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A Short History of the Colosseum

Colosseum, Roman History

The Colosseum is world-renowned for its architecture and its ties to ancient Roman history. Today, it is only a shell of its former self-crumbled and empty, not splendid and echoing with the roars of bloodthirsty crowds. But there is still history to be gleaned from the ruins.

The Colosseum’s construction began in or around 70 AD and was completed in 80 AD. It is believed to have been built by four different contractors, each one working on a different quadrant. It was constructed mainly of concrete and travertine. It once had a marble facade, but that has since been stripped away. Some believe that the Colosseum was originally built with a solid floor that could be flooded to put on mock naval battles, but was then renovated with a hypogeum, or series of tunnels, extending two levels down.

What the Colosseum was used for, though, is another thing altogether. Throughout its bloody and violent history, it was the venue for horrific games of every nature; famed gladiator fights took place there, as well as animal hunts, executions, and reenactments of myths and legends (often with a victim to be sacrificed). Before a screaming crowd of up to 50,000 people, the condemned died in the name of entertainment. These games went on for hundreds of years, with the last gladiator fights recorded in 435 AD and the last animal hunts taking place around 523 AD. Although many people believe early Christians were sacrificed for their beliefs in the Colosseum (this is, in fact, the official position of the Catholic church), there is no historical evidence to support this claim. But not all spectacles were violent, the most notable of these being the sylvae, or nature shows. Some sylvae were used as backdrops for hunts, but some were simply used for pure enjoyment-spectators could watch animals and plants interact as they would in their natural environment.

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How was the Colosseum able to handle the hordes of crowds and performers that streamed through its gates and tunnels every day? The answer lies in its unique architecture. Previous amphitheaters had been built into the sides of hills or mountains, but the Colosseum was free-standing, a marvel at the time. This allowed more entrances (there were 80 in total) to be built into the structure, meaning patrons could enter and exit the building quickly and efficiently. Each entrance was clearly labeled with a number from 1 to 80. Most of these were on the outer wall that has since disappeared, but two still remain. The interior of the Colosseum itself was intricate without being confusing, much like modern stadiums. But not every tunnel and hallway was open to the public-the hypogeum , a series of tunnels that extended two levels beneath the sand-covered floor of the arena, was used solely by performers and animals, to facilitate rapid movement out of the eye of the crowd (much like the backstage area of theaters).

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum, left without the patronage of a wealthy ruler, slid into disrepair. Vegetation claimed the seats where leaders and slaves alike had once sat as the world outside moved on. But it was not forgotten; artists, admiring the organic beauty of the ruins, have made many engravings and paintings of it. At one point, the Colosseum was fortified and turned into a castle. The arena was once a cemetery. Lightning strikes and earthquakes wreaked havoc on the structure of the building. The many statues that used to line the walls and the entire outer marble facade were stripped away and recycled. But today, the Colosseum is treasured as a vital tie to Italy’s past and to Roman culture. There is now a small museum on the outer wall’s upper floor, and thousands of tourists each year pay to see this national treasure. The Italian government does all it can to protect this stunning testament to Roman brutality and ingenuity.

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