Why is the Colosseum the first stop on our Rome Guided Tours? Because it is the symbol of Rome, the city’s most visited archaeological site, and the monument that makes us famous all over the world.
This page walks you through this incredible monument, bringing to life its fascinating history, the tale of its construction, and the stories of its spectators and victims. Because even though the Colosseum is one of the most globally recognized monuments, it still has its secrets.
The father and son who built it
The Colosseum was built during the reigns of the emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus, in the 70s AD.
Vespasian was the first of the Flavian family to become emperor, taking to the throne after a short but intense period of civil war following the emperor Nero's suicide in 68 AD.
Because its founder was a Flavian, the Colosseum was consecrated with the Latin name: Amphitheatrum Flavium (the Flavian Amphitheater).
Busts of Vespasian (left) and Titus
The Colosseum's bloody background
When Vespasian came to the throne in December 70 AD, Rome had just been through a year of bloody civil war. Nero's death had left a power vacuum which three successive generals tried to fill by marching on Rome and declaring themselves emperor.
None lived long. The shortest-lived emperor was Otho, who ruled for just three months. The one who lasted longest was Vitellius, who lasted eight. He also met the worst fate though, being stripped, beaten, and incised with thousands of little cuts around the Roman Forum.
The Death of Vitellius by Georges Rochegrosse (1883)
Vespasian was the fourth and final of these imperial aspirants. A successful and popular general, he had been sent to Judea to put down the Great Jewish Revolt. His popularity with the army and political connections meant they supported him as emperor. Meeting Vitellius' forces in battle and then marching on Rome, before long he took up his throne.
Following this period of violence and upheaval, Vespasian knew that, if he wanted to last longer than his predecessors, he had to offer Rome peace and prosperity, appearing as an emperor for the people rather than a power-grabbing general out for himself.
His great gift would be the Colosseum. And he would fund it through conquest.
Funding the Colosseum
While Vespasian was travelling back to Rome, Titus, his son, continued the campaign in Judea. In the summer of 70 AD, the Romans had a breakthrough, capturing Jerusalem. It was far from peaceful. The Romans sacked the city completely, slaughtering its inhabitants and razing the Temple.
According to Josephus, a contemporary Jewish writer, over a million people were slain.
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by David Roberts (1850)
The sack of one Eternal City injected vast wealth and manpower into the other. Those that survived the slaughter in Jerusalem were sold into slavery (and many transported back to Rome). Almost immediately, they were put to work on building an enormous amphitheater paid for from the melting down and sale of Jerusalem's valuable booty, including its invaluable treasures looted from the Temple.
Returning Rome to the Romans
It was built on the site of an artificial lake which made up just a small area of Nero's incredible Domus Aurea.
The Domus Aurea (Golden House) was the ultimate vanity project, built by a megalomaniacal emperor drawing on the vast wealth of empire. It comprised not just an enormous palace with pools, fountains, artificial grottos and even a rotatable dining room, but also a vast open terrace overlooking the Roman Forum and woodland in which wild animals roamed free.
When it was completed, Nero is believed to have said, "Now, I can finally start living like a human being!"
Reconstruction of Nero's Domus Aurea
Vespasian's choice to build the amphitheater on Nero's private land was important. Nero had been a tyrant, obsessed with personal projects culminating in the Domus Aurea. In building the Colosseum, a public monument intended to enthral and entertain, Vespasian made the gesture that he was returning Rome to the people.
The Colosseum's name
As already mentioned, in antiquity the Colosseum was known as the Flavian Amphitheater after its founder, Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian). The name by which we know the monument "Colosseum," came from the presence of a colossal bronze statue of the unhinged emperor Nero (the "Colossus").
But this was no normal statue. Being the megalomaniac that he was, Nero decided to model himself on (and portray himself as) the strongest god of all: Sol, or 'the Sun.'
The Colosseum's first games
The Colosseum's inauguration in 80 AD couldn't come soon enough for the emperor Titus. The first year of his reign, 80 AD, had been marred by one catastrophic disaster after another, starting with the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, followed by a devastating fire in Rome, and, finally for good measure, a plague.
