The Colosseum

The Colosseum, or Amphitheatrum Flavium as the Romans knew it, was for many the most potent symbol of Rome. It was the Roman Empire's largest amphitheatre and acquired the name Colosseum in the early Middle Ages from the colossal bronze statue of the sun that stood nearby. The building was begun in AD 70 by the Flavian emperor Vespasian, with the spoils of his conquest of Jerusalem. It was completed in AD 80 by Vespasian's son, Titus. With a capacity of 50-60,000, this massive amphitheatre was 190 metres in length, 156 metres wide and 50 metres high. The audience was seated in strict hierarchy, with the emperor, senators and vestal virgins at the front near the arena, above and behind them the knights, then the mass of ordinary citizens, then slaves, non-citizens and (after the edict of Augustus) women. An immense awning, the velarium, was supported from wooden masts and protected the audience from the summer heat.

The word amphitheatre comes from the Greek words for 'two theatres', and refers to the structure's ovoid shape; as though two of the roughly semicircular theatres of the Greek and Roman world were put together. The arena was named after the sand or harena which coated the amphitheatre's floor. Although best known for gladiatorial fights, the amphitheatre also played host to acrobats (including acrobatic animals!) gymnasts, live hunts (venationes), fights between animals, and very grisly public executions. Spectacles (munera), in particular fights including animals or professional gladiators, were costly to put on. Sponsors of munera, usually members of the imperial family or very high officials, could expect the adulation and support of the crowd.

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