The Colosseum…and the Circus

The Colosseum is the largest amphiteater ever built—a massive oval of brickwork, tufa (a type of limestone), travertine, and concrete. At its base it covers six full acres. One of the wonders of the ancient world, it was the site of spectacles (and horrific cruelty) that are almost beyond the imagination.

Over the centuries, two thirds of this monumental structure—the marble, as well as many of massive stones—were carted away for later building projects (including St. Peter’s Basilica). And yet even as a “ruin,” it remains one of the most popular tourist destinations not just in Rome, but in the world, hosting 4 million visitors a year.

Its official name (which no one ever uses) is the Flavian Amphiteatre, because the emperors credited with building it—Vespasian and Titus—were of the Flavian dynasty. Tiered seating, divided by stairways and supported by a honeycomb of interconnected arched vaults, could accommodate 50,000.

Romans flocked here to witness daylong entertainments: bloody contests between gladiators, the slaughter of countless wild and exotic animals, gruesome public executions, as well as tamer diversions.

Building the Colosseum was a shrewd political move. The death of Nero had sparked civil war and a year of chaos. Once Vespasian succeeded in grasping power, he wanted to secure the loyalty of the populace. And so he directed that this massive new venue for public entertainments be built. The site he chose, in the very heart of the city, was land Nero had taken in order to build an ornamental lake and gardens on the grounds of his Domus Aurea (Golden Palace). Vespasian required his generals to pay for construction from the spoils of conquest—their share of the treasure taken from the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple; countless enslaved Jewish prisoners provided the heavy labor of quarrying and transporting the tons of stone and marble required.

Construction began in 70 A.D., was completed in just ten years (by then Titus had replaced his father as Emperor), and was celebrated with inaugural games that went on for more than a hundred days.

Our tour guide led us up two flights of steep, wide stone stairs, and to a spot where we had a good view of what looked like a stage. But this semi-circle was not a stage—just a restored section of the arena’s original oval floor, left open to give visitors a better idea of the complex behind-the-scenes logistics of Rome’s great spectacles. To attendees at those spectacles, the oval wooden floor would have appeared solid though in fact it had 36 trap doors. (Its thick covering of sand—arena is the Latin word for sand—had to be changed frequently as it became saturated with blood and entrails.

The two-level hypogeum (underground), which would have been invisible (perhaps even unknown) to the spectators was a masterwork of ingenious engineering.

There were tunnels for bringing in gladiators, performers, weapons and machinery, for carrying out the wounded—and dragging out the dead. But the most important function of this two-story subterranean maze of cells, caves, cages, and passageways was to facilitate stage management. From here, elaborate backdrops could be raised and lowered. More important, utilizing an intricate system of ropes, pulleys, man-powered winches, vertical shafts, workers could move cages to ramps that led to trapdoors in the floor of the arena. Thus, wild animals could be let loose without warning to spring on victims who had no way of knowing what kind of beast would come at them—or how many—or from what direction. (Perhaps it was a mercy not to have too much time to ponder the fact that you would soon be torn to shreds.) The crowd, apparently, thought this element of surprise was a tremendous joke and laughed uproariously when it happened.

As we surveyed the interior expanse from our elevated vantage point, our guide explained that all seats and sections were assigned based on social rank, with the the best seats—those on the wide marble platform (podium) that circled the arena—going to the Emperor, the Senators, and most important dignitaries.

From there (no surprise) places were designated based on social status; the more rich and important you were, the closer to the action, with the very top tier reserved for women and slaves (who had to stand).

Admission was free to all. But entry tickets (in the form of pottery shards) were required; these indicated not just section and seat, but which of the numbered entrances each spectator was to use. This way aristocrats could attend without ever have to come in contact with the riffraff. Four elaborate entrances at the compass points were reserved for the most important dignitaries, including the Emperor who came through the main (north) entrance.

Today, one relatively small section of white marble seating hints at of just how spectacular this scene would have been back when tier after tier of V.I.P seats were sheathed in white marble. (To improve comfort, Senators were allowed to set up their own chairs; others had to make do with bringing cushions). The exterior was white marble, too, and was decorated with statues and elaborate stone carvings. Imagine the brilliance of all this on a sunny day!

Imagine, too, how hot it could get, sitting under Rome’s baking sun, especially mid-day. But no detail was left unplanned here. The Colisseum had a huge retractable awning. The velarium was an ingenious arrangement of folded canvas strips (think, roman shades). These were attached at one end to poles that circled the top of the Colisseum and at the other to a rope ring. Once unfurled, thid clever canvas contraption covered (and protected) the seating area, its rope ring leaving the arena open to the sky. Sailors from the Imperial Navy were put in charge of all this rigging. They had the skills, as managing it was not so very different from raising, lowering, and adjusting sails.

So what took place here? On opening day there would be a great parade through the streets of Rome ending with a procession into the arena led by slaves in golden armor, followed by musicians, the “Editor” (the sponsor who paid for the event, often the Emperor himself) riding in a chariot drawn by wild animals, then elaborate floats, followed by animals and their trainers, hunters with their bows, dancers, other performers, and finally the gladiators. After this initial pageantry, games would begin and could go on for days on end. (Sometimes weeks, even months!)

Each day’s schedule followed a predictable pattern. First, a display of exotic animal from the far corners of the Empire, followed by animals hunts (indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds—perhaps thousands of wild creatures, a practice that actually resulted in the extinction of more than a few species). After this, skilled gladiators (or unfortunate untrained criminals, naked and unarmed) entered the arena to face carnivorous wild animals—tigers, leopards, and the like. After this, some preliminary fights between lightly-armed gladiators, then horse races, then fights between criminals who were given weapons, then forced to fight wearing helmets with no eye openings (this was considered very comical entertainment). At noon, executions involving gruesome torture. In the afternoon, a series of gladiatorial fights. Between these various acts, the crowds would be entertained by musicians, magicians, acrobats and other performers while sets were changed…and the dead were carried off. (Sometimes, too, there were elaborately staged dramas thrown in.)

Amazing to think that in the midst of all this gore, blood, and the stench of death), food and wine were freely distributed (who could eat?).

Sometimes containers of “gifts” would fall from above. On hot days the spectators might be misted with cool water and perfume.

First century poet Juvenal mocked the way those in power used  panem et circenses (bread and circuses—free food and entertainment) to appease the populace and curry favor. But the truth is  it worked—for hundreds of years. Today, those in power have found new ways of achieving and retaining power. It’s still a circus. Just a different kind.