There are few places still left in the world where you can literally stand on the soil of antiquity and feel the ancient past vibrate through the crumbling stones, especially one as time-worn and symbolic as the Roman Colosseum. A physically exceptional feat, this massive limestone amphitheater, first commissioned in 70 CE by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty and completed ten years later, is the largest such arena ever built and one of the greatest examples of Roman architecture and engineering in existence today. It is also a precious link to the beloved age of the gladiator and an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome, when the government was run by legendary emperors like Nero, who murdered his own mother, executed his first wife for being barren, burned his own city for personal gain, brought down the glorious rebellion of Boudicca, and was accused by many of kicking his pregnant wife Poppaea to death.
But even more, the Roman Colosseum stands as a poetic memorial to the growth of human civilization and the many, sometimes astounding, ways it has been hammered and shaped throughout history to become what it is—brutal, full of wonder, fearful, and religious. Once a throbbing emblem of pagan excess and a testament to the darkest desires of men, this colossus of ambition evolved through many curious phases of existence and served as the ultimate backdrop for not only the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, but for the larger cultural and moral growing pains of human civilization as a whole. Spanning 21 centuries, or approximately 1,938 years of history, this specter of ancient life has held within its walls both the intense drama and quiet banality of human evolution. And through this journey of decay, the Colosseum has remained a steadfast reminder of the immutable ways people have struggled to act out their inner savagery and modern sanctity in equal measure, like a great stage for some of dark history’s most delicious moments.
Although the Colosseum itself is now mostly in ruins, victimized over time by natural disasters and stone-robbers, it is still possible to jump on a 21st-century jumbo jet, land at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport, and take a 30 minute car ride to this legendary site, all within a day. Close to four million tourists come each year to see where the ancient fighting men known as gladiators once entertained up to 65,000 spectators with blood sport, venationes hunts of man vs. beast, chariot races, wild animal fights, and even spectacles of naval prowess, where the arena was literally flooded with water and staged for mock sea battles. No expense was spared for these events, and Emperor Titus—who officially opened the Colosseum with a 100-day extravaganza in 80 CE—even paid for specialized flat-bottomed ships to be built to accommodate the shallow water of this special event.
With zero regard for excess, 9,000 wild animals, like bears, hippos, tigers, elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and rhinos, were imported from Africa and the Middle East and slaughtered with great barbarism during the pageantry. While the idea of killing zoo animals may sound rather unimpressive to us, it’s worth noting here, most ancient Romans knew nothing of such wild beasts and were wholly thrilled by the mere sight of a giraffe, which they called a “camleopard” because it appeared to be a cross between a camel and leopard. Specially trained horses and bulls were brought in to show off their unusual swimming skills for the naval engagements, and exotic creatures like ostriches, elk, cranes, boars, and onagers were admired for their novelty—and for the sight of their grisly death.
These epic, and often extremely violent, sea battles held in the amphitheater are a rare known fact about the Roman Colosseum and stand as a true testament to the complete cultural disconnect from any sort of consequence or accountability—for life, for money, for excess, for sanity. Performed on a man-made “ocean” by hundreds of utterly crazed warriors, the spectacle known as naumachia was both homicidal and riveting. This type of full-scale reconstruction of a naval clash required the muscle of 4,000 galley slaves and some 2,000 more knowledgeable crew members to be successful, the majority of whom would not make it out alive. An event as extreme as this was not taken lightly, even by the jaded folks of Rome, and Italian citizens from all over traveled to the Colosseum for a first-hand view of this outrageous undertaking, setting up camp outside the walls to guarantee a good seat. And while they waited, stalls would pop up selling food, drink, textiles, animals, whatever—and the streets would teem at night with sex workers of all kinds, criminals, vendors—and surely, many powerful men in disguise. And when the gates opened, the throng of excited spectators was so fierce, some died in the crush of bodies pressing towards the next circus.
Though there were other ancient amphitheaters in Rome during this age of professional fighting, like the Roman Forum, the Colosseum was the biggest and the best—as tall as a modern 12-story building, with box seats for the wealthy and expansive awnings for shade—where unsuspecting spectators could just as soon be tossed into the arena as sold a ticket. Watchers of the munus iustum atque legitimum, or “proper and legitimate gladiator show,” were seated according to social rank, starting with slaves and women in the upper bleachers to senators and vestal virgins—priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth—around the arena floor. And then, of course, a place of honor was reserved for the “editor,” or the person who organized and paid for the games, typically the Emperor himself.
It was also the only amphitheater with a fully functioning hypogeum of underground tunnels, passages, and chambers used to house animals, stage props, slaves, and even gladiators in wait for their big moment, built by Titus’s younger brother Domitian some years after its initial opening. This subterranean labyrinth contained vertical shafts with manual “lifts” operated by ropes and pulleys, which allowed animals, convicts, or gladiators to create the special effect of appearing from beneath the sand of the arena, ready to take on the deadly challenges awaiting them. Oil-burning lamps were the only source of light in these dank caverns, and given the overall weather of Rome, the heat would have been stifling in the warmer months and the mind-numbingly cold in winter.
