The Roman Colosseum
It was the age of antiquity. There were no mechanized tools, electrical equipment, gasoline powered pumps, motorized winches etc. There were no trucks that can haul tons of debris. There were no powerful bulldozer for quarrying and there were no computers to provide accurate architectural designs. But in the year 75 A.D. the Roman Emperor Vespasian started what perhaps is the most ambitious and most daring architectural project in the whole history of the Roman Empire.
This paper will take a closer look at Vespasian’s Roman Colosseum – also known as Roman Coliseum – which by the way was originally known as the Amphitheatrum Flavium. This paper will look at the context surrounding the construction and the related events that led to the groundbreaking construction project. It will also attempt to trace the impact made by the Colosseum in terms of the science and art in the creation of the colossal masterpiece.
Vespasian began toying with the idea as early as 72 AD. And finally started construction three years later in 75 AD. The purpose of the Colosseum is to make a tool that will in turn create a major diversionary tactic for the masses to be so much preoccupied and fully distracted so as not to dwell on the more important issues like the tyrannical rule of the Emperor for instance. Vespasian inherited the throne occupied by three previous Emperors who exited this world not by old age, sickness, or war but through the vengeful attack of citizens who could no longer stomach injustice, maltreatment, poverty, and corruption.
Vespasian was not the direct heir of the great Augustus Aurelius. This means that he was an outsider looking in. And since he was not born royalty he could observe what was happening at the capital from a distance and be able to fully grasp the politics from the point of view of the subjects as opposed to the abnormal view from the seat of power (see Suetonius).
As mentioned earlier the structure goes by more than a couple of names. The official name of the building – Amphitheatrum Flavium – was so called because Vespasian came from the Flavian family. An ancient historian named Suetonius remarked on the origin of the name as well as the critical history as to how the Flavian family played an important role in the establishment of a new Rome and he wrote, “The empire, which for a long time had been unsettled and as it were, drifting, through the usurpation and violent death three emperors, was at last taken in hand and given stability by the Flavian family” (2004, p. 290).
Thus, Vespasian was thrust into power through the force of popular uprising; it is therefore understandable why Vespasian could never rest easy knowing that the same masses of disgruntled citizens who helped him get access to the throne are the same group who can easily pull the rug from under him. Moreover, Vespasian was wise enough never to underestimate the mob. And so he instituted a plan to make them subjugated to his rule, channeling their violent energies towards the spectacle at the arena and not to the ruling family.
The architecture was impressive. There are a few colossal structures in antiquity that can rival the Colosseum in sheer size. But in the category of ancient superstructures, the Roman Amphitheatrum Flavium, stands above the rest in terms of the exquisite material used, cutting-edge design and sheer speed of delivery. It was completed in less than ten years. The amphitheater can easily accommodate 45,000 to 50,000 people. To fully appreciate this engineering marvel one only has to realize that even after close to 2,000 years after its construction there are only a few superstructures around the world that can sit that many people and provide for a functional facility where they can fully enjoy the performance from an audience point of view. Surely, there are places that can contain up to 50,000 or more people but the question remains if it can deliver the same impact – a suitable place that can provide entertainment for the large crowd.
The above-mentioned attributes was further explained by Hanser when he pointed out the intricacies and wizardry of the design and he began by defining the term Amphitheater;
‘Amphitheater’, which means ‘two theaters’ is a descriptive term derived from the shape. The characteristic Roman amphitheater looks like two Roman theaters placed so that their diameters coincide. In the theaters, however, the seating was arranged in semicircles, but an amphitheater is usually an oval rather than a circular form. This is a practical compromise of ideal sight lines… (2006, p. 143).
This simply means that a great number of people can be accommodated while considering the most efficient use of space and building materials.
The architect or architects who designed the Colosseum wanted a fully working facility alright but they did not want to make an ugly edifice just for the sake of being able to gather the masses in. They were very conscious or perhaps the Emperor made them very much aware that the project is a symbol of the Flavian family’s power and leadership prowess. Therefore, the best architectural techniques were employed.
