roman engineering skills
The Colosseum comprises four floors, and its facade is made with limestone from nearby Tivoli. Its imposing structure reveals in full the skills of ancient Romans in the organization of a construction site.
Building the foundations of the Colosseum which was the manmade lake of Nero’s Domus Aurea was a huge endeavor. In about 6 months, 5216 workers removed some 158.000 cubic meters (5.579.717 cubic feet) of dirt. Once the digging was over, they built circular foundations, the supporting structure in travertine marble and the radian walls, corridors, staircases, and the basement.
The exterior displays four architectural orders set one on top of the other. This is visible only on the northern side where the Colosseum reaches 50 meters.
Building the foundation entailed partially destroying previous structures and leveling the terrain at times unevenly. They built four underground tunnels and a containment brick wall featuring 24 nooks and linked to service rooms used for maneuvering and supporting the winches.
The wall was needed as the background for the central reservoir filled with water and used for water-based shows such as naval battles that alternated the classic shows. This was possible through an elaborate system of pillars, beams, and recesses. The scene change was possible thanks to a wooden supporting structure, but when it was replaced with a stable brickwork system, the water-based shows ended.
The corbels that we can still see were used to support wooden poles slotted into the holes of the cornice supporting a sophisticated system of awnings (velarium) controlled by the sailors of the military fleet to protect the audience from the sun and the rain.
The interior of the Colosseum was painted in white and red, polychrome in some parts. Archaeologists found rests of red, black, green, and yellow plaster.
A modification to the original structure was made under Domitian, the son of Vespasian, with the addition of the hypogeum. This was a complex and very sophisticated underground structure where the gladiators and the animals would stay before the shows.
Both gladiators and animals would be brought to the wooden arena floor through a system of pulleys, winches, and several trap doors. This required hundreds of people working behind the scenes.
Several parts and areas of the original buildings have been lost, including the wall of the podium, the section closer to the arena, that was likely coated with marble slabs. The edge of the arena we see today is a brick wall with nooks, stairs and ramps and is the back of a tunnel for the personnel of the amphitheater and surrounded the floor where the shows took place.
On the podium was the space for the Senators, the only ones entitled to have their name carved in their marble seat.
In its original appearance, it was stunning
The facade was made with blocks of travertine marble quarried near Tivoli and features four levels.
The first three levels had 80 supporting arches and were decorated with statues and impressive stuccowork. On the upper floor, there used to be round shields with reliefs.
The arcaded portico on top of the upper level of the bleachers was decorated with finely carved capitals. Their styles clearly belong to different historical periods spanning from the 1st to the 5th centuries, as a testament to the long life of the Colosseum and to the several restorations it underwent due to natural disasters.
The handrail was made of barriers finely decorated with animal-shaped motifs, while the bleachers were crowned using balustrades showing fine plant-shaped patterns towards the arena.
Is the Colosseum one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world?
Even though not officially included in the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World drawn between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, the Colosseum has been often defined in more modern times as one of them.
The Colosseum has, in fact, been considered for centuries one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world because of its perfect structure, sophisticated architecture, and impressive size. One of the most famous and well-preserved buildings, it’s one of the places Rome is famous for.
The Colosseum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
One of the most well-known Colosseum facts is that it has been enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 along with the whole of Rome’s historic center, the Vatican City, and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.
The reason? Because Rome’s historic center includes important testimonies of unparalleled artistic and historical value. And this includes also monuments of the ancient world like the Pantheon, the Roman and the Imperial Fora, and our Colosseum.
The Colosseum is the world’s largest amphitheater
Elliptical in shape and measuring 188 mt (617 ft) on its long axis, 156 mt (512 feet) on the short one, and 50 mt (164 ft) in height, the Colosseum reaches a total of 24000 square meters (258334 square feet), even bigger than Saint Peter’s Basilica. Building the pillars required over 100.000 cubic meters (3531466 cubic feet) of travertine marble.
With a capacity of 75.000 spectators, it’s larger than the world’s biggest stadiums, and apparently, the audience has reached 80.000 more than once.
It took some 8 years to build
Funded with the spoils of the war in Judea, the construction of the Colosseum began around 72 AD after Nero’s death (in 68 AD) under the rule of Titus Flavius Vespasianus. After 8 years, under the reign of his son Titus, the Colosseum was inaugurated.
It officially opened in 80 AD
The Roman Colosseum was started by Vespasian, inaugurated by Titus in 80 AD, and completed by Domitian. Even though officially opened by Titus with a huge celebration in the summer of 80 AD, the emperor Flavius Domitian added the underground section and the dwellings for the gladiators in 81 AD.
Domitian added also barracks where gladiators lived and those for the sailors of the Miseno fleet in charge of steering the velarium to cover the Colosseum in case of rain and sun.
Its opening was a bloodbath
Much to the excitement of the spectators, to celebrate the official opening of the Flavian Amphitheater, some 5000 animals were slaughtered in a party that lasted more than three months. The massacre brought Titus an even larger popular consensus.
