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“Ave Caesar, those who are going to die salute you”. With this phrase the gladiators saluted the emperor during the parade prior to the contests that were to be held.
The Colosseum, originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre, is the most famous and representative monument in the Italian capital. Work began on it under the rule of Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, over the artificial lake that Nero had designed for his palace. But it was not until 80 AD that the building was opened by Titus, with games that it is said lasted for 100 days.
It is believed that the building may have taken its name from the enormous bronze statue of the Colossus of Nero that stood beside the amphitheatre. It is said that this sculpture was finally removed during the Middle Ages, and probably ended up in some foundry or other.
You will of course know that the Colosseum, as well as being a place for celebrations, was also a spot where many humans and animals were sacrificed. The fights were funded by the emperor himself and also by the upper classes of the time.
What perhaps you do not know is that the entrance to the venue was free for everyone. Spectators, of course, had to sit in the part of the stands according to their social class and profession. Thus the senators sat in the first level of the stands, along with the orchestra. Then came the seats of the knights and, higher up, those of the plebeians. In the upper level there was also a balcony where women, slaves and the poor could watch. The emperor and his family, of course, had their own podium in the lower part of the amphitheatre.
From this stand the emperors presided over the celebrations, which sometimes lasted several months. Normally, mornings were reserved for animal fights, midday for public executions, and the afternoons were for gladiator contests.
It is worth pointing out that, for these shows with animals, species were brought from Asia or North Africa, which the people of Rome were not accustomed to.
For the gladiator contests fighters were chosen from among convicted criminals and slaves. These were divided into categories depending on whether they went heavily armed and protected or just carrying nets and tridents. The fate of the gladiators depended on the mercy of the spectators, who had to raise their thumbs if they wanted the fighter to continue living, or show a thumbs-down if they wanted them to die. Needless to say, not very many escaped death. In fact, it is estimated that in these contests between 500,000 and one million people died. When this happened, the bodies were stretchered off the arena, and sand sprinkled over their blood so they could continue with a new combat.
Another interesting item of information you should know is that in the Colosseum spectacular naval battles were held, requiring the arena to be flooded with water. To do this, the amphitheatre possessed an elaborate system of channelling that enabled it to filled and emptied very quickly.
As time passed, gradually the importance of Christianity in Rome increased and the Colosseum lost its importance, the last contests being held there in the early 5th century. After its decline, the amphitheatre was used for different purposes, even being used as a cemetery.
During the papacy of Gregory I, the Colosseum, along with the majority of old monuments, fell into the hands of the Church, but it did not have enough resources to maintain it, so it soon fell into abandonment. Later, in 1084, Pope Gregory VII was expelled from the city and many monuments were acquired by noble Rome families. After this, it was the Frangipani family who became owners of the Colosseum, turning it into a type of fortress. However, in 1312, the amphitheatre returned to become the Church’s property.
If you ask yourself why the most emblematic construction of Rome is not exactly the best-conserved one, there are quite a few reasons. Firstly, passing from owner to owner did not help much. And secondly, the great earthquake of 1349 resulted in the collapse of the extreme south side. Moreover, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, the Travertine marble that covered the building was used to build other buildings in the city, such as the Palazzo Venezia or the Basilica di San Pietro.
This situation continued until Pope Benedict XIV declared the Colosseum a sacred place, due to the blood of the Christian martyrs that had been spilt there.
Today, the Colosseum is without doubt Rome’s number one tourist attraction, and has featured in the cinema on many occasions. If you want to get an idea of what it looked like in its days of glory, then just watch the film “Gladiator”, by Ridley Scott, where a faithful and spectacular digital reconstruction of the venue was made.
As a curiosity, in 1980 UNESCO declared the amphitheatre a World Heritage Site. And in 2007 it was designated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. So… now you can add another Wonder of the World to your private collection!
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