And oh, the stench. The smell of fear, blood, and death mixed with smoke, animal urine, and excrement must have been positively overwhelming, enough to bring stinging tears to the eyes of anyone unfortunate enough to work down there, like animal keepers, Bestiarii, trainers, slaves, and fighters. And when those thousands of animals were herded through the dark underground corridors of the hypogeum to meet their dreadful fate on the surface—heralded by the blast of horns, drums, organs, and the roaring of the crowd—the sheer thunder of sound was surely deafening. As a form of entertainment, it was horrible and it was terrifying—but at the same time, like myth in motion and a visceral medley of cinema, illusion, and reality, it was a spectacle all bound up into one sensory-defying show of life and death.
But many would say it’s the unspoken, unremembered parts of the Colosseum’s history, the curious centuries after the last gladiator fell and the gore of endless animals had been scraped away, that gives this Emblem of Rome such mystique and historical significance. Long after the corrupt leaders and bloody swordsman left the arena around 404 CE—when Emperor Honorius embraced Christian Orthodoxy, banned paganism, and began persecuting the old faith—the Colosseum’s violent purpose began to wane. And just four years later, in 408 CE, after the gladiator games had been whitewashed by Christianity, the Visigoths sacked Rome after some 800 years of general peace. In late antiquity, the migration of these nomadic Germanic tribes known as Goths spread throughout the land and essentially marked the decline of the Roman Empire. Led by King Alaric—who had already attacked the port of Athens, Greece and destroyed various cities, including Sparta—the Goths found mostly defeat in their first few attempt to take Italy.
But Alaric’s increasingly-threatening advancements on the territory made Emperor Honorius nervous about his position and fueled his suspicion that certain men under his command, like general Flavius Stilicho, were in collusion with the Goths. Honorius quelled this fear by executing Stilicho and his son Eucherius, before ordering the wives and children of about 30,000 foederati, who offered Honorius military assistance, be murdered in cold blood. Naturally, this move was met with great fury and pushed those warriors into the arms of Alaric, who was happy to employ their swords against the Romans—and to great success.
As Alaric’s barbarian army burned and sacked their way to the gates of Rome, they watched contentedly as Ravens picked at the flesh of eyeless corpses strewn about, and according to the poet Claudian, “The Alpine snows grew red with slaughter, the cold Frigid, its waters turned to blood, ran hot and steaming, and would have been choken with the heaps of corpses had not their own fast-flowing glore helped on its course.” Instead of a direct attack, Alaric chose to blockade the city and wait for the starving, diseased citizens to come crawling out in surrender, which they did. Fortunately for the Emperor, he and his court were in Ravenna at the time and were not affected by the violence—nor did they offer much in the way of military assistance. Some semblance of order ensued, that is until Alaric attacked Rome again in 410 CE and then died unexpectedly a year later, probably of malaria.
The Colosseum itself underwent some much needed repairs around this time and was still used for general contests and animal hunts until at least 523 CE. The next few decades were rough for the citizens, whose numbers dwindled considerably, as the city was repeatedly starved and sacked by the Ostrogoths during the Gothic war (535-553)—eventually leaving the massive stone structure sealed up with wooden barriers. But as the 6th century advanced into the medieval period, the Colosseum experienced some radical changes, transitioning from a burnt-out acropolis of paganism to a newly converted site of godly civilization. During the next three centuries of general neglect, the valley around the Colosseum began to fill up with earth as the drains fell to disrepair, and a rough-track road was built through the arena to facilitate the pillaging of materials and the establishment of a new community under the ownership of the church of Santa Maria Nova. As a result of repeated invasions and mass looting, the city had lost most of its glory and importance—as well as its population—to become a small nucleus of fields, orchards, ruins, and farms, and the once brilliant shine of the colosseum became overgrown by vines and trees, wolves roaming aimlessly in packs around the decaying rubble.
By the 9th century, attempts were being made to salvage some purpose from the site, and a small church was erected on the structure of the amphitheater and the arena converted into a cemetary. The vaulted spaces under the seating were recreated into housing, stables, and workshops for artisans, essentially forming a modern development directly on top of the bloody ghosts and shadowy memories of the past. But due to the general illiteracy of the populace, few people remembered the past glories of the amphitheater, and stories and legends began to take shape around the arena’s original purpose. The more paganistic individuals imagined the theatre had once been a temple of the Sun God, while the recently baptized faction suspected it was a physical tribute to the devil. In practical terms, the theater became a round temple dedicated to various gods, with a mix of practitioners honoring supernatural spirits, necromancy, and even demons.
