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Animals in the Colosseum

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The Colosseum was a ‘wonder’ of Rome when it was new, almost nineteen hundred years ago, partly because of its size and partly because the circumstances under which it was built made it one of the world’s great ‘gallery plays’. ‘Here, where the far-seen Amphitheatre lifts its mass august,’ wrote Martial, ‘was Nero’s mere.’ Vespasian had drained the artificial lake in the gardens of Nero’s Golden House and begun upon its site this vast theatre for the games and spectacles dear to Roman hearts, which his son Titus was to finish.

Nero, last emperor of the line of Caesar and Augustus, had died by his own hand, hated by the people and the army and declared a public enemy by the Senate. Within a year, the Roman legions nominated three successors, also doomed to quick and violent deaths. Vespasian, the final candidate, was more fortunate. A popular general, who was waging a successful siege against Jerusalem when he was chosen emperor, he returned to Rome and set about the task of blotting out the evil memory of Nero.

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The Colosseum was practically ready for use when Vespasian died in A.D. 79. Titus opened it, still unfinished, in A.D. 80, with magnificent gladiatorial games and naval contests for which the arena was flooded. It was completed by Domitian, Titus’ brother and successor, but had to be restored several times because of fires due to lightning.

Standing isolated beyond the Forum, in the low spot between the Palatine, Esquiline, and Caelian hills, this new amphitheatre was easily accessible from the heart of the ancient city, yet isolated enough to permit the easy movement of crowds. It could seat about forty-five thousand, and probably had standing room for about five thousand more in its upper gallery. Its great oval shell was about one-third of a mile in circumference, its longer axis measuring about 617 feet, its shorter about 512. The long axis, whose entrances were used for processions, runs parallel with the Roman Forum, roughly southeast and northwest. The imperial seats were at the south side, facing along the shorter axis, to give a closer view of the spectacles. Immense awnings, handled by sailors from the imperial fleet, sheltered the spectators.

Though the peripheral of the great building is striking by reason of its severe and solid bulk, its outstanding feature was its perfect adaptation to the handling of large and potentially unruly crowds. Seventy-six of its eighty arcades were numbered; the tickets bore corresponding numbers, so that holders could find their way directly to their seats from the appropriate entrance without crowding the corridors. It was a structure to delight the practical Vespasian and the architectural engineers who had built it.

The Colosseum’s builders followed much the same principle as that employed in steel construction today, except that for the skeleton framework of piers and arches they used hard travertine stone. The outer walls are of the same stone; the inner ones are composed of several kinds of stone and concrete, with or without brick facings. Metal cramps reinforced the joining of the stones; the holes now so noticeable in the walls were made in the centuries following the decline of Rome by those who dug out these cramps for their metal or for the lead which was sometimes used with them.

The tradition that Christians by the thousands were martyred in the arena grew up in comparatively late times. Some may have suffered here during various persecutions, but, needless to say, not in those of Nero’s day, as the site was then the emperor’s lake. The last gladiatorial games were held in the Colosseum in A.D. 404; emperors from the time of Constantine had tried to stop them without success. The last recorded animal sports are mentioned in 523.

The ancient Romans called this building the Flavian Amphitheatre from the family of Flavius to which Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, belonged. The present name came into use some time during the early Middle Ages. The first-known mention of the amphitheatre as the Colosseum is in an eighth-century Latin work traditionally ascribed to the English monk and historian, Bede. The writer of this work quotes a current Saxon pilgrim’s proverb: Quandiu stabit Coliseus, stabit et Roma; quando cadet Coliseus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus, which

Some have held that this proverb referred not to the amphitheatre but to the colossal bronze statue of Nero which stood nearby, remodelled by later emperors as a sun god. No one knows just when this colossus fell-the last known reference to it in ancient times was in A.D. 354 when it was mentioned as the ‘crowned colossus’ in connection with a spring festival of garland sellers along the Sacred Way. It had probably disappeared by Bede’s time, for the eighth-century Einsiedeln Itinerary did not mention it, although its fame lingered throughout the Middle Ages. It seems more likely that such a proverb would grow up about an immense and enduring building than about a statue which was only one of several of its kind in Rome, and that the building was first called ‘colossal amphitheatre’ and then ‘colosseum’ because of its great size.

