The Colosseum began construction between AD 70-72 under the Flavian emperor Vespasian. Unlike earlier amphitheaters dug into convenient hillsides, the massive arena was built as a free-standing structure.
Its first event was a spectacle featuring exotic animals. Animal hunts continued until the sixth century A.D. when they ceased with the rise of Christianity.
What was the Colosseum in Rome for?
When the Colosseum opened in 80 AD, a full program of games and events ran for 100 days. The first event was the opening parade, a procession with music that featured slaves and exotic wild animals. This was meant to excite the crowd and set the mood for the events that were about to begin.
The outer walls of the building contained 76 arches, with some numbered and serving as guides so citizens could find their seats. The first tier was reserved for the king, his family, and councilmen. The rest of the seating was for common folk.
Brutal but highly choreographed duels to the death were far and away the most popular kind of spectacle that took place in the arena. Criminals, barbarians, prisoners of war, and condemned Christians (called damnation) were killed in a variety of horrific but staged combats and dramas based on Roman mythology.
When a gladiator was gravely injured or killed, a unique ritual took place: 2 assistants dressed as Charon (ferryman of the dead) and Mercury (carrier to the gods) made their way across the sand, and checked if the vanquished warrior was dead by poking at the body with a warm poker.
Coleman agrees with Beste that gladiatorial fighting ceased sometime between the fifth and sixth century A.D., although the Colosseum continued to host animal hunts well into that period.
Animal hunts were a popular feature at the Colosseum and other amphitheaters across the empire. The emperor Antonius Pius boasted that he had staged games in which ‘all the animals of the whole earth’ were present; lions, elephants, hippos, and rhinoceroses were transported from Africa, panthers, tigers, and bears made the perilous journey from Asia, and wolves traveled from mysterious Caledonia (which was not yet part of Rome’s dominion).
The wild beasts were sometimes pitted against each other or specialist hunters known as venatores. The bloodthirsty crowds loved the spectacle. Even if Suetonius’ claim that 3,500 lions were killed in one show might be taken with a pinch of salt, the scale of the slaughter was nonetheless breathtaking.
When it was first opened, the Colosseum could hold up to 87,000 people. The seating was arranged in tiered sections reflecting the rigid social stratification of Rome’s upper classes. The emperor and Vestal Virgins had special seats.
The rioting spectators were provided with an array of sensory delights, besides gladiatorial fights and animal hunts. There were simulated forests on the arena floor and reenactments of historical battles.
As you walk around the ellipse of the arena today, it’s hard to imagine what the Colosseum looked like when it was in use. Its masonry walls are a bewildering pattern of whorls, rings, and chambers. It’s best to join a guided tour of the arena to unravel the mystery. The ruins are also home to many birds.
The Hypogeum is the hall behind the arena where the gladiators and wild animals would be brought before the fight. It is also where mock sea battles (for a short time as the structure was quickly built with systems to support other events), animal hunts, executions, and dramas based on Classical folklore took place.
When archaeologists excavated the first level of the Hypogeum they found beads, amulets, buttons made from shells, stone pendants, and pottery items that were probably worn as ornaments. They also discovered human bones.
Then they realized that paired vertical channels in some walls were likely to leave room for the revolving bars of large capstans used to lift cages and platforms. These were the mechanisms that powered the system for bringing prisoners of war, criminals, and condemned people into the arena to be slaughtered.