Built almost 2000 years ago, the Colosseum is undoubtedly one of the most emblematic monuments in Rome. With more than 7 million visitors per year, it is the most visited tourist site in the Italian capital, along with the Vatican!
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Brief history of the Colosseum
The construction of the Colosseum
In 64 AD, the Emperor Nero had a colossal palace built in the heart of Rome: the Domus Aurea. The monumental complex was enormous and included, among other things, an artificial lake!
But a few years after the project began, Nero fell into disgrace. Disowned by the Senate, he was condemned to be executed in appalling circumstances… and committed suicide in 68.
His successors did everything they could to erase Nero from Roman memory. The Domus Aurea was gradually destroyed to make way for new buildings.
Between 70 and 72 AD, Vespasian (of the Flavian dynasty) had the artificial lake dug by Nero drained in order to build a huge amphitheatre. Construction work was completed in 80 AD under the reign of his son, Titus, and the amphitheatre was later extended by his grandson, Domitian.
Surprisingly, at the time of its construction, the huge amphitheatre was not known as the Colosseum, but was called the “Flavian amphitheatre”. That’s actually the name that historians still use today.
🤔 Where does the name of the Colosseum come from? 🤔
At the time of the construction of his Domus Aurea, Nero also had a colossal statue erected in his effigy… If you’re wondering, yes, Nero was somewhat megalomaniacal.
The Domus Aurea was destroyed shortly after his death, but the statue on the other hand withstood the test of time, although it was modified several times in the following centuries. Nero’s head was replaced by those of several Roman emperors and the statue was remodelled to represent Helios (or Apollo), the god of the sun.
The Colosseum owes its name to this colossal statue, and not to its own impressive size.
Games and entertainment
Panem et circenses, said the Romans (literally, “bread and games”) to sum up the strategy of the emperors who sought to curry favour with the people.
And when it comes to games, the Colosseum is king! In use for almost 500 years, from the 1st to the 6th century AD, the amphitheatre was the scene of countless games and entertainments. The Romans came here to watch :
- wild animal fights and hunting parties
- gladiatorial combat
- re-enactments of famous battles, including naumachia, re-enactments of naval battles
- country recreations (trees were planted in the sand of the arena to recreate pastoral scenes)
- public executions.
The games organised in the Colosseum could be quite exceptional in scale, like the celebrations organised by the Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. For 123 days, 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators were mobilised!
The Colosseum since the Roman Empire
The Colosseum ceased to be used for games and entertainment in the 6th century AD.
During the following centuries, the amphitheatre was the victim of numerous earthquakes. It was in turn converted into dwellings, craftsmen’s workshops, a fortress, a cemetery and a Catholic sanctuary.
Its stones were also reused for the construction of other buildings, which partly explains its condition today. Blocks of travertine from the Colosseum can be found in Palazzo Venezia and St. Peter’s Basilica!
The first restoration projects took place in the 19th century, notably during the occupation of Rome by Napoleon. Since 1995, the Colosseum has been the subject of a vast restoration project with the aim of preserving the building and opening more of it to the public.
🤔 Fun Fact 🤔
In 2007, the Colosseum was elected one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World alongside the Great Wall of China, Petra in Jordan, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Machu Picchu in Peru, Chichén Itzá in Mexico and the Taj Mahal in India.
Description of the Colosseum
Located to the east of the Roman Forum, the Colosseum is an ovoid building built largely of travertine (as well as tuff and concrete bricks).
187.75 metres long, 155.60 metres wide and 50.75 metres high, the Flavian amphitheatre could accommodate up to 50,000 spectators, which was quite remarkable at the time!
Even though it is today partly in ruins, the Colosseum remains wonderfully well preserved for its great age (almost 2000 years)!
The exterior of the Colosseum
Although the surrounding wall has been largely destroyed, it is still intact on the north side of the amphitheatre and therefore allows visitors to imagine what the Colosseum might have looked like in ancient times.
The outer wall comprises three storeys with (originally) 80 arcades each, topped by an attic, a solid wall with small windows.
The inner wall of the Colosseum is visible where the outer enclosure collapsed. Plainer than the latter, it comprises two floors of arcades surmounted by a solid section.
In ancient times, the Colosseum was probably entirely painted (as were many ancient monuments)… hard to imagine, isn’t it?