The Colosseum was damaged by earthquakes in the fifth and sixth centuries, again in 847, and perhaps in the fourteenth century as well. Originally it was entirely surrounded by a double arcade, but in the course of these earthquakes the outer ring of arches fell along the whole southwestern side, forming a mountainous quarry which for centuries furnished building material for the palaces and churches of Rome.

Such plundering stopped in the eighteenth century, and early in the nineteenth the popes began to strengthen the broken ends of the walls with buttresses. Unbroken though it looks from its least damaged side, less than half of the great building stands today.

Medieval tradition played strange tricks with the purpose and appearance of the Colosseum. The early form of the Mirabilia simply mentions it, saying, “Before the Colosseum was the temple of the Sun”–referring, perhaps, to the nearby Temple of Venus and Rome. A later version embellished this simple statement to read: “The Colosseum was the temple of the Sun, of marvellous greatness and beauty, disposed with many diverse vaulted chambers, and all covered with an heaven of gilded brass, where thunders and lightnings and glittering fires were made, and where rain was shed through slender tubes. Besides this there were the Signs supercelestial and the planets Sol and Luna, that were drawn along in their proper chariots.” (Lethaby, 1892)

Here there seem to be confused echoes of the ‘old chronicles’ to which the twelfth-century compiler of the Mirabilia referred. One of these may have been the description by Suetonius of Nero’s Golden House, written about half a century after that emperor’s death: “There were dining rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.” The Middle Ages, from whatever source they had their information, took the Mirabilia’s description literally and pictured the Colosseum with a dome. (Morris, 1999)

The ruins of the ancient building have seen many uses. There are records of mystery plays held there in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1490 the Confraternity of the Gonfalone, a group of citizens vowed to charitable works, produced in the Colosseum the first of its Passion Plays–a mystery in seven acts in the Roman dialect. Arnold of Harff, a German visitor to Rome in 1497, wrote of seeing: ‘A magnificent ancient palace, called the Colosseum, round in shape, vaulted and with various orders of architecture, and having in its centre a round open space surrounded by steps which made it possible to ascend to the upper part. In ancient times, they say, men sat on these steps to watch combats between gladiators and wild beasts. I saw there, on Holy Thursday, the Passion of Jesus Christ. Living men represented the Flagellation, the Crucifixion, the Death of Judas, and so forth. Those who took part were youths of well-to-do families and everything was conducted with great order and decorum.’

In the early centuries AD the Roman Empire was at its height, controlling much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Roman law and language influenced most of Western civilization. Roman engineering produced the arch and the use of concrete, which made possible the construction of the Colosseum.

The Colosseum was the scene of many amazing spectacles. There were some staged events of theatrical nature, but most of the entertainment involved death. Gladiators, often slaves or convicted criminals, were forced to fight each other to the death. Whoever survived the combat in the arena would be allowed to live and fight again. The most victorious gladiators eventually became very wealthy and respected by the people of Rome.

The Colosseum was four stories high and 157 feet tall. The whole building was 620 feet long and 513 feet wide. When it was built, the Colosseum was the largest building of its kind ever constructed.

Inside the Colosseum was an oval arena 287 feet long by 180 feet wide. Seats for over 145,000 spectators rose up from the arena floor in a series of levels. Behind a protective wall was the podium or marble terrace. This is where the emperor and governors sat. Above the podium were rows of marble seats. The first section was reserved for distinguished private citizens; the next was for the middle class. A third area was designated for slaves and foreigners and still a fourth (the highest) for women and the poor, who sat on wooden seats.

A huge velarium or colored awning could be pulled over the seating area to protect the spectators from rain and sun. The emperor employed a group of sailors to work the complex ropes and fabric of the velarium.

The Colosseum was also remarkable from the exterior. There were 80 numbered entrances on the first level, allowing spectators to enter and find their seats quickly. On the second and third levels the Colosseum was decorated with a series of arches, each containing a statue. The fourth level had no statues, but there was a small window in every other arch to provide light to the passageway inside.