According to Hugh Honour the main technique used was the “arch”. And he added that for the colossal structure, the arch was used extensively, that it was entirely composed of them “…in arcades which integrate the units of the design by rhythmic horizontal and vertical repetition. The orders follow the ascending sequence established by the Romans for multi-story buildings – Doric-Ionic-Corinthian. The sequence is purely aesthetic, the Doric being visually the heaviest and strongest and the Corinthian the lightest (2005, p. 191). This only means that if the Colosseum was built as a diversion then Vespasian is pushing the boundaries of ancient technology just so he can even surpass his own goals.
It seems then that Vespasian used all the clout and prestige of the Roman Empire to hire the best of the best, the crème dela crème of artists, artisans, and architects. And after gathering a dream team of builders he poured significant sums of money on the construction project because his rule depended very much upon its success.
At this point it would be interesting to know who the architect was; he is deserving of much honor and recognition as a brilliant designer and engineer. But there is no reliable information to determine for sure the identity of the chief architect that was hired to do this particular job. DuTemple was correct in saying that emperors were credited with architecture that they commissioned to be built even if they were almost never the one who designed the structure. But in this case since there is no accurate data it is simply for the sake of argument that Vespasian can be called as the architect especially if he is very much involved from planning to the minutest detail of the construction.
The irony in constructing such a beautiful structure can be found in its actual usage. For an amphitheater of this size and cost one would automatically think that it is for a grand purpose, or at least something that will be for the promotion of culture and the arts. If this stadium-like edifice was built in the 21st century, then one can be sure it will be put to good use by groups like Broadway (Opera and Plays) and in sports. High profile musicians will have no problem performing in such a well-designed stage.
But the true function of the Colosseum could only be described as coming from a barbaric mind. Again, it is difficult to understand how geniuses who can overcome the odds of creating a superstructure in ancient times could also be the same people who espouse a form of macabre entertainment to say the least. The Amphitheatrum Flavium was used to kill people and animals and then promote the program as part of a morbid sports fest and recreational activity rolled into one.
In the words of of DuTemple, “Many more died a gruesome death, providing entertainment for eager Roman spectators. Brutal torture often preceded death in the arena. Some criminals were burned alive. Others were devoured cruelly starved wild animals” (2003, p. 6). In the long run, human nature dictates that the regular attendees to these spectacles will get bored and would demand for more.
Marco Bussagli in his book Understanding Architecture, provided an insight into the mind of the rulers who instituted this form of recreational activity and he wrote, “The Coliseum provided the city with a permanent amphitheater, serving the policy of the Flavian emperors to give the people ‘bread and circuses’ (panem et circenses) to distract their attention from the dictatorial power of the rulers (2005, p. 230-231). Now it is clear that as amazing as the architectural plan was, it is nothing but a complex political ploy to gain the people’s favor.
It is surprising to find out that the Romans were transfixed on this major piece of architecture for years to come. It was truly a remarkable feat of engineering. As soon as it was completed there are many who wanted to duplicate the grandeur of the Colosseum. Watkin remarked that, “The impact of the Colosseum was widespread, smaller but still impressive versions of it surviving at Verona and Pola in Italy, and at Nimes and Arles in southern France” (2005, p. 64). But the trend did not stop in ancient times nor in the Medieval Ages. The influence of the Colosseum did not wane even until the modern age.
In the fall of 1914, the Yale Bowl was opened to the public. It was an architectural design modeled after the Colosseum (Bernstein, 2001, p. 101). Yet again, it was just the beginning. “There was a boom in stadium construction throughout the sporting world. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and many of the grand baseball parks … as were many of the great football arenas” (Bernstein, 2001, p. 101). It is difficult to imagine where modern architects can find the inspiration without the precedence of a Roman Colosseum.
Just like the ancient pyramids of Egypt, the Colosseum is a work of art that defies explanation. How can a group of people living hundreds of years before the Medieval Ages can come up with such great architecture. In a time when mechanization is millenniums away, in an era where people are so barbaric that they would consider mutilation and murder as a sick form of entertainment, the Colosseum stands almost like an aberration. It is a puzzle how can such a nation so crude in matters concerning government and civil rule can produce a marvel like the Colosseum.
