The Bloody Colosseum

by M. Berchtold and G. Giannetti

Pictured at left is a part of the actual Colosseum in Rome, Italy. (Taken by Bonnie Clark in 1985.)

The Roman Colosseum. What exactly was it, and what went on in there? The Roman Colosseum was a huge amphitheatre built between 69 and 79 CE. The events that took place there were gladiatorial combats, wild beast hunts, vaudeville acts, and many types of theatrical entertainment. Among these, the gladiatorial combats and the wild beast hunts made up most of the program. Originally, gladitorial fights began as public funerals to show the amount of wealth a person possessed. By 104 BCE., crowds had become so large, they could only be accommodated by state affairs. When Rome's republic became imperial, the emperors sought to please the people, and they did this by rewarding the plebeians with entertainment. Although the original purpose of the Colosseum was entertainment, it was transformed into a medieval fortress in the sixth century CE after being damaged by an earthquake.

A typical day in the Colosseum began with a succession of bloodless duels often comic or fantastic, but others were extremely gruesome. (Quennel, 1971) The Romans were obsessed with blood and gore. They enjoyed watching one man kill another man, or watching one man kill many innocent animals. What the Romans called entertainment back then is what we call murder today.
The map on the left shows modern day Italy, where the Colosseum still stands today. (The map was drawn by M. Berchtold.)

The Roman Colosseum is situated in Rome, Italy, between the Esquiline and Palatine Hills. Its construction was planned by Nero, who was the ruler of Rome in the beginning of the first century CE. The structure was originally intended as a larger complex, but the idea was never fulfilled and Nero died before its opening. After three more rulers and years of anarchy, Vespasian in 69 CE became the authority in Rome. He supervised the construction of the Colosseum, and his successor, Titus, finally dedicated the Colosseum in 80 CE. Vespasian founded a new dynasty called the Flavian Dynasty, which is where the Colosseum's proper name, the Flavian Amphitheatre, originated. The term Colosseum is derived from a "colossal" 120-foot-high statue of Nero which once stood near the amphitheatre. It has since been demolished. Not only was the statue colossal, but the amphitheatre itself was quite a sight. Of all the amphitheatres in the Roman empire, the Colosseum was by far the largest, having a capacity of fifty-thousand spectators. It spanned an area of 620-feet long by 510-feet wide and was 160-feet high, with four stories. The exterior walls were of a creamy colored calcium carbonate material called travertine, the inner walls of siliceous rock deposits called tufa, and the vaulting of the ramped seating area of monolithic concrete (The Colosseum, November 13, 1997). Its roof was of canvas, and could be raised and lowered as needed by specially trained, skilled Roman sailors. Underneath the main arena, there were passageways and cells for the "performing" animals and prisoners. Although the original purpose of the Colosseum was entertainment, it was transformed into a medieval fortress in the sixth century CE. after being damaged by an earthquake. In the eighteenth century its restoration was begun by several popes including Benedict XIV and is preserved as a historical monument to this day.

All types of people witnessed the bloody spectacle, and forms of "entertainment" in the Colosseum. Among the Colosseum's spectators were dignitaries, their guests, their slaves, common people, and foreigners, people who did not hold Roman citizenship. (Fast Facts, November 8, 1997) As far as the seating was concerned, this was not the typical amphitheatre. The Colosseum had something like a seating chart. Where one sat depended on social standing, and men and women were seated separately. The best seats, directly in front, were saved for senators and "visiting dignitaries." The next fourteen rows were reserved for the next highest class. The Colosseum was divided into four main "zones." These zones contained "magnificent ringside boxes." The Pontifex Maximus (the emperor) and his charges, the Vestal Virgins, were among the people who sat in these boxes. The first zone was reserved for distinguished private citizens. The second zone was intended for the middle class while the third zone was reserved for slaves and foreigners. Finally, the fourth zone was occupied by women and the poor, who sat on wooden seats beneath a separate flat-roofed colonnade (a series of regularly spaced columns).

During the era in which the Colosseum was used, the Romans established and organized many types of games and other forms of entertainment. However, it seemed as if the Romans were obsessed with bloody battles and death. The most popular form of entertainment was the gladiatorial combat which was usually fought to the death. Other forms of entertainment that did not involve blood and death were vaudeville or circus acts, chariot racing, various types of theatrical entertainment like mime and plays of tragedy and comedy. Despite the blood and gore of the events that took place in the Colosseum, something positive did become of it. The Roman people, poor and rich came together and had fun and, at times, were at peace.

In 80 CE., Titus inaugurated the opening of the Colosseum with one-hundred consecutive days of gladiatorial contests, a sport adopted from the Etruscans. Holland (1980) mentioned that, at the beginning of the second century CE., a spectacle was held in which 4,941 pairs of gladiators fought. Gladiatorial combat was the most bloody yet entertaining event that occurred in the Colosseum. Gladiatorial events were not annual like horse racing and theatre, just on given occasions. (Casson, 1975) Gladiatorial combat was surprisingly deeper than it appeared. This combat was sometimes used for religious purposes. A duel was fought to the death by a chief's tomb whose spirit required the sacrifice of blood. Then the Romans considered the duel as a memory of death of great leaders. Duels between gladiators became a business to invest in. All the gladiators that fought before the audience of the Colosseum, went to a gladiatorial school beforehand. The most renowned gladiatorial training schools were south of Rome in Capua. Lanista was the word for gladiatorial school. Going to the Lanista was similar to a punishment. Criminals were sent to gladiatorial schools instead of being exiled. Magistrates purchased them and promised that they would be dead within a year, or criminals would be forced into the arena in a herd to be butchered by gladiators. Slaves were sometimes sent to the school if they weren't of any use. Slaves could sometimes win freedom if they fought a good duel; however, the crowd was the judge of that.

