sE' um, a large building for sporting
events, exhibitions, etc.
The Colosseum was begun in 72
A.D. by Emperor Vespasian, completed by his son
Titus in 80 A.D., and expanded during the reign
of Domitian (81-96). Officially known as the
Flavian Amphitheatre under the Roman Empire, it
is believed to have gotten its more common name
from a huge statue of Nero that once stood nearby
(applying the Latin word for "huge" or
"enormous" for the general area), since
it was built on the site of an artificial lake
constructed by the greatly disliked Emperor.
The Colosseum was for centuries
the largest public building in the world.
Elliptical in shape, the structure measures 615
feet in length by 510 feet in width, and its
outer wall once stood 157 feet high. The inner
arena is 282 feet by 207 feet, and there was once
enough seating to accomodate about 50,000
spectators. Those spectators were seated
according to social status, with the elite
occupying the lowermost rows and the poorest the
topmost (there were four separate levels). A
total of eighty separate entrances were
strategically placed around the perimeter and the
entire facility could be emptied of people in a
matter of minutes. An elaborate two-tiered
structure under the arena floor (known as a hypogeum)
was used for storage and the transporting of
animals and fighters into an out of the arena.
There was also a system of elevators and other
gadgets that allowed workers to make animals and
scenery "magically" appear and
disappear. A retractible awning (Velarium)
manipulated by slaves allowed as much as
two-thirds of the arena to be sheltered from the
sun or wind.
The Colosseum was built as an
entertainment venue, and was used in that
capacity until about 435 A.D. It was the site of
gladiatorial contests, sporting events, public
executions, dramatic productions, animal hunts,
and even full-scale mock land and sea battles.
Any prominent Roman citizen with sufficient
resources could sponsor an event, and some events
lasted for days. Because it was built for the
Roman public to enjoy, citizens of the Empire
were never required to pay for admission.
After the Roman Empire came to
an end the Colosseum was used for housing and
workshops, as a fortress, and as quarters for a
religious order. Repeated damage from earthquakes
had rendered the structure unsafe for use by the
early 19th century, after which much of the
building stone was stripped away for use
elsewhere. Serious efforts to stop further
deterioration did not begin until the 20th
century, and a major stabilization project was
completed during the rule of Benito Mussolini.
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