The Coliseum (Flavian Amphitheatre) has been the ancient centerpiece of Rome for over 1,935 years. It was the greatest entertainment building in the known world, seating over 50,000 people.
Today over 4 million people each year visit the great Arena, and even though less than half the structure is original, it is still the largest amphitheater in the world, the greatest piece of western antiquity still standing.
For the inaugural games in 80AD, over 5,000 beasts were slaughtered in animal hunts. Rome imported lions, tigers, panthers, bears, hippos, elephants, crocodiles, giraffes and exotic birds for hunting games in the Arena.
The Gladiator games ended in 404 AD.
The Animal hunts ended in 523 AD.
The last event held in the Coliseum was Paul McCartney in 2003.
It’s been looted and pillaged since the 6th century. Over 300 tons of iron clamps that once held the travertine blocks together were stolen, and yet, the structure is still standing. Over half the stone was removed and reused in other buildings.
It was a Medieval Fortress in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Earthquakes of 1349, 1720 and 1806 knocked down the southern outer ring wall. The brick abutment walls currently holding the outer walls in check were built in the mid 19th century.
It has been a Glue Factory, a manure dump for the manufacturing of saltpeter (the main ingredient of gunpowder), a shelter for the homeless and a Nazi munitions dump.
‘Damnatio ad bestias (death by damnation of the beasts) was a form of capital punishment practiced in the Coliseum. Prisoners were tied to poles and attacked by animals. Some of these prisoners might have been Christians.
Although there has never been any proof of Christians being killed in the Coliseum, it has nonetheless been part of Christian mythology for centuries.
In the 16th century, Pope Pius V gave away vials of Coliseum sand to pilgrims, telling them it was impregnated with the blood of the Christian Martyrs.
In the 18th century, the Coliseum was sanctified as a Church in Memory of the Martyrs who died in the Arena and Stations of the Cross were erected inside the Arena. The crosses remained till 1874.
The only possible Christian Martyr was Saint Ignatius, the 2nd century Bishop of Antioch (Syria) who was sentenced to die in the Coliseum.
On his way to Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters about his fear of being killed by wild animals and his strength in his beliefs.
Although Gladiator games were officially banned in Rome in 404, Christianity likes to give the credit to Saint Telemachus, who (according to legend) was killed when he jumped into the Arena to stop a gladiator fight. The crowd was so moved by his death, they changed their view on blood sport and all converted to Christianity.
The 1951 Hollywood film ‘Quo Vadis’ shows Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov) executing Christians in the great Amphitheater, however, Nero died before the Coliseum was even built.
In one of the most ironic of historical twists, the Flavian Amphitheater was actually built to remove the memory of the Emperor Nero from the minds of the Romans. Instead it is named for the +100’ Colossal bronze statue Nero that once welcomed guests to his Golden Palace.
Over 70,000 Jewish slaves from the Judean Revolt of 66-71AD were brought back to Rome and used to build the Coliseum.
‘Hail Caesar. We who about to die salute you’ was never said in the Coliseum. The phrase originates from the 1859 painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled Ave Caesar, Morituri te salutant.
Although Romans did use thumb gestures for the outcome of gladiatorial fights, the gestures were not thumb up and thumb down..
Once again, the legend comes from the French artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme. This time from his 1872 painting entitled ‘Pollice verso’.
‘Pollice verso’ (turned thumb) was the correct expression but the turn of the thumb to gesture death was actually an upturned thumb, moving in a slicing manner under one’s chin, representing a blade slicing the throat of the condemned fighter.
If the crowd wanted to spare the life of the fighter they would conceal the thumb inside a fist, a gesture known as ‘pollice compresso’ or compressed thumb.