Blood, dust, sands and glory – these are the words that come to mind when traversing the pop cultural landscape of the Colosseum. However from the architectural perspective, unlike other ancient theaters, the oval-shaped, freestanding amphitheater was a Roman invention. And, as the jewel in the crown of such imposing Roman-made architectural specimens, the Colosseum holds its head high with the towering elliptical tiers that rise to 180 ft (55 m) from the heart of the ‘eternal city’. From those very seats, the ‘bloodthirsty’ audience watched on the impeccably choreographed mock battles, exotic animal parades and their merciless slaughtering, and the gruesome gladiatorial fights. But as far as history goes, there was more to this exalted arena, than just the collective ancient display of viciousness and pomp. To that end, the folks over at Colosseum Lives (check their website) have concocted a 3D video from the VR perspective (using Oculus Rift), and it aptly presents a grandiose scope of the Colosseum, accompanied by good commentary.
Know the dimensions –
But before we delve into the video, we should comprehend the sheer dimensions of this architectural masterpiece. To that end, being elliptical in plan, the Colosseum is 189 m (615 ft) long, and 156 m (510 ft) wide – which accounts for almost 500 m (1,640 ft) in circumference, with a base area of 6 acres (24,000 sq m). The inner arena is similarly oval, with length of 87 m (287 ft) and width of 55 m (180 ft); while being surrounded by a 5 m (16 ft) high wall on all sides – after which the seat tiers started. As we mentioned before, these tiers ultimately rose to a height of 180 ft (55 m) – thus making the total volume of the Italian amphitheater a whopping 1,320,000 cubic m or 47 million cubic ft. So, it comes as no surprise that during peak events, the Colosseum could account for more than 50,000 spectators.
A monument dedicated to the people, not the Emperor –
Now while the video doesn’t talk much about the origins of the Colosseum, we should know that the Colosseum (or as it was originally known ‘Amphitheatrum Flavium‘) was (probably) funded from the spoils taken from the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, during the brutally suppressed Great Jewish Revolt in 70 AD. In any case, the massive endeavor was undertaken during Emperor Vespasian’s reign, to demonstrate the value of a ‘public’ landmark, as opposed to self-indulgent projects of his much-despised predecessor – Nero. Quite symbolically (and also practically), the site chosen for the humongous arena was previously an artificial lake that was a part of the absurdly opulent Golden House (Domus Aurea) that Nero had built, fueled by his personal whim. If interested, you can surely check out some superb 3D animations of the Domus Aurea here.
As a result, most of the expansive compounds along with gardens and pavilions were torn down by 69 AD, to make way for the monumental structure and other support buildings, like gladiatorial schools. The grand reclamation project did wonders on the political side of affairs, since the Roman citizens were satisfied and even honored (after the disastrous Great Fire of 64 AD) by the magnificent amphitheater. In many ways, the Colosseum represents the Roman celebration of military victories; but this time the ‘credit’ was heaped upon the Roman public, instead of the usual chosen cases of emperors and leaders.
The giant statue and its revenge –
In an ironic turn of events, Nero still seemed have his revenge in death, since the name Colosseum itself is derived from the ‘colossal’ statue of Nero that stood in close proximity to the massive amphitheater. Scholars believe this famous term came into popular usage by 10th century AD, replacing Amphitheatrum Flavium or Amphitheatrum Caesareum. Oddly enough, during the construction of the building, Vespasian didn’t destroy the huge piece of sculpture; rather he had the head replaced with that of Apollo (which also had a solar crown – thus depicting the Roman equivalent Solis). Successive emperors kept on altering this head portion, while the main statue survived well onto the middle ages; and preserved with it a fair share of urban legends.
One of these prophetical legends put forth by the Venerable Bede, the English monk from 8th century, suggested that – “as long as the Colossus (Nero’s statue) stands, Rome will stand, and if it falls, so will Rome, and after that the rest of the world will follow.” Anyhow, the statue did eventually fall during the medieval times, possibly after being pulled down to make use of its precious bronze metal.
The glorious feat of engineering –
The deft internal layout of Colosseum was equally matched in sheer engineering aptitude. In that regard, the circulation pattern and the system of access points and corridors are astonishingly advanced for their age. These spatial arrangements were tailored to crowd control, and as a result, the amphitheater could easily manage over 50,000 loud, cheering spectators in a clockwork-like manner. Some of these user/space patterns can be surmised from the seating arrangement of the stadium, which segregated the visitors based on their societal background. For instance, the senators, the equites, the plebeians and the poor folk were all seated separately, while even more definite social groups – like small boys with their tutors, foreign dignitaries and soldiers on their leave were given special places to sit.
However, arguably more important was the control arrangement of wild animals – the regular attraction of the Colosseum. And, that is where the famed hypogeum came into the picture (image above the last paragraph), with its intricate double-leveled underground system of cages and tunnels that housed the animals and gladiators alike. These spectacle ‘participants’ were directly brought to the upper ground level arena via elevators – an effective design scope that had been showcased in a cinematic fashion in Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator‘. The hypogeum was also used for the purpose of stretching expansive awnings over the open-top of the amphitheater. These elaborate systems of pulleys, canvas, ropes and sockets were operated by actual sailors who were specifically recruited for the job.
From ostriches to crocodiles –
While popular culture has shed its fair share of light on the Roman gladiators, exotic animals (and their subsequent butchering) was also an intrinsic part of many a spectacle held inside the great Colosseum. We already know of the exhibition of more than 5,000 wild animals, when the Colosseum was officially opened by Emperor Titus (who was Vespasian’s successor) in 80 AD. Emperor Trajan did one better during his victory celebrations, by introducing 11,000 animals and over 10,000 gladiators – and they were all involved in a string of bloody, clamorous displays for 123 days at a stretch.
The multifarious range of animals included exotic stuff, like rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, giraffes, Barbary lions, Caspian tigers, crocodiles, ostriches, aurochs and elephants. Some of these foreign creatures were even introduced into the arena with a synchronized backdrop of sylvae – which were basically natural scenery of forests and trees that were painstakingly recreated by technicians, architects and even painters. A few ancient writers also talk about renditions of ‘naumachiae‘ or sea battles, with one account describing the use of actual warships floating in the water-filled arena! Though most modern historians discredit such narrations as bouts of imagination, some have suggested that there might have been a subterranean channel below the central axis of the arena that could have drained all the water.