The tiers (= the cavea)
Inside the Colosseum, the stands are arranged in rows. The lower rows have an angle of 30° and the upper rows have an angle of 40°, allowing spectators on top of the stands to have a clear view of the arena.
In ancient times, the stands were organised in a very hierarchical way, in the image of Roman society. The lower seats, close to the arena, were reserved for prestigious spectators (senators, knights, etc.). On the other hand, the seats at the top of the stands were reserved for women and plebeians (the less fortunate citizens).
Inscriptions engraved on the bleachers indicated to which category of Romans the row was reserved. Some even featured the name of the senator to whom the seat was assigned.
For the sake of clarity, the stands were divided into sections and rows with numbered seats.
The Colosseum arena
The oval-shaped arena is located 3 metres below the stands. It is 83 metres long and 48 metres wide, and originally comprised a wooden floor (now gone) covered with sand.
The hypogeum (= basements)
Located under the arena, the hypogeum is an underground system that corresponded more or less to the backstage area of our modern theatres.
In ancient times, it was used to store equipment and theatre sets and to welcome the animals and gladiators who took part in the games.
It counted numerous hatches equipped with lifts, winches and pulleys to hoist sets, animals and gladiators onto the arena.
Underground tunnels connected the hypogeum to the outside of the Colosseum. These allowed the animals and the gladiators to reach the amphitheatre directly from the stables and the barracks, but also the emperor to reach his box in the stands incognito.
The hypogeum was remodelled many times during the centuries when the Colosseum was in operation, hence its somewhat labyrinthine appearance.
The velum (also known as velarium) was a huge canvas stretched over the Colosseum to protect the spectators from the sun and the weather. The position of the velarium could be adjusted by an ingenious system controlled by sailors assisted by slaves.
There are few traces of this velum left today and archaeologists know very little about it.
Visiting the Colosseum
You can either visit the Colosseum:
- on your own
- opt for a guided tour
It all depends on your priorities. If you’d rather visit at your own pace, it may be best to visit the Colosseum on your own. If you are fond of historical anecdotes, Captain Ulysses warmly recommends a guided tour. Especially since the guided tours are, from the Captain’s point of view, particularly interesting when it comes to ancient sites where it can be somewhat difficult to imagine what things looked like centuries ago.
Anyway, the Captain can only recommend booking either your entrance ticket or your guided tour in advance. The Colosseum is one of the most popular sites in Rome and the queues at the entrance to the monument can often be quite endless. For your information, entry to the Colosseum is also included in the Roma Pass.
Find out more:
- Colosseum + Roman Forum + Palatine Hill combined skip-the-line ticket
- guided tour of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill
- Roma Pass
The Colosseum is located in Piazza del Colosseo, a stone’s throw from the Roman Forum and the Palatine. The nearest metro station is Colosseo (line B).
The Colosseum is open daily from 8.30am to 7pm (closed on 25 December and 1 January).
👉 Skip the lines: book your tickets and visits in advance!
Looking for tips and recommendations? Here are all the Captain’s suggestions!
🎟️ Activities: as for booking visits and tourist activities, Captain Ulysses recommends three websites: GetYourGuide, Tiqets and Civitatis. Guided tours, cruises, skip-the-line tickets, tourist activities… there’s plenty to choose from!
🎫 Citypass: if you are staying in Rome for several days, it may be worth investing in the Roma Pass or the Omnia Card . As well as entry to some of the capital’s most iconic sites, these passes include access to public transport.
🚐 Transfers: if you want to arrive in Rome serenely, you can book your transfer from the airport to the city centre in advance. A car will be waiting to take you to your accommodation in the city. Find out more: transfers in Rome.
🚌 Local transport: Rome has a comprehensive public transport system: metro, bus and tram. Access to public transport is included in the Roma Pass and the Omnia Card. If you wish, you can also opt for a hop-on hop-off bus tour which stops at all the top tourist attractions in Rome (audio guide included).
✈️ Flights and trains: to book your flights to Rome, Captain Ulysses warmly recommends Skyscanner. You’ll be able to compare countless offers to find the best deal. If your dates are flexible, you can also compare prices over several months to find the cheapest flights possible.
As for trains, the Captain recommends Trainline to book your tickets.