Unlike the years to come, the Colosseum was not yet regarded as a sacred or holy site, but rather as a spiritual conduit to an arcane past. While historical facts are light in this area, the autobiographical account of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine sculptor living in 16th-century Italy, does shed some light on this strange period, when old beliefs lingered along the edges of an increasingly religious time. As it went, Cellini meets a curious Sicilian priest who shares his knowledge of the occult and specifically, the raising of the dead. Cellini expresses his deep desire to partake in such a ceremony and assures the priest he has both the strength and stamina to take on such a demanding element of black art. The two men meet in the shadows of the Roman Colosseum, where the priest appears in necromancer robes and draws meticulous circles in the earth while burning strong essential oils in the fire, breathing in the fetid odor of the drug.
Cellini goes on to explain how he called on the spirits to reunite him with this ancestors but was told by the priest that he would need to come back again, this time with a young male virgin, if he hoped to see his wishes granted. When he returned with the innocent boy, the priest began his awful invocations in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew once again, calling on the legion of demons residing in the walls of the amphitheater. Although Cellini himself does not see much, both the boy and the necromancer claim to see thousands of spirits emerge from the rock, all “the most dangerous of all the denizens of hell,” and batter their tired forms against the boundaries of the sacred circle. They escape unscathed and are followed home by two devils from the Colosseum, who—through this supernatural invitation—were released onto the quiet streets of Rome.
The medieval life of the Colosseum is not remembered nearly as well as its gladiator days, but some recent archeological work has done much to expose the secrets it held during those lesser-known centuries of development and residence. Roman experts and ancient documentation suggest the amphitheatre served as an area of housing all the way until the 12th century, filled with medieval paths leading throughout amphitheatre to various dwellings. Before the 10th century, the arena became known as Amphitheatrum Coliseum, with houses lining the Northern side like a terraced street of a modern city, each domus solaratae with an orchard or little yard and a chimney. The traces of where these ancient artisans, smiths, bricklayers, cobblers, woodworkers, bakers, money changers, and such lived among the stones is still visible today on the ground floor arches.
When an army of 36,000 Normans destroyed the city in 1084, Rome fell into control of baronial families like the Frangipani (or Frangipane) who took over the Colosseum and fortified it, apparently turning two floors on the eastern side into their personal castle, coexisting with the church-owned residences. Along with other prominent families like the Annibaldi, Colonna, and Pierleoni, the Frangipanis ruled the city with mob-like tactics, garnering support from other powerful citizens through “charitable” giving and special favors. But local relationships were not always friendly, as the patriarch Cencio II Frangipani and his family often meddled in Papal affairs, offering bribes and even exerting violence to see ensure their political visions were realized. And given their unpopular reputation among many citizen, along with Pope Innocenzo IV’s desire to claim the site for the Catholic Church, the Frangipani clan found themselves essentially banished midway through the 13th century.
A massive earthquake in 1349 inflicted serious damage on the structure and caused the outer south side to completely collapse. Rather than rebuild this fallen section, the freed stones were taken and reused to build churches, palaces, and hospitals for the burgeoning city of Rome. Of course, the precious metals like gold and bronze embedded in the many statues had been pried loose long ago, as was the marble which once covered the walls, stairs, and floors of the Colosseum. But perhaps the most bizarre plan for the amphitheater came up in the 16th century when Pope Sixtus V decided to turn the massive structure into a wool factory that would provide work for local prostitutes looking to find redemptive employment. Alas, Sixtus V died prematurely and never completed this plan, and the second big proposal in 1671 to transform the Colosseum into a bullfighting arena also fell through due to public disapproval. At his point, the amphitheater was crying out for some sort of purpose, some kind of identity that would reposition it on the world’s map, and so in 1749, Pope Benedict XIV officially branded it as a sacred site where early Christians had faced horrific religious persecution and essentially been martyred as they were stoned, crucified, eaten by animals, and burned alive on the arena grounds.
Although historians disagree as to the veracity of these deaths, there are plenty of academics who insist the first Christian martyr at the Roman Colosseum was Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who—according to the Synaxarium of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria—had been torn to pieces by wild beasts in 108 CE when the amphitheater was in its heyday of bloodshed. It is also believed that Saint Telemachus, who fiercely objected to the savagery of the gladiatorial games, was stoned to death by a furious mob when he shouted for the slaughter to cease, “in the name of Christ.” His murder marked the end of such mob justice in the city and the beginning of a new cultural attitude in the Roman Empire, from violent antagonists to more thoughtful pacifists with upstanding Christian morals.
But regardless of whether these religious persecutions actually took place on the sands of the arena, the belief that Christians had died there in the name of Christ was enough to bolster the emotional and financial support of the Holy Mother Church, who essentially ended up saving the Colosseum from complete destruction. Ironically, the advent of the Christian faith was, indeed, the initial forced that stomped out the “immoral” yet glorious games of the gladiator and began pulling its brutal and ancient traditions into the modern sphere. Yet, oddly enough, the Church was also the force that ultimately became the Roman Colosseum’s savior and the reason why it managed to survived time.
And the rest is history.