Shows carried on until the 5th century
Even though Constantine the Great banned the gladiators’ shows in 326, the fights in the Colosseum carried on until 404. It’s only at the beginning of the 5th century, in fact, that emperor Honorius put an end to the shows after a monk was stoned to death inside the amphitheater.
According to historian Theodoret of Cyrrhus, on January 1st, 404, the Christian monk and future saint Telemachus, jumped on stage to stop a fight between gladiators and was stoned to death by the spectators. This event led Emperor Honorius to halt the gladiators’ shows altogether.
This marked the end of the gory parades but also the beginning of a systematic sacking of the Colosseum.
What we see is a third of the original construction
The original building of the Colosseum was much larger than what we see now for a number of reasons. Four earthquakes caused heavy damage to the structure of the giant amphitheater, starting with the one in 443 AD, then in 484 AD, and in 508 AD.
The last earthquake happened in 1349 and while the epicenter was in the central Apennine Mountains, it was so strong that caused the collapse of a third of the building.
After each of these seisms and also due to the fact that shows were banned, the Colosseum started to become the source of building material. Its marble was turned into lime, its stones were used to build churches and palaces.
We can see the original exterior appearance on the northern side towards the Oppian Hill.
It was consecrated in the 18th century
We have to wait until the 18th century for the looting to officially end. Pope Benedict XIV put an end to the ongoing depredation because of the widespread belief that the Colosseum in its heyday had also been used as a place of martyrdom for early Christians.
Even though this fact didn’t really find historical confirmation, the pope consecrated the amphitheater, which now is the symbol of both pagan and Christian times.
What’s with the holes dotting the Colosseum’s facade?
Getting close to the Colosseum, we can see a myriad of smaller holes in its facade. According to popular belief, these were caused by the Barbarians who tried to destroy the Colosseum because it was the symbol of Rome’s grandeur.
The Vandals would have filled the holes with gunpowder to blow up the building. But the Colosseum, despite all the efforts, was still standing. From here, the conviction that it was indestructible.
Since it’s unlikely that gunpowder already existed, those holes secured the linchpins Romans used to erect buildings and moved from one construction site to another.
The name is a bit of a mystery
While the official name, Flavian Amphitheater is pretty straightforward because it was built under the rule of the Flavian Dynasty, historians are still debating about the origins of the title of Colosseum.
Some say that it’s taken after its colossal size, while according to other researchers, the amphitheater is called Colosseum because of the bronze statue of the Colossus of Nero that was standing nearby. After all, the Colosseum occupies part of where was Nero’s Domus Aurea, more precisely, the place where was a lake part of Nero’s house complex.
It reflected the layers of society
One of the most interesting Colosseum facts is that each level of the audience bleachers was aimed at a specific class. This way the Colosseum respected the layers of Roman society.
Ordinary spectators were not allowed to enter through the four main arcades arranged following the four main compass directions.
The emperor and his entourage would access from the northern side and enjoyed the shows from a raised stand that doesn’t exist anymore. The representatives of the political and religious powers entered from the southern side and their place was always on the first rows, while knights and patricians were right on top.
Moving upwards, all the categories of the population would find their seat carefully organised according to a rigid ethnical and social classification. Last was a lodge with a large portico with wooden bleachers for women and peasants.
Entrance to see the shows was free but each spectator had a card marking his specific entrance and seat. They had to reach their seat through a fixed route to avoid any confusion.
The wild animals used in the games came from different places
Europe, North Africa, Middle East, and were killed very cruelly. Sadly, this is one of the most famous facts about the Roman Colosseum. These beautiful wild animals were taken brutally away from their natural environment, and many of them died even before reaching Rome.
Several animal species were used in the Colosseum during the so-called venationes (the hunting and killing of wild animals), the shows of the tamed animals and capital punishments.
From literary sources, we know that the animals used were both herbivores like deers and carnivores like leopards, cheetahs, tigers, panthers, lions, and bears. Also the rests of wild boars and hares were found.
Among the brutal events narrated by local historians are a battle between a tiger and a lion, between hunters and bears. Literary sources tell us also about cruel episodes such as the one with the venator Carpophorus who in only one day killed a lion, a bear, a feline, rhino, and buffaloes, or the one where emperor Commodo let a large number of ostriches in the arena to behead one by one with arrows.
Gladiators fought against each other or against wild animals
They were either slaves or criminals. But sometimes even noblemen who wanted to feel the vibe of risking their lives by proving their strength to the population and the Emperor participated in the shows.
Even though gory and terrible, the gladiators’ shows still evoke masculine power and strength, to the point that if you are in Rome with kids, they will love to join a gladiator’s class!
The gladiators were required to act all the way
The famous fighters used to enter the Colosseum from the Porta Triumphalis, Triumphant Gate, at the sound of drums and trumpets. They would do a tour of the arena floor and once in front of the emperor, they would pronounce the famous sentence “Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!”, the Latin for “Hail Caesar, those who are about to die are greeting you”.
Gladiators were trained in hardcore schools where they were taught to engage in spectacular acting even when they were dying.
Winners became stars
The gladiators who won the fights instantly became celebrities. They were invited to the emperor’s palace and were very successful with women. Right after the fight, the winner could rest, unless his strength was exceptional and spectacular. In this case, he would be destined to more than a fight on the same day.
