Ruin as abattoir, the Colosseum

Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater, or Amphitheatrum Flavium), c. 70-80 C.E., Rome, an ARCHES video

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] I’m with Dr. Bernie Frischer, and we’re here to talk about the single most famous monument that has come down to us from ancient Rome, the Colosseum.

Dr. Bernard Frischer: [0:15] I think that the image of the Colosseum in its decline, in its ruin, blurs the awful brutality of this abattoir, this place of death, and makes us think about, instead, the death of Roman civilization.

[0:29] And as the Renaissance put it, the very size of the ruins of ancient Rome suggests to us the grandeur of ancient Rome, but a grandeur that was always lost, and that left behind in later people a sense of nostalgia and regret and almost sentimentality that, in a certain sense, when you drill down and you study history, you can see is really unwarranted, because, at least for me, the Colosseum has always been a horrific place and not in the end my favorite building in ancient Rome.

[0:55] This area was the center of a vast palace that Nero built for himself. Where you now see this massive building, there was an artificial lake that Nero had here. So this big, heavy building with a 100,000 blocks of travertine, imagine the weight of that, is sitting on what you might think is rather swampy ground.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] When the Colosseum was built by a later Roman emperor, a Flavian emperor, it was in a sense a gift back to the city.

Dr. Frischer: [1:21] Yes, Nero was very unpopular. He actually committed suicide in 68 A.D. If he hadn’t done that, he would have been brought back to Rome, tried, and executed.

[1:30] The very next emperor, Vespasian, the first Flavian emperor, had the idea of giving this 100 to 150 acres of prime land, right in the middle of the city, back to the people of Rome. What better way to do that than to create some public monuments where the favorite spectacles of Rome could be enjoyed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] The Romans didn’t call this the Colosseum.

Dr. Frischer: [1:50] No, they called it the Flavian Amphitheater. It only started to be called the Colosseum in the Middle Ages.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] That was because there had been a colossal statue next to it.

Dr. Frischer: [2:00] A statue of the sun god that the emperor Hadrian moved right next to the Colosseum. It was about 100 feet tall. It was really massive.

Dr. Zucker: [2:09] Now, the building is not in great condition, the result of earthquakes and pillaging. In a sense, later Romans saw all of the stone that was available for building in their own houses, but we can still make out some of the exterior decoration. Certainly, we can see that the Romans are thinking back to the ancient Greek traditions.

Dr. Frischer: [2:27] In fact, they kind of are summing up the history of Greek architecture by piling one order or style of architecture on top of the other. At the very top, you have the Corinthian order, actually the top two stories. The second story is in the Ionic order and the lower story might look to you like the Doric order, but actually it’s a Italic variation on that that we call the Tuscan order.

Dr. Zucker: [2:50] The way that we would get inside is to walk through one of these archways. We’re seeing here one of the great innovations of Roman architecture.

Dr. Frischer: [2:57] The building is made in the lower three stories of the arches, for which the Romans are famous, and there’s no greater example of that than here at the Colosseum.

[3:06] Almost every one of the 80 arches on the entry level was numbered. 76 of the 80 were numbered. The four axial entrances, so the one on the west, the east, the south and the north, they didn’t have numbers. Those were the main entrances over which was probably the dedicatory inscription by Vespasian, saying that he had given this to the Roman people as a gift from the spoils of the Jewish War.

[3:30] We think the treasure that he found in the captured temple of the Jews at Jerusalem paid for this great structure.

Dr. Zucker: [3:38] All of these other gateways were direct entrance, and so your ticket presumably corresponded to a particular entryway that would lead you towards your seat.

Dr. Frischer: [3:46] The 76 entrances that were numbered were keyed to a number on the ticket of the roughly 50,000 spectators who we think could fit into the Colosseum, so they knew which doorway to go into. The majority had to go through a very dark and low corridor on the second story of the building on the way to their seats, and this would have slowed them down.

Dr. Zucker: [4:08] We can get a sense of just how enclosed that space is if we look at some of the interior barrel-vaulted rings that surround the Colosseum.

Dr. Frischer: [4:15] The Colosseum looks very simple on the outside, but it has a very complex interior structure of corridors and stairways that eventually take you right to the level of your seat.

Dr. Zucker: [4:27] The cheaper seats are higher up, away from the action.

Dr. Frischer: [4:30] The emperor, magistrates, and priests sat in the lowest seats. Behind them sat the senators. Behind them, the wealthy businessmen. Above them — now we’re getting pretty high up — the plebeians, the common folk who didn’t have that much money. At the very top were the foreigners, slaves, and, yes, the women. They sat only on temporary wooden seats.

Dr. Zucker: [4:54] As opposed to the more finished marble seats that would’ve existed below this.

Dr. Frischer: [4:57] The marble seats were inscribed with the names of the categories of people who were allowed to sit there.