The edifice was a work of a brilliant architect or a group of architects that history will not reveal. Their names buried in the ruins of Rome. The honor is then transferred to the Emperor who commissioned the work. Although it is more fitting to honor the architect who actually designed the Colosseum the project would not have been made possible without the strong political backing and leadership of Vespasian. It is the emperor who provided for the resources both in human capital and in the fund and fine materials needed to complete the project. Most importantly it was Vespasian’s vision of a huge structure that made it all possible.
The edifice was colossal it can seat 50,000 people and that alone is a reliable measure of what is worth. In the ancient world the Colosseum was a breakthrough that allowed future engineers to push the envelope in terms of design and engineering technology. The Colosseum was able to set a precedence, a trailblazer of sort that paved a way for smooth sailing for the next generation who will embark on the same daring journey.
Aside from the fact that the building was used for gladiator games and display of inhumane treatment to animals both exotic and wild, there is another interesting facet about the Colosseum. It was commissioned and designed to serve the political machination of Emperor Vespasian. Instead of being grateful for the masses who was instrumental in his successful bid to grab power from the former rulers of the land, the new Emperor hatched a brilliant plan to continually enslave the people. If he could not physically restrain them then he will simply control their minds. And for many years his plan worked. In fact it was so successful that his two sons were able to rule after his demise with very little opposition from the masses. It was just a testament to mob mentality and how they can be easily be made to focus in the present and never give a thought to what is best for the future.
Vespasian to a large extent was successful. His family enjoyed relative peace and quiet and the aforementioned string of emperor murders ended when the Flavian family ruled the Empire. It was a testament to Vespasian’s leadership prowess and insight that even after his death his son Titus continued the construction. When Titus could no longer lead, his brother continued to rule the realm.
In the end the Colosseum was hit on all sides by varied forces: a) after the gladiator games ended it was struck by an earthquake; c) centuries later it was stripped bare by quarrying to build palaces and churches (Porter & Prince, 2003, p. 145). The poet Lord Byron, translated the words of an 8th century saint who said:
While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
When Rome falls – the World.
This is simply a proof that the Colosseum was indeed a spectacle in itself even without the games.What would make a person living in the 8th century make such remarks. To be moved to such an extent as to use the Colosseum as the symbol of Roman might. To tie down the destiny of the Roman Empire to a building is truly a testament to the awesome grandeur of the amphitheater.
But in the end the Colosseum could not stand the test of time or the depravity of the ancient Romans. It is hard to believe that the society who enjoyed watching brutal murders and inhuman animal treatment could go on in perpetuity. The corruption trickled down from the top down and from the bottom rung of society the cancer spread until it weakened the backbone of the once mighty empire.
Rome fell to the barbarians. Then it was further decimated by internal turmoil. As the empire went down the drain it was more than coincidence that the Colosseum went after it. Now, there is barely little left of the once proud edifice. But even if what was left was a mere shell of its former self the mere sight of it still never fails to inspire and to many a jaw-dropping experience.
In its prime, the Colosseum was a wonder to behold. It was truly an impressive feat of engineering. Even in the modern world with the right equipment and enough resources it is still very hard to duplicate such a great work of art. But when it was destroyed Rome came down with it. But its influence lived on and one has to simply attend a major ballgame this coming weekend to know this for sure.
Bernstein, Mark. Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession. Pennsylvania:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Bussagli, Marco. Understanding Architecture. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. 2005.
DuTemple, Lesley. The Colosseum. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications
Hanser, David. Architecture of France. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing
Group, Inc., 2006.
Honour, Hugh. A World History of Art. UK: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2005.
Porter, Darwin & Prince, Danforth. Frommer’s Rome. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2003.
Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004.
Watkin, David. A History of Western Architecture. UK: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., 2005.
 Frommer’s Rome pointed out that the project was started in 72 AD, but most sources say 75 AD. This could mean that preparations were made three years prior to the actual construction.
 see DuTemple, here one can see the generally accepted starting point of the construction to be around 75 AD.
 this was taken from a translated work Lives of the Caesar, translated by Molly Dauster
 See DuTemple, Vespasian did not see the finished work, he died before the Colosseum can be completed. It was his son Titus who continued the project and opened it to the public in in 80 AD.
 see Watkin, the lines came from the pen of an eyewitness living at the same time when the Colosseum was completed