In addition to the criminals many Christians were martyred in the Colosseum. According to the Roman view, not worshipping Roman gods was a crime punishable by death. Like other criminals, these Christians were tied to stakes and devoured by wild animals or thrown into pits filled with lions. There were mock battles fought in the Colosseum where gladiators dressed in soldiers’ uniforms acted out historic battles. The entire floor could be flooded and sea battles staged with real ships.

The Colosseum was furthermore a place of wild animal hunts. The ground of the Colosseum would be crammed with dirt and trees where hunters would stalk and kill wild animals. Although the animals occasionally killed the hunters, far more common was the destruction of the animal. Partly because of the games held in the Colosseum, several species of animals became extinct. Most of the hippopotami in Egypt, the elephants in Northern Africa, and the lions in the Middle East were killed.

Emperor Honorius (AD 395-423) banned the sacrificing of humans in the Colosseum and put an end to the gladiator fights. The killing of animals for entertainment continued for at least the next hundred years.

            The Venerable Bede’s prophecy may still prove to be correct. Although people, in their quest for power, prosperity, and progress, have caused considerable damage to the Colosseum, as well as to Rome, both still stand, and the world continues.

Begun during the rule of the Roman emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69-79), the Colosseum was officially dedicated the year after his death by his son and successor, Titus. The Colosseum was not completed, however, until A.D. 82, the year after Titus died. Within its walls, surrounded by a dazzling display of splendor and extravagance, the poorest citizen could share in the wealth and power of the empire. No mention or any riot or uncontrollable crowd appears in any of the works by the ancient authors.

For generations, the splendor and size of the gladiatorial combats and other games held in the Colosseum increased as each emperor attempted to outdo his predecessor. Gradually, however, as Christianity and its philosophy of the value of life began to spread across the Roman world, the spectacles ceased to appeal to the masses. Early in the fifth century, an fuming monk named Telemachus leapt into the arena in an attempt to snatch the weapons from two gladiators. The crazed spectators turned on the man and stoned him to death. Soon after, Roman legislators passed a law forbidding gladiatorial combat. The venationes (fights between animals or between animals and men) continued, however, until the sixth century.

Earthquakes in 492 and 508 caused some portions of the Colosseum to fall. The collapse of half of the outer shell was probably the result of a ninth-century earthquake. Contemporary accounts note that fallen blocks of travertine (a type of limestone) and other decorations were hauled away to build structures such as palaces and bridges. In fact, entire buildings were constructed using pieces of the Colosseum. Even the marble façade was stripped and reused, and several of the marble chairs once used by Roman senators and dignitaries stand today in Rome’s churches.

Yet, the Colosseum was never completely vacant. From time to time, squatters lived there. A powerful Italian family once used it as their home and fortress. The arcades became chapels, and religious plays were performed within its walls. In the 14th century, bullfights were held in the arena. The destruction continued, however, as cartload after cartload of travertine blocks was hauled away. In the 18th century, the Colosseum became a depository for manure, which was used in the production of saltpeter, an ingredient needed to make explosives.

Decades later, it was consecrated to the memory of the Christians who had suffered martyrdom within its walls. Today, scholars believe that no Christians were killed in the Colosseum.

Gradually, the willful destruction ceased as people again began to appreciate the Colosseum’s historical value. Today, the focus is on strengthening and preserving its walls and inner structure. Efforts are also being made to curb the noise, air, and environmental pollution that still threaten the magnificent structure.

From looking at the symbolic facts, one might put on the impression that the Romans always visualized the rhinoceros in its natural habitat. But Pompey’s games of 55 BC were the first of a long series of occasions on which rhinoceroses were displayed before audiences at Rome. The association of rhinoceroses with the Nile probably caused them to be included, alongside hippopotami, in the triumphal procession in 29 BC when Octavian (later to be known as the emperor Augustus) celebrated his victory over Cleopatra. Then, as the popularity of wild-beast shows at Rome increased, rhinoceroses were pitted against other ferocious animals in the arena: in the memorial games for his stepson Drusus in AD 6, Augustus staged a fight between a rhinoceros and an elephant. At the dedication of the Colosseum by the emperor Titus in AD 80, a rhinoceros attacked a bull and tossed it into the air `like a straw dummy’. This rhinoceros is described as `tilted forward’ for the attack, an expression which exactly fits the posture of the White rhinoceros: it charges with its head lowered with the result that the hump on the back of its neck stands out and makes its headlong dash look all the more menacing.