Dr. Zucker: [5:01] But what did everybody come to see?

Dr. Frischer: [5:03] Well, there were three things that typically went on in the Colosseum on a typical day when it was open for business, so to speak. First, there were the animal hunts in the morning. The Romans imported exotic, fearsome animals like tigers and lions and elephants and rhinoceroses from Africa and brought them to Rome and slaughtered them in these animal hunts in the Colosseum.

[5:26] In the afternoon, it was the gladiatorial combats, but before the gladiatorial combats, whenever appropriate, you had the execution of prisoners, sometimes in shockingly colorful and imaginative ways.

[5:39] The most remarkable thing about these executions is precisely that they took place at midday. That is, at the lunch hour, so you can imagine that the Romans were sitting there enjoying their lunch while watching these gruesome spectacles, which even included people being burnt at the stake or being tied to the stake and being mauled to death by animals.

Dr. Zucker: [5:55] You can see why in the later history of this building, these earlier events were seen by the church and by Christian pilgrims as gruesome expressions of this pagan past.

Dr. Frischer: [6:05] Later on, there was the idea that many Christians suffered martyrdom here in the Colosseum. We do hear of a few, but very few Christians, who were martyred in the Colosseum.

Dr. Zucker: [6:15] Nevertheless, this space did become sanctified and became an important pilgrimage site.

Dr. Frischer: [6:20] Even we who love ancient Rome and Roman civilization have to recognize that the Colosseum was a kind of an abattoir. It was a place of death, of slaughter, whether of animals or people. And of course not just the people who [were] condemned to death, but the gladiators themselves often ended up, when they lost, being killed.

Dr. Zucker: [6:37] Even more uncomfortable, I think for us in the 21st century, is the collision between the idea of death and the idea of the theatrical.

Dr. Frischer: [6:45] However, we too clearly love to view acts of violence, and we may not be as superior to the Romans as we sometimes think.

Dr. Zucker: [6:52] We’re seeing a large, flat plain, but we’re seeing areas below, in a sense the stage that we would not have seen when this building was in use.

Dr. Frischer: [6:59] We have to think of the Colosseum in a sense, as a stage. The word “amphitheater” means a double theater. The very name of the Colosseum evokes its theatricality, and the arena floor was made up of wood planks.

[7:13] These wood planks were punctuated every couple of meters with a trapdoor. Those trapdoors were the caps to elevators which were operated manually by slaves and were used to bring animals up to the floor level for the animal hunts, or the scenery and props for the spectacles that went on here, including the gladiatorial combats, which sometimes were staged as, for example, famous battles in history.

[7:38] We have on record some incredible spectacles that occurred here with the coronation of a new emperor. There were the sacrifice of thousands of animals in the hunts, of hundreds of gladiators. These were very expensive spectacles that occurred on very important occasions and that required all the power and resources of the empire to make happen.

Dr. Zucker: [7:59] I can imagine myself, a Roman citizen in the 1st century, sitting here watching these brutal events unfold, but I’m also thinking about my physical comfort.

Dr. Frischer: [8:07] We know that there was a detachment of marines who had a camp right across the street from the Colosseum, and they manned the ropes of this great awning that went right around the top of the Colosseum.

[8:19] We call it the “velarium,” which just means “the great awning.” Those ropes seem to have been supported by very long planks, perhaps 60 feet long, up at the top level of the Colosseum. Then they looped around at the ground level through bollards, a couple of which still surviving, and you can see when you visit the Colosseum today.

Dr. Zucker: [8:38] It makes sense that the wealthiest and most powerful Romans would be down close to the action, but that also, in a sense, endangers them.

Dr. Frischer: [8:45] The emperor himself had a tunnel that went from the Caelian Hill right to his box in the Colosseum. Taking his seat at the lowest level did make him subject to possibly a angry gladiator. These gladiators were slaves after all. They had no reason to be particularly happy.

[8:59] Why couldn’t a gladiator take his spear or his sword and just assassinate the emperor? Well, he couldn’t because netting protected the spectators in the lowest seats.

[9:08] As far as the animals go, they were kept away from the spectators by a ditch that was dug around the arena and by stakes that kept them from crossing the ditch and jumping up into the seats.

Dr. Zucker: [9:21] It’s interesting to think about the way that our archaeological knowledge, our knowledge of history, sometimes is at odds with the more romantic notions that come, for instance, from 19th century paintings of the Colosseum, the ideas that come out of our religious traditions regarding this.

[9:35] This is a building that has captured our imagination since its construction and continues to be this symbol of Rome’s power, of Rome’s brilliance, but also its despotism.

[9:45] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Bernard Frischer and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Ruin as abattoir, the Colosseum," in Smarthistory, July 19, 2020, accessed June 17, 2024,