The Colosseum in Rome is one of the world’s most visited tourist sites seeing over 6 million visitors each year. If you have stood in what is left of this impressive structure, you will understand why. There is a whispering of history as if the stone could talk, telling of the many spectators, battles and gruesome events in what was once the world’s largest Roman amphitheater.
This ethereal quality has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood who has given the Colosseum its movie making treatment. From Ben-Hur to Gladiator, moving pictures have brought the Colosseum’s past to life. Still, they are no substitute for the real thing, or what sparks in your own imagination on a visit to the amphitheater.
Granted the things that went on there are fascinating enough but when you delve into the origins of the Colosseum, it becomes even more fascinating. If you really want to understand how it came to be then you have to go back to one of the most hated men in history, the Roman emperor Nero.
Fiddling While Rome Burns
Nero was an incompetent sadist who did little to help his people and was arguably the most unpopular Roman emperor ever. So much so, that in June, 68 AD, he was tried in absentia as a public enemy and condemned to death. The only Roman emperor to suffer that humiliation, Nero committed suicide on 9 June 68 AD instead of facing his sentence publicly.
Four years earlier in July, 64 A.D. when a huge fire destroyed 70 percent of Rome and left half its population homeless, Nero was said to have fiddled while watching the city burn. His accusers weren’t very savvy, because Nero was at his villa in Antium, about 35 miles from Rome and violin hadn’t even been invented!
Other reports said he sang a song about the destruction of Troy but that didn’t catch on as well as the fiddling rumor and so it’s the one we’re left with today. The fire created a huge tract of empty land in the center of Rome on which Nero built a massive palace. This led to another rumor which held that Nero has started the fire himself to create the land for his building project!
Making a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear
After Nero’s death, the fifth emperor to take the throne was Emperor Vespasian who determined to restore the glory of Rome and its people. He decreed that the land upon which the palace stood would be the site of a new amphitheater.
Construction lasted 10 years utilizing the efforts of over 10,000 slaves and thousands of slabs of stone and concrete. When it was complete the Colosseum measured 189m long, 156m wide and 50m high. Meaning it was almost 12 stories high and a football pitch could fit inside!
Bread and Circuses
In 80 A.D., Vespasian’s son, the ruling Emperor Titus inaugurated the new amphitheater with 100 days of free games. With seating for more than 50,000 spectators and sun-deflecting awnings affixed to the top, Romans were comfortably treated to brutal and gory sights. The entertainment included gladiatorial combats, wild animal fights, hunts, and mock naval engagements. It is said that during some events hosted by subsequent emperors, upwards of 10,000 animals were killed in a single day!
The emperors’ entertainment motto was “Bread and Circuses” so spectators enjoyed their blood shed with free food and drink designed to curry favor for the hosting emperor.
Fall from Grace (Or Gore?)
For 500 years, the Colosseum continued to provide entertainment to the masses until the Western Roman Empire started its fall, along with public tastes for violence and mayhem. Additionally, the structure had been damaged by natural phenomena and it was put out of business by the 6th century A.D.
It retained some function however, as a quarry for the building of various cathedrals, palazzos and fortifications. This changed around the 18th century, when the papal dioceses decided the remaining two-thirds of the arena needed conserving due to the early Christians who were supposedly martyred there.
Another rumor, but one which allowed the Colosseum to be preserved so that today visitors can step back in time to almost 2,000 years ago when it would have been awash with thousands of people, brutal slayings, bread and circuses.
So, put the Colosseum on your bucket list and plan for a visit. The ghosts of emperors, spectators and gladiators are waiting to whisper history in your ear.