When Vespasian began the construction of the Colosseum he called it the Flavian Amphitheater. (Flavius was a family name.) He died before it was finished and his son, Titus, took over as emperor from AD 79-81. In AD 80 Titus held a grand opening ceremony for the Colosseum even though the construction was not yet completed. His younger brother, Domitian, who was emperor from AD 81-96, actually supervised the final stages of the construction.

The building of the Colosseum was a challenging undertaking. The architects and engineers chose their materials carefully, using lighter volcanic stones in many places to reduce the overall weight of the structure. One of the main types of stone used was travertine, a local limestone. Travertine blocks were placed in a series of rings, one within the other, that were then connected by walls made of concrete and other materials.

The impression that this Colosseum specimen was a White rhinoceros is confirmed by another poem from the cycle commemorating these inaugural games, which describes what was most likely the same animal. This time its terrified keeper had to goad the lumbering creature into action: the animals in the arena must often have been too placid by nature and, under the circumstances, too frightened to display the savage behavior expected of them; furthermore, initial docility is characteristic of the White rhinoceros. When this one did finally attack the other animals in the ring, it tossed a bear and then two bullocks, a buffalo and a wisent (a kind of bison), and won great admiration from the spectators. Its movement in tossing the bullocks was `a jerk of its neck’, a phrase which conveys the posture of a charging rhinoceros: head down to impale its victim on its horns, and then tossed sharply backwards to throw the victim into the air. Finally, Titus’s rhinoceros chased a lion which, in its efforts to escape, rushed towards the edge of the ring, where armed attendants were stationed ready to spear any runaway animals to death. The lion’s plight is confirmed by modern knowledge of the veld: the rhinoceros is one of the few animals that lion go out of their way to avoid, and, if an encounter occurs, the rhirioceros is invariably the winner.

The heroic rhinoceros displayed in Titus’s games may not only be the one whose exploits we hear of in greatest detail; we may also have a portrait of it, if it is the same specimen depicted on a coin minted by the emperor Domition at least three years after Titus’s games. The purpose of this coin-issue was to advertise the exotic fauna which the emperor displayed at Rome for the entertainment of his people. Indeed, right into the second century and beyond, emperors continued to exhibit rhinoceroses at Rome; one of the latest datable references is to a rhinoceros displayed by Philip the Arab at the celebrations held in AD 248 to smudge the thousandth centenary of Rome’s renowned founding in 753 BC.

Today the rhinoceros is at risk of extinction because its horn, ground down, fetches exorbitant prices for its supposedly aphrodisiac properties. Yet the Romans seem merely to have used the horn, intact, as an oil flask; to them, the animal itself was an object of intense curiosity for its outlandish appearance and its physical strength. In the arena, in contrast to modern methods of poaching, it was at least given a chance to fight for its life; and one famous specimen certainly acquired a following of fans among the 45 000 spectators in the Colosseum. If de-horning specimens in the wild today is the only way to guarantee their survival, it is a great irony that this animal will no longer live up to the graphically descriptive name by which the Greeks designated it for posterity.

The Colosseum was damaged by several severe earthquakes in the 5th century. With the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476, fewer events were held there. By AD 590 it had become overgrown with weeds and grass. For many years Romans used the Colosseum as an easy source for stones needed in various building projects. Pope Nicholas I authorized the removal of about 2,000 cartloads of stone from the Colosseum to produce new buildings.

There was little attempt to maintain or restore the Colosseum until the middle of the 19th century when Pope Leo XII ordered some supports for the collapsing stone archways. Since that time others have attempted to do what they could to insure that the Colosseum would still stand. The greatest danger now is pollution from the large metropolitan city of Rome, and the thousands of tourists who visit this most well known of ancient ruins, eager to see a piece of history.


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Animals in the Colosseum. (2016, Jun 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/animals-in-the-colosseum/

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