Roman Coliseum, pronounced kahl uh SEE uhm, also called the Flavian Amphitheater, pronounced FLAY vee uhn AM fuh thee uh tuhr, was the largest outdoor theater of ancient Rome. The Colosseum still ranks among the finest examples of Roman architecture and engineering, even though it survives only as a ruin. It stands near the center of modern Rome.
Construction of the Coliseum started during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from A.D. 69 to 79. The building was dedicated in A.D. 80. Until 404, the Colosseum was the site of mock naval battles, combat between gladiators, battles between men and wild animals, and other public entertainment. After that date, gladiatorial battles were no longer held, but fights with wild animals continued there until 523. During the Middle Ages, stones from the structure were used to construct new buildings.
The Coliseum has four stories and is oval in shape. It could seat about 50,000 spectators on marble and wooden benches. The Coliseum is 157 feet (48 meters) high, about 620 feet (189 meters) long, and about 510 feet (155 meters) wide. The arena on the floor of the Coliseum is about 285 feet (87 meters) long and 180 feet (55 meters) wide. A wall about 15 feet (4.6 meters) high separated spectators from the arena.
The Coliseum is made of brick and concrete with stone covering the exterior. The first three stories consist of arches decorated with half columns. A plainer fourth story was added later. The Coliseum had about 80 entrances, 2 reserved for the emperor. Passages and chambers ran beneath it. Gladiator, pronounced GLAD ee ay tuhr, was a trained warrior who fought bloody battles to entertain the ancient Romans. Gladiators used many different types of weapons. Some of the warriors used an oblong shield, a visored helmet, and a stabbing sword about 2 feet (61 centimeters) long. Some used a small, round shield called a buckler and a sica (short, curved sword).
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Others used only a net and a three-pronged spear called a trident. Gladiators usually fought until one was killed. However, the life of the loser could be spared if the spectators waved handkerchiefs.
Most gladiators were prisoners of war, slaves, or criminals condemned to fight in these contests. However, some freemen fought for money and fame, and knights, senators, and even women occasionally fought. One emperor, Commodus, also fought in the arena. Successful gladiators became famous in Rome. The comment “the girls’ delight” is scratched after the name of one gladiator on a Pompeian wall. One of the most famous gladiators was Spartacus, a slave from Thrace who led an unsuccessful rebellion of gladiators and slaves (see SPARTACUS).
Gladiators were carefully fed, and they received medical care. They were generally housed in barracks.
The first gladiator games were held in a Roman cattle market in 264 B.C. at the funeral of an aristocrat. Most of the contests after that were held at funerals or celebrations, and were under state control. At the Colosseum, wild beasts fought in the morning, and the gladiators fought in the afternoon. Contests were also held in provincial amphitheaters. Many Greek theaters were converted to house the popular contests. These cruel battles were justified as hardening Roman citizens to the sight of human bloodshed, so they could endure war better. The battles were finally banned about A.D. 404 by Emperor Honorius.