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Part XIII – ‘To the death’  

Gladiatorial combat was a popular passtime in ancient Rome. Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls explain more about this entertaiment and its venue,the Colosseum
This, of course, is the Colosseum, the venue for beast hunts, public executions, and, of course, gladiatorial combat for which the Romans acquired such a grisly reputation. Their love of gladiators stretched way back into the distant past when gladiators fought in a sort of ritual combat at aristocratic funerals. But it very quickly became an entertainment form in its own right that really appealed to the Roman bloodlust. Now the first venues for gladiatorial fights were cheap, rickety, wooden affairs thrown up alongside spaces like the Forum and quickly dismantled.
But when Rome’s emperors came to power, with their wealth and their need to please the crowd year after year, stone-built permanent venues like this wonderful amphitheatre behind me suddenly came to make a lot more sense.
The emperor that built this, Vespasian, was personally, or at least had the reputation of being, quite dour, stingy. But he knew the value of pleasing the crowd. And he knew that because his predecessor, Nero, had taken this whole area and turned it into the private gardens of his hated palace, the Domus Aurea, the Golden House, a megalomaniac gesture swallowing up the city for his private entertainment. Vespasian, when he came to power, saw the damage that had done, demolished the palace, drained Nero’s boating lake that stood behind me, and built on it the Colosseum where not one man in his private gardens, but 50,000 Romans at a time could come and be lavishly entertained.
The building is a stupendous piece of Roman engineering, magnificent architecture. And just pause to think about some of the quantities and statistics involved. It’s 545 metres around. It contains 100,000 tonnes of travertine stone, 300 tonnes of lead-sheathed iron clamps to bind those stones together, tufa, brick, concrete, huge foundations. It’s an amazing piece of engineering. And it was built in just 10 years. You could even flood it, or so we think, somehow, early in its life, and have aquatic entertainments in there.
But quite quickly that came to an end because today, when you go inside, you see a subterranean network of cells, ramps, winches, holding pens to hold the combatants and the animals and have them pop up out of the arena floor at key moments in the event. And that word, arena, comes from the Latin word for sand. Because sand was strewn on the elliptical arena to soak up the blood of the combatants.
Lots of people visit the Colosseum. But not so many come around to this corner where we have these huge stone bollards, which is maybe a pity. Because these are certainly part of the total package of engineering and architecture and crowd control around the Colosseum that helped ensure the spectacles went smoothly. There are a couple of different theories about what these are for. And we don’t really know the answer, but you can see that there are some holes in the surface of the stone blocks. One is that ropes ran from those way up to the top of the Colosseum where wooden masts supported canvas awnings stretched out over the spectators to give them some shade from the brutal summer sun.
And we do know there was a special detachment of Roman sailors living in barracks here, whose job it was to control the cordage, the ropes, the pulleys, and the canvas to keep those awnings in place and not blowing around in the wind. But there is another theory that instead of ropes, those holes supported barriers of some sort, ropes or chains maybe, that funnelled the spectators in to the entrance where they needed to be. The entrance arches here have numbers over them. Those must have corresponded to some sort of arrangement, a ticket maybe, that directed you to a certain point.
And from that entrance arch, the staircases and passageways would lead you to the correct seat where you needed to be to take your seat for the games. So whether it’s for the canvas awnings or for some sort of barriers, these bollards are testament to the operations around the Colosseum ensuring the spectacles went as smoothly as possible.
The Colosseum, the arena itself, was only one part of a range of structures around here devoted to the smooth operation and grandiosity of the games. There were systems associated with the winches and ropes and wooden masts used to stretch a huge canvas awning out over the heads of the spectators to keep the sun off. There was a whole series of gladiatorial training schools. And there were other eye-catchers too, a great round fountain called the Meta Sudans. And towering above the site, a huge bronze statue of the sun god, the Roman sun god, the Colossus that gave this whole amphitheatre its alternative name, the Colosseum.
Here, behind me, is another building in the landscape of buildings clustering around the Colosseum, all designed to keep the games spectacular and ready to go. What we’re looking at here is, in fact, a gladiatorial training barracks, a school for gladiators called the Ludus Magnus, or the ‘big games school’. And what you can see behind me over there is half of an elliptical arena, a Colosseum shaped arena, sliced in half by that modern road. And all these structures under here only came to light in the 1930s when they were doing some demolition work. And what they found was this mini arena. Actually it’s as big as some amphitheatres in towns outside of Rome.
It’s about a quarter smaller than the arena in the Colosseum itself. Watching the gladiators training for battle was, in itself, a popular activity, a thing to do for entertainment. So seats above that elliptical arena rising up on the foundations you see over there could have accommodated up to 3,000 people coming just to watch the training bouts. There were rooms for gladiators’ accommodation, for storage, maybe armouries and weaponries to get their weapons in tip-top fighting condition for the arena games. And then, when games day finally came around, the gladiators, trained to perfection, here, in their gladiator school had a secret route to get from here to the Colosseum next door.
They could form up here and then walk down a secret tunnel that still exists that leads directly from this training barracks into the basement substructures of the Colosseum. And down there, there are winches, ramps, pulleys, hoists, trap doors. When the moment came, they could be raised up through the wooden floor of the arena into that huge bowl of 50,000 people baying for blood, ready to give battle.
This was not just a building, but a machine, a machine for entertaining the Roman people. And the games here, they could go on for days at an end. The emperor Trajan, we know when he beat the Dacians, in modern Romania in 107 AD, put on games here that included 11,000 animals, 10,000 gladiators fighting sometimes, but not always, to the death, an incredible spectacle, a piece of logistics, of organisation, of management, all geared towards giving the Roman people what they wanted, bread and circuses.

Originally the gladiatorial combats were held in temporary wooden buildings, before emperors built permanent structures such as the Colosseum as part of their commitment to providing their population with ‘bread and circuses’.

Even the emperor who build the Colosseum, Vespasian, who was reported to have a rather stern and gloomy disposition, knew the importance of building a home for Rome’s lavish entertainments. And these were very extravagant entertainments indeed! Vespasian’s Colosseum was home to beast hunts, public executions, and gladiatorial combat, staged before an audience of up to 50,000 people.

I explain how the site of the Colosseum was ‘given back to the people’ following Nero’s monopolisation of the area for his personal use. Under Vespasian and his successors, the Colosseum was part of a range of linked facilities to support games which often went on for several days. For example, we know that Trajan held games which included 11,000 animals and 10,000 fighters. How did the Colosseum and its neighbours support these and the thousands of Romans which would have arrived to watch?

As you view the video, you may like to think about:

  • What extra support facilities did the games need?

  • What aspects of the Colosseum’s design are familiar in entertainment architecture today?

Share your thoughts in the discussion below.

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