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When one thinks of Rome, Italy, one likely thinks of its famous landmark, the Roman Colosseum. Considered one of the world's most remarkable architectural feats, construction of this famous stone amphitheater began around A.D. 70-72 under the auspices of Flavian emperor Vespasian. Taking roughly 10 years to build, the giant arena was finally completed in A.D. 80 and presented by Vespasian's son Titus as a gift to the Roman Republic.
Capable of seating approximately 45,000 people, its initial purpose was to serve as venue for a number of "games", providing entertainment to both the privileged and otherwise of Rome's citizens. The most popular of these games were the gladiatorial combats. In these games, "gladiators", typically men of low standing such as slaves, criminals or prisoners of war, fought to the death while theater-goers looked on. If this did not satiate the blood-lust of Rome's citizenry, the venue provided animal hunts and executions as well. Still, the arena was used at times for more civilized entertainment like mythological dramas and re-enactments of celebrated Roman battles.
The Roman Colosseum serves today as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Thousands of tourists visit the landmark each year. While easily two thirds of the giant structure has been destroyed over the centuries, the Colosseum remains today the most identifiable symbol of Rome and its long and colorful history.
Inside the Colosseum, the central arena was carefully designed to suit the differing entertainments that would be offered. Trapdoors leading down into the bowels of the structure were used to admit wild animals, which were kept in cages below ground. Other exits and entrances were provided, as the professional gladiators usually made spectacular entrances in chariots or on horseback, although they fought on foot. Around the arena itself, the walls that led up to the seats were topped with wood rollers to prevent the lions and tigers from leaping up into the audience.
- The more important seating areas were like modern-day theater boxes, with canvas shades to provide protection from sun and rain, marble seats and a certain amount of privacy.
- Other less favorable seats were made of wood, and standing room was also provided for the less wealthy.
- The Roman audience - Attendance at the amphitheater was a chance not only to view the entertainment but also to voice their opinion about all sorts of current affairs by booing or applauding the respective adherents.
- For those in power, the occasion provided a chance to get a feel for public sentiment.
In the third century BC, gladiatorial combats were waged in honor of one's dead ancestors. By 53 BC, a politician called Curio had devised a wooden band-shell built in two sections that could be pulled together to form a small oval arena in which men could fight for the amusement of an audience. Adapting this idea to that of the Greek amphitheater in which plays were performed led to the idea of the games as they existed at the time of the Colosseum. Typically, the entertainment began with a display of exotic animals brought back to Rome from the far reaches of the Empire. After this prelude, novelty acts were presented, including gladiatorial combats between women, dwarves, or men against wild beasts.
Christians, political prisoners or convicts might then be forced to fight each other, or simply thrown in to the mercies of lions, leopards or tigers. The climax of the entertainment was the combats between professional gladiators. By the end of the Republic, approximately half of these gladiators were there of their own free will, either because they owed money or because they craved the glory. In fact, several emperors, including Titus and Hadrian, fought gladiatorial combats for their own satisfaction. Popular gladiators were worshipped as celebrities, and, fighting only perhaps two or three times a year, had overall a safer life than as if they were in the Roman army. Like professional wrestling today, the combatants at this level practiced their moves together in advance, but presented the actual conflict in the most dramatic way possible. Adding to the spectacle was the other personnel present at the arena. The owner and manager of the gladiators was routinely booed and vilified. The attendant dressed as Pluto, lord of the dead, touched the supposed dead bodies with a red-hot iron to make sure no faking was taking place. It is not known today if the audience actually signaled that they wanted the loser executed by turning their thumbs down, but they made some sort of signal with their hands to that effect. However, this result was unusual for the popular gladiators, although it was certainly a risk to be considered. Musicians accompanied each phase of the entertainment, to further increase the audience's pleasure.
Today the Colosseum is reduced to little besides the foundations and part of the north wall, still with thirty-one of its original arches. Every speck of marble, the frescoes and other decor elements have been robbed long ago (Colosseum website, "Architectura" 2). To view a photograph of the Colosseum as it appears today, see Figure 2. Still, it remains as a monument to the genius of Roman builders and to the homage paid by the Roman people to courage and carnage.