If a gladiator fell, he would be quickly removed from the arena, but not before being given one last hit to ensure he was actually dead. Once out of the stage, the dead gladiators would be stripped of their costumes and weapons. All their belongings would become popular relics believed to protect against curses. Seriously.
The shows served emperors’ propaganda needs
Here the Emperors, devoid of their humanity, coined the infamous “thumb down” expression and bewitched the citizens with the gimmick of Panem et Circensem. This can be interpreted as the forerunner of today’s propaganda system of distracting public opinion from the real problems by giving them money and entertainment. Except that today we don’t get the money.
It all started as a propitiatory ritual
As the Roman Colosseum history goes, the shows (ludus -i in Latin) were originally conceived as propitiatory rituals to appease the gods. Eventually, they evolved into atrocious games where countless men and animals were brutally slaughtered.
Strength and pride were vital
In ancient Rome physical strength, pride and bravery were crucial to a man’s personality. This is the reason why gladiators who didn’t give evidence of such traits during the fights could even be sentenced to death by the audience, some 50,000 to 70,000 people. This was considered the worst way to die, humiliated in the public arena.
During the shows, spectators played table games
Visiting the Colosseum inside you can also see on display what we can consider the trash left by spectators, objects, and tools they used during the breaks, chessboards, tables for betting, pawns made with the most different materials, from bones to terracotta, even spindles women used for weaving and makeup tools.
One of the lesser-known Colosseum facts is that often spectators would gamble, even though gambling in Rome was allowed only during the Saturnalia, a festival in honor of the god Saturn. The passion for games was so big that it was a common practice among men, women, patricians, and plebeians without distinction.
During the shows, among the spectators was very common to carve the stones of the bleachers and the walls. Similar to modern graffitis, they would carve the names and the faces of their heroes, as well as the most exciting moments of the shows. This is how they involuntarily left to posterity much information about the gladiators’ and hunters’ names and clothes.
Spectators cooked, ate, and drank during the shows
All the objects found from the diggings reveal an image of a theater overcrowded with noisy and vociferous people busy in all types of activities, including eating, heating up their meals, or even cooking from the scratch, as the rudimentary stoves found on the bleachers show.
Writers of the time reported that the most common foods eaten there were fruits, meat like chicken, beef, pork, and game, and fish. On the bleachers were found also rudimentary stone toothpicks used also to pull the mollusks from their shells.
All around there were fountains where people could get free water. Alcohol was also consumed but in moderation. In fact, at the entrance spectators were given a token equal to a single glass of wine to avoid troublesome drunks.
The diversity and the enthusiasm the Romans put into organizing their entertaining moments reveal how important leisure time was to them, and this leads to one of the fascinating Colosseum facts not many know about.
It would suffice to say that inside the Colosseum even representations of naval battles (naumachia in Latin) took place. Not many, but those few happenings were certainly spectacular, according to the witnesses who left written impressions about it. Not sure how they managed to organize these battles, but sources report that the Colosseum was filled with water and proper boats were brought in. All this was before underground cells and cages were dug.
The Colosseum was also the place for death sentences
Among historical Colosseum facts, we can’t forget that part from shows and fights, it was also the place for capital punishment. And apparently, they were performed so brutally and humiliating, supposedly to work as a deterrent for future crimes, that many prisoners preferred to commit suicide before the execution.
On the other hand, while common knowledge might suggest that in the Colosseum early Christians were martyrized, probably due to Hollywood movies such as Quo Vadis, there is no historical record to prove this.
Make sure you read our post on the birthday of Rome to discover how the city was founded.
Visiting the Roman Colosseum: Know Before You Go
What is the best way to experience and get closer to the historical Colosseum facts? Visiting it, obviously! The biggest holiday, the busiest summer season, and the most tourist-crowded days are probably nothing compared to the excitement, the chattering, and the noise at the time of the first shows, when the Colosseum, just built, stood in all its glory. Here are some things to know before visiting the Colosseum.
The Colosseum ticket is valid for two days
From the moment you purchase your Colosseum ticket, it’s valid for 24 hours and gives you also entrance to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The ticket costs 16€ (+2€ if you book online). If you want to access also the arena and the underground, the ticket costs 22€ and a guide is included.
Get there by metro
The easiest way to reach the Colosseum is definitely by metro. The station Colosseo along metro line B is right in front of the main entrance. Even if you are staying close to a station metro A, this is still the easiest option. You just need to change to metro B in Termini and do a couple of stops.
While by visiting early morning you have some chances to find a smaller queue, this is not always the case. Especially in high seasons like Christmas or summer, unless you start queueing at 5 am, you will likely find the line. Booking online is the best way to be sure you are skipping the queue.
Don’t bring large backpacks
They don’t have a cloakroom so any suitcase or large backpack will be confiscated. Don’t risk it if you want to enter, as there is no exception.
Don’t carry sharp objects, glass, and sprays
These items are not allowed in and will be confiscated.
Not sure where to stay? Check out our guide to the best neighborhoods in Rome.
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