Colosseum History

View of the Hypogeum at the center
Photo by: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, Creative Commons

The Colosseum is an elliptical amphitheater, a masterpiece of ancient Roman engineering. Its ruins still stands today as a testament to the might of the Roman Empire. The construction of the Colosseum, initially called the Flavian Amphitheater, was started by the Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD. The history of the Colosseum can be divided into three eras – the ancient, medieval and modern.

Ancient Rome

Emperor Vespasian started construction in 72 AD; he died in 79 AD, and did not live to see its completion. They had only gone has high as the third floor, the top floor was constructed in 80 AD, during the reign of his son Titus.

The inauguration of the building was a grand spectacle. More than 9000 animals were killed during the inaugural games. Many Gladiators were injured or killed, either by the animals they fought or when the citizen spectators gave the ‘thumbs down’ signal. The execution of criminals also took place on the inaugural day. The blood lust of the citizens of Rome was unquenchable.

Emperor Domitian, the younger son of Vespasian, added the hypogeum, which was a series of underground tunnels used to cage the animals and also house the slaves. In order to increase the seating capacity, Domitian also added an extra gallery at the top. The Colosseum could seat fifty thousand spectators and even this large seating capacity was not enough.


In 217 AD, the Colosseum experienced a disastrous fire, thought to have been caused by lightning, it was badly damaged. The upper levels of the amphitheater, made of wooden tiers, were gutted by the fire. The damaged portion took a long time to repair and was completed in 240 AD. Further repairs and renovations were also carried out in 250 AD and then again in 320 AD.

The Colosseum suffered damage from an earthquake that struck Rome in 443 AD and the damage was repaired under Emperor Theodosius II. Renovation was again undertaken in 484 AD and 508 AD. According to historical records available, gladiatorial events took place till 435 AD and animal contests were believed to have taken place till about 523 AD. In this year, Anicius Maximus held an extravagant venationes or animal hunt, to celebrate his Consulship with pomp and glory.

Medieval Era

The Colosseum underwent a lot of changes during this period. Gone were the extravagant Gladiator contests and animal shows. By the late 6th century a small church had been built in the amphitheater, but it did not turn the entire amphitheater into a Christian building. The vast space in the arena was converted into a cemetery. The hundreds of vaulted spaces in the arcades beneath the seats were turned into shops, workshops and houses and this continued till the 12th century. The next major change was around 1200 AD when the Frangipani family took over the Colosseum and fortified it into a castle.

In 1349 AD, a major earthquake caused severe damage to the Colosseum. The south side, which had been built on relatively unstable alluvial soil, gave way and collapsed. The damaged portion of the Colosseum yielded a treasure trove of stones and other building materials, which was used for building palaces, churches, hospitals etc. in other parts of Rome.

In the mid 14th century a religious order moved into the Colosseum and was staying there till the late 19th century. The interior of the amphitheater was stripped of stone, bronze clamps and the exterior marble was burnt for lime. This scarring is in evidence to this today.

In the 16th and 17th century, the Church wanted the building to be put to productive use. Pope Sixtus wanted to turn it into a wool factory, as a means of alternate livelihood to the prostitutes of Rome. This idea did not materialize because of the Pope’s death. In 1671, Cardinal Altieri gave permission to use the amphitheater for bullfights, but the ensuing uproar prevented this from happening. The historical bloodthirsty appetites of the tastes of the citizens of Rome had changed.

In a development, which had clear Christian overtones, Pope Benedict XIV, made it official Church policy to consider the Colosseum as sacred since early Christians had been martyred in the Colosseum. To prevent the quarrying of stones from the Colosseum, he declared the place sanctified and installed the Stations of the Cross. Sufficient historical evidence is lacking to support this event as having happened.

However, later Popes did undertake measures for the stabilization of the building. The facade was reinforced in 1807 and 1827 by adding thick triangular wedges for strength. The interior was renovated in 1831, 1846. In the 1930’s under the tutelage of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, the interior renovation was continued.

The Colosseum Today

The Colosseum still stands today, as a testament to Roman grandeur and it has a history steeped in the blood of humans and animals. It is one of Rome’s most visited and popular tourist attractions. The effects of wear and tear, pollution and vagaries of weather had caused the integrity of the Colosseum to deteriorate greatly. Between the years of 1993 and 2000, a major renovation and restoration program was carried out at a cost of $19 million.

With its history drenched in blood, today it serves as the symbol of the international campaign against Capital punishment. Capital punishment has been abolished in Italy since 1948. The year 2000 saw several demonstrations in support for abolishing the death penalty. Roman authorities get the Colosseum lit up in golden light instead of the usual white light, whenever any prisoner anywhere in the world, under the death penalty, was either released or had his sentence commuted to imprisonment.

Due to its ruined interior, it can only stage concerts for a few hundred spectators using temporary seating. However, much larger concerts have been held just outside the Colosseum building.

The Colosseum, a Roman edifice still stands after more than a thousand years, is a testament to the ingenuity of Roman engineers. From events drenched in blood, it has turned full circle, and is now the symbol of saving life of condemned death row prisoners. Only a third of the original Colosseum remains, but it stands proud and tall, as a testament to the Roman Empire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *