Architecture is a discipline that sorts order out of complication. It distills design, a disparate collection of elements, a slew of math and engineering, and competing components of volume and space to create an eye-pleasing blend of beauty and function. At its most sublime, architecture can sum up what a culture holds dear and aspires to be. The Colosseum, one of the most iconic architectural wonders of Western civilization, proclaims the greatness of the Roman Empire.
A great deal is known about the Colosseum – or Flavian Amphitheater – but one mystery is the name of the architect who designed it. That person has vanished from the pages of history. Like many accomplishments achieved during the Roman Empire, the Colosseum is an idea whose location, and very existence, is a story steeped in intrigue, ambition, and political expediency. Today, the Colosseum is a beloved site, but its beginning arose from a bad ending.
Nero is considered one of the Roman Empire’s most infamous emperors and his historical reputation is as a person who was cruel, may have been mentally imbalanced, had an ego as big as the world, curried favor with the common people by way of rabid populism, and fancied himself as being closer to a god rather than a mere mortal. To achieve and cling to power he lied, connived, had people murdered (including his own mother), and was notorious for rooting out enemies whether they were real or imagined. In many respects, Nero’s was a reign of terror. In 68 A.D. Nero fled Rome and committed suicide after learning he was sentenced to death.
The resulting turmoil following Nero’s death was a time known as “The Year of the Four Emperors.” Nero’s suicide sparked civil war and in quick succession four different men ascended to the role of emperor: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian. The first three were wholly unsuited to the task and ended up dead; Galba was killed by the Praetorain Guard, Otho committed suicide, and Vitellius was killed. Vespasian, on the other hand, ruled with a more even hand, had a better grasp of politics, and won the backing of the common people and elites. Vespasian would be the first of three members of his family to serve in succession as emperor which became known as the Flavian Dynasty, ruling from 69 A.D. to 96 A.D.
Vespasian began work on the Colosseum in 72 A.D., reclaiming a six-acre site that had been appropriated by Nero to be part of his grand palace. The original Colosseum was completed in 80 A.D. under the emperorship of Vespasian’s son Titus, and was further modified by Vespasian’s second son Domitian, from 81 A.D. to 96 A.D. The iconic structure has been standing for nearly two thousand years.
The Colosseum could hold more than 50,000 people at a time. The oval-shaped building is 620 feet by 513 feet, and stands 160 feet tall. More than 80 soaring archways let people enter and exit the Colosseum (76 of the archways were used by the masses and the four archways at the ends and center were reserved for the emperor, senators and elites). The design was so efficient the entire amphitheater could easily be emptied in under 10 minutes. Seating was assigned by social and political class. The best seats, for the emperor, were in a prime location near the arena floor. A bit higher up were seats for members of the Roman Senate, and finally standing room areas above the senators for the common people. Admission was generally free, and the highly elaborate, multi-day (even weeks long) events were important political and social occasions. On hot summer days specially-trained crews of sailors operated a velarium system of curtains that acted as a shade awning.
Financing for the project was lucre taken from ancient Judea (what is now Israel and a mountainous area of Palestine), after Roman armies put down the Great Jewish Revolt that ended in 73 A.D. Much of the slave labor used to build the amphitheater consisted of Jews captured during fighting in Judea. The work was brutal and many of the slave laborers died during construction. Roman craftsmen and artisans carried out much of the specialty construction and finish work. The project was a massive undertaking of backbreaking effort. Materials used in the building of the Colosseum included tuff, a cemented volcanic ash, travertine limestone quarried from Tivoli, some 20 miles away, marble, bricks for arches, vaults and ribbing, and tiles for decoration. A drainage system utilizing lead and terra cotta pipes was also part of the design.
All manner of festivities, contests, games, and fights were held at the Colosseum. There were contests between men and animals, and fights between and among gladiators. There is even some evidence there were mock naval battles when the floor of the Colosseum could be flooded and drained. The cost to produce these events was enormous and required 8.000 people – or more – to carry out and produce an event.
One of the truly brilliant aspects of the Colosseum was the floor and the basement below. Ringed around the edge of the amphitheater floor were 32 trap doors that would raise men and animals onto the main staging area. Each trap door required upwards of 250 slaves to operate the pulleys, cages, and mechanics of a trap door that released animals or people onto the arena. Bodies and carcasses of the injured or dead could be quickly removed.
The floor below the main arena, known as the Hypogeum, is a marvel of engineering and staging. Gladiators, animals, set pieces, engineers, and slaves were able to efficiently produce events for that day. Stage pieces could be raised or lowered, fighters dressed in battle gear appeared, animals slated for killing were released, and the dead and wounded would quickly disappear from view. For those in attendance, it was a grand spectacle. For those standing on the ground floor, it could be life or death. And for those toiling underground, it was loud, grueling toil.
Today, the Colosseum is one of the top attractions in Rome and the amphitheater receives upwards of four million visitors each year. Tens of millions of dollars are being invested to restore much of the facility to its earlier state. For example, portions of the walls have been rebuilt, seating areas are being renovated, and access points are being restored. Some of the most exciting work being carried out is in the Hypogeum, which suffered a great deal of damage over the centuries. Corridors are being reconfigured to their original designs, trap doors and elevators are being recreated, and rooms and staging areas are seeing new life. Officials are hopeful that the improvements and rehabilitations being done now will enable the Colosseum to last for another two thousand years.
The Colosseum was created out of the miseries of Nero’s reign, but due to the vision and efforts of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, it was transformed into an engineering and architectural marvel that is one of history’s most iconic and enduring symbols of the great and once-powerful empire known to the world simply as, “Rome.”
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