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Matthew’s virtual tour: Colosseum

Dr Matthew Nicholls explains more about the structure and purpose of the Colosseum through a video tour of his virtual model of ancient Rome.
We’ve seen from coins that the Colosseum came to be a symbol of the city of Rome in antiquity as it is now. And we know that it was called the Colosseum after another landmark, the nearby huge statue of Nero later transformed into a Roman sun-god. The later history of the Colosseum is pretty interesting too. It suffered a lot of earthquake damage. When Christianity came, gladiatorial games were banned. So the building was abandoned and occupied later by housing, workshops, fortifications and orders of religious monks until the 19th century. Its tumbled stone was robbed out for construction elsewhere which is why almost all of its seats are missing. It functioned for centuries as a sort of ready made quarry.
But the form of the building can be very well understood from the standing remains. And reconstruction can help us fill in some of the missing elements, the wooden masts that supported the awning, statues in the arcades and over the entrance porticoes. Inside we see the oval arena, not circular which would have been easier to lay out geometrically. But the Romans preferred a shape with a long axis, a legacy perhaps of the game’s origin in the long, thin Forum space. Above the arena, the cavea, the ranked seating with designated seats near the front for dignitaries and rising above that seats for the ordinary people of Rome calibrated according to social status with slaves and foreigners and women near the top.
Perhaps 50,000 people at a time could be seated here and the games could have gone on for days as we’ve heard. Trajan’s Victory Games in 107 lasting for 123 days. So we consider the games as part of the package of urban victory celebrations that also included the more permanent legacy of the imperial forum space that we saw earlier in this course. Let’s consider the urban context of the Colosseum. It sits in a bowl between hills and is relatively close to the city centre. Nearby the Circus Maximus and the baths on the Esquiline Hill above.
So perhaps it’s forming a sort of leisure zone in the city alongside the political heartland of the Forum, testament to the importance of entertainment architecture in the emperors’ agenda for the city. We’ve heard that the Colosseum occupied a very significant site, land that had previously belonged to the hated emperor Nero and was used, in fact, for the boating lake of his private palace gardens. The Flavian Emperors who succeeded Nero, eventually, returned this land to the people. And Flavian poets like Martial celebrate the returning of the land to the city as a whole no longer the preserve of just one man but given back to the people for entertainment. And we can compare the nearby bathhouses that achieve a similar effect.
And the entertainment that went on in the Colosseum was vigorous, Italian martial combat, gladiatorial games, not Nero’s effete Greek theatricals. So there was a political message and a cultural message encoded in this building. And we’ve seen that the Colosseum was part of a complex of buildings dedicated to the smooth running of the games. Scenery was stored nearby in the basement of the Temple of Venus and Rome. On the other side of the Colosseum, three gladiatorial schools provided training grounds and barracks accommodation for the combatants who would end up in the arena.

In the next Step, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the Colosseum for yourself, but first join me on a guided tour around this impressive structure, where I explain more about its appearance and function.

In this tour, you’ll see that the Colosseum was only one of the elements the Romans used in a complex of specialist structures devoted to the smooth running of the games.

What kinds of facilities do you think would have been necessary to support a spectacular set of games in Imperial Rome?

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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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