Perhaps no other structure symbolises ancient Rome as much as the Colosseum. It was the site of many gladiatorial contests, human sacrifices and fights between wild animals before crowds of more than 50,000 people. It was used in this manner from about AD 80 to AD 530 – nearly 500 years – during which time it was a place of incredible cruelty performed for the amusement of the large crowds that flocked to see the spectacles.
The Colosseum is a large multi level amphitheatre near the centre of the city of Rome. It was completed in AD 80 and was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, a structure designed to hold large crowds who came to see extravaganzas of fighting and killing in the central arena.
Gladiatorial contests, often fights to the death, were held as well as gladiators fighting specially imported wild beasts such as lions, tigers and leopards, with animals fighting other animals as an occasional variation. A special regular feature was the execution of condemned criminals by forcing them into the arena, unarmed, to face various types of wild animals where they were mauled to death before cheering thousands.
Some evidence also exists of the arena being flooded allowing mock naval battles to take place but there is doubt that this would have been technically possible.
Many Christians were reported to have been martyred at the Colosseum, popularly referred to as being “thrown to the lions”, but some scholars believe that most were killed at other venues around Rome, such as the Circus Maximus.
After the end of the era of the gladiators, around 530 AD, the Colosseum was used for a variety of purposes, including a cemetery, housing, workshops and a quarry when a great deal of stone was removed from the site for private use.
A turning point came in 1749 when Pope Benedict XIV declared the structure to be a sacred site and forbade further destruction. Gradual restoration of the ruins followed thereafter, and today the Colosseum is one of the world’s great tourist destinations, visited by millions every year.
Image: A gladiatorial battle at the Colosseum – from a painting by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1872, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.