The Flavian Amphitheater, now in ruins, towers over the southeast end of the Roman Forum, between the Esquiline and Palatine Hills. Its popular name, the Colosseum, was derived from the nearby colossal (120-foot-high, or 37.2-meter) bronze statue of Nero, long since vanished. The most ambitious example of a new building type associated with urbanization, the Colosseum was an architectural feat, even by Roman standards. Its size is awesome, but the logistics of moving crowds to and from their seats was also a major achievement.
The earliest amphitheater on the site was built in timber for the pontifex maximus Gaius Scribonius
Curio in 59 b.c.; that; was replaced about thirty years later by a stone-and-timber version for Augustus Octavian Caesar, the first emperor. The Colosseum was commissioned in a.d. 69 by Vespasian, whose son Titus dedicated it in a.d. 80. The highest part of that structure was also timber, and not rebuilt in stone until after a.d. 223. It seems that the first three ranges of seats were completed in Vespasian’s reign, that Titus added two more ranges, and that Domitian completed the building around 300. Although early sources claim that the Colosseum seated 87,000 spectators, modern scholarship puts the figure closer to 50,000. Other Italian amphitheaters at Capua, Verona, and Tarragona are of similar size. The vast Colosseum, elliptical in plan, measured 620 by 510 feet (189 by 156 meters), covering nearly 6 acres (about 2.4 hectares). Its general height was 160 feet (49 meters).
The structural skeleton of the Colosseum was made of travertine limestone, quarried at Tivoli in the hills near Rome and transported to the site along a specially built road. Travertine blocks, some of them 5 feet high and 10 feet long (1.5 by 3 meters), were fixed together with metal cramps to form concentric elliptical walls. These were linked with radiating tufa walls carrying complex rising vaults of brick-faced concrete, in which volcanic stone such as pumice was used to reduce the weight. The vaults carried the tiers of seats. The Colosseum was built to house extravagant spectacles that took place in an arena measuring 280 by 175 feet (86 by 54 meters). Apart from a number of minor entrances to the arena, there were four principal gates at the ends of the axes, directly joined by passages to the exterior. A 15-foot-high (4.5-meter) walls probably faced with marble, defined the arena and provided a measure of protection for the spectators. The floor of the arena was made of heavy planks, strewn with sand for the purpose of soaking up the blood of gladiators, prisoners of war, and wild animals that died in their thousands. Such emperors as Caligula and Nero even ordered cinnabar and borax to replace the sand. A labyrinth of chambers beneath the floor possibly housed the participants in the games, and there were complicated machines and hoists to lift men, beasts, and theatrical sets into the arena, adding to the spectacle. Sometimes the entire floor was removed and the arena flooded by a system of pipes so that galleys could be pitted against each other in mock naval battles.
The terrace on top of the surrounding wall was wide enough to contain two or three rows of movable seats. Undoubtedly the best in the house, they were reserved for senators, magistrates, the vestal virgins, and other important people. The emperor and his immediate retinue occupied an elevated cubiculum. Upon entering the Colosseum through numbered arches corresponding to their ticket numbers, other visitors climbed sloping ramps to the gradus (bleachers), which were divided into stories and allocated according to gender and social class. The first fourteen rows of marble seats were covered with cushions and set aside for the equestrian order. Above them a horizontal space defined the second range, where a third class of spectators, the populus, was seated. Still further up were the wooden benches for the common people. The open gallery at the very top was the only part of the amphitheaters from which women were permitted to watch. There were exceptions, of course. When the games were over, the crowd could quickly disperse through no fewer than sixty-four strategically placed exits, aptly known as vomitoria.
The external wall of the Colosseum was divided into four stories, reflecting the circulation corridors within. Its eighty arches, most of which provided access to the interior, were framed by superimposed orders of pilasters (nonstructural columns): Tuscan on the ground floor, Ionic above them, and Corinthian at the top. The fourth story, also embellished with Corinthian pilasters, had stone brackets for the wooden masts from which an awning (velarium) was suspended across the interior to shield spectators from the sun while they watched the slaughter below. Many of the visible parts of the building were enriched with moldings, ornament, facings of marble or polished stone, and statuary. Fountains of scented water were provided for refreshment.
The Flavian Amphitheater was damaged several times by lightning strikes and repaired as often, so that games continued spasmodically until the sixth century, despite the opposition of the church and some Christian emperors. The last recorded slaughter of wild beasts was in the reign of Theodoric (a.d. 454–526), since when it has been used sometimes as a fortress and (to its detriment) as a quarry. Renaissance palaces in Rome, such as the Cancellaria and the Farnese, and churches including Saint Peter’s Basilica, were built with columns plundered from the ancient monument. Various popes made efforts to preserve it, and in 1750 Pope Benedict XIV consecrated it to the martyrs who died there. Surprisingly, and despite popular belief, it was not the main venue for the execution of Christians. In 1996 a U.S.$25 million restoration of the Colosseum was launched. After the cellars were drained, fallen masonry replaced, bushes and weeds cleared from the arena, and the structure repaired and cleaned, the greatest amphitheater was reopened in July 2000 with a season of Greek plays.