The opening games of his amphitheater would, he hoped, appease the gods and provide some light distraction in the eyes of the public. To make sure he did this right, he put on a show that lasted more than 100 days.
These inaugural games included wild animal hunts, criminal executions, and recreations of famous mythical and historical events (mainly battles). We're even told that the emperor procurred no less than 5,000 animals from across the emperor to be slaughtered for the crowd's entertainment.
One particular event from the first day is recorded in great detail: a one-on-one gladiatorial combat between two veterans, Verus and Priscus. Below is how the contemporary writer Martial described it:
While Priscus continued to draw out the contest, and Verus likewise, and for a long time the struggle was evenly balanced on both sides, discharge was demanded for the stout fighters with loud and frequent shouting; but Caesar obeyed his own law (the law was that once the palm had been set up the fight had to proceed until a finger was raised): he did as he was allowed, making frequent awards of plate. Still, a resolution was found for the contest, equal they fought, equal they yielded. To both Caesar awarded the wooden sword and the palm: thus courage and skill received their reward. This has happened under no emperor but you, Caesar: two men fought and two men won.
8:30 am - 7:00 pm
How to get to the Colosseum
The easiest way to arrive is by metro (at the station Colosseo on the B line). Single tickets cost €1.50 and a range of longer passes are available from kiosks or ticket machines.
When to visit the Colosseum
The Colosseum's macabre beauty shines even stronger at night; there's no better time to explore this global icon and learn about its stories. That's why we run a Colosseum by Night Tour - so you can experience its monumental magnificence in the absence of its admirers.
What happened inside the Colosseum?
The Colosseum's main spectacles were gladiatoral battles and wild animal hunts. But this wasn't not all. Sometimes, the Romans would flood the Colosseum so they could reenact famous naval battles. Later, with the rise of Christianity, the Colosseum became the site of executions and - consequenly - martyrdoms.
What about the gladiators?
Ah yes, the gladiators. In antiquity, the Colosseum was most famous for the armored warriors who battled there. These men were excellent fighters - very expensive and unfalteringly brave. But they were actually prisoners, who had been sold (and in some cases had even voluntarily sold themselves) into slavery.
They fought to gain their freedom, and attended Gladiator School to help them do so, learning the requisite skills to help lengthen their life expectancy. But away from the blood and sand, their lifestyle wasn't so bad. Gladiators were in fact celebrities, the A-listers of their day. Lusted after by noblewomen, and by noblemen as well.
One myth, perpetuated in no small part by Ridley Scott's Gladiator, is that Rome's gladiators always died. While it may be intriguing to imagine such daily slaughter, the truth is that gladiators were commodities. Just like the slaves who made up much of Roman society, gladiators were valued on the basis of the monetary return they could bring their masters. Considering how much it cost to train gladiators up, their masters thought twice about getting them killed (or about earning the fury of a rival by killing their gladiators).
What did the Colosseum look like?
The Colosseum's exterior consists of eight arches and engaged columns. Its fourth order is divided into panels interspersed with windows, which once housed magnificent statues.
What few people know is that there was initially a masonry and wooden structure capable of supporting a huge roof or awning. The Romans used this retractable roof to protect spectators from the rain and sun. Wandering around the Colosseum some days in summer, you sometimes can't help but feel this would still be welcomed.
The stands were made up of marble steps and the arena made from wood and sand. It was, in fact, the Latin word for 'sand' (harena) that gives us the word "arena".
In the basement, there were cellars and tunnels of the Colosseum Underground. It was here where the Romans housed wild beasts and props for the shows.
With our exclusive Colosseum Underground Tour, you can visit this fascinating part as well.
The Colosseum is now made up of two levels which provide sweeping panoramas over the amphitheater's interior. On the top, you can visit the temporary exhibitions. These tell the stories of the lives of the gladiators, recounting the tales of those who fought and died there.
There's also the souvenir shop, where you can pick up a lasting memento - though not a memento mori which are generally best avoided!