There were many types of gladiators that fought in the Colosseum, which were divided into four main classes. First- Samnite (otherwise known as Galli), heavily armed men who had a sword or lance, a shield, a helmet, and protective coverings on their right arm and left leg. Second- Thracian, who were lighter, quicker men and carried a short sword and a buckler which was a small round shield worn on the arm. Third- Myrmillos, known as fishermen, who carried a fish-shaped crest. Fourth- Retiarius or "net men" who carried a net and didn't have any protection of the face, head, chest, or legs. Some gladiators had more of an advantage over another group of gladiators. Duels were sometimes arranged in which a heavily armed gladiator fought another gladiator that would be almost weaponless. These gladiatorial combats were varied to avoid monotony.
The Roman iron gladius is an example of a short sword which might be used by a gladiator in ancient Rome. The gladius on the left is dated around the beginning of the first century CE, while the middle gladius is from the end of the first century CE. The gladius on the right is still in its scabbard of tinned bronze with brass fittings, and is thought to mark a battle of 71 CE, about the time that the Colosseum was opened. [The weapons were drawn by G. Giannetti.]

Ceremonies began with the arrival of gladiators in chariots dressed in purple, gold-embroidered cloaks. Then the gladiators gathered around the emperor's box and yelled out, "Ave imperato morituri te salutant!" which meant, "Hail emperor, men soon to die salute thee!" (The Colosseum, 1971,45) The gladiators then fought. Duels ended in death, but some might be a draw. At the end of the day, only half of the gladiators remained. At the end of the gladiatorial show, lists were prepared of the gladiators who had taken part. The letter 'P' meant that a man perished, 'V' meant that he vanquished his foe, and 'M' meant that he was sent off. (The Colosseum, 1971)

Above pictures drawn by G. Giannetti

Augustus Ceasar began the spectacle where criminals were paired against animals, without weapons for protection. "At vast expense the Roman government imported animals from every corner of the known world--tigers from India, leopards from Asia minor; lions, elephants and other creatures from Africa; wild bulls from Northern Europe; and so on." (Casson, 1975, 94) According to the spectators, the more exotic the animal, the better the fight. When Titus opened the Colosseum in 80 CE., stated Holland, (1980) "the gladiatorial combats resulted in the deaths--in one day--of five thousand beasts. From this statement alone, it is safe to say that ancient Romans were fascinated, if not obsessed, with slaughter. The term used for a fight between a man and a beast was "venatio," which was an event favored by the spectators of the Colosseum. Often criminals or slaves were condemned to face a starved wild beast. Lions were starved for three days prior to the event (Cassel, 1997). If the beast was lucky enough to kill its prey and survive, its fate would still be to die by being put in the arena with the bestarii, a man specially trained to kill wild beasts. This led to the depletion of many "exotic" animals.

Just as the audience was impressed with exotic animals, they were also entertained by different types of combat. It was not uncommon for the arena to be flooded so that naval battles could be held. Even more interesting was the introduction of freak fights. (Holland,1980) These fights were rare and only took place occasionally. One such battle was held by Dominitian in 90 BCE. between a dwarf gladiator and a woman. Other surprising combinations were paired together based on the whim of the current emperor. Apparently, it took some imagination to put on a show for the ancient Romans.

The Romans were very methodical in their process of handling the wounded and dead in the Colosseum. During a battle, if one opponent became injured, he would drop his shield and raise the index finger of his left hand. It was then up to the spectators to decide his fate. If he had displayed bravery and fought well, the crowd might wave handkerchiefs and give him a thumbs down, (Casson, 1975) meaning that he deserved to be spared. "The duels between gladiators, although cruel and bloody, at least involved a display of skill, as well as a good chance of coming out alive," (Casson, 1975, 100). However, they could also give him a thumbs up, or death. (Knapps, February 14, 1997) It was extremely rare for a gladiator's life to be spared because the spectators almost never had mercy on their victims. After the gladiator appeared to be dead, officials dressed as "charons," or demons from the underworld, checked to make sure that he was actually completely dead. They assured this by hitting him over the head with a mallet or burning him with a hot iron, so if he had not passed away, he would very soon. He was then dragged out of the arena to the playing of trumpets. Then an attendant added clean sand to absorb the blood. In fact, the name "arena" is used because the word "arena" means "sand." (Fast facts, November 8, 1997) All the dead-man or animal-were dragged out by way of the Libitinarian Gate. It was named for the goddess of funerals, Libitina.

It has been established that the Colosseum was an amphitheatre built in the first century C.E. for the people of ancient Rome. The most prominent of all of the events that took place in the Colosseum was the skillful, organized spectacle of slaughter by the thousands. Why were these people so fascinated by watching the weak be torn to pieces by the strong? From the time of the Etruscans, the purpose was to commemorate the death of an important citizen and help them into the afterlife. However, the focus gradually changed from a religious ritual to a form of entertainment. The majority of Romans enjoyed participating in the spectator sport of combat to the death. Only a small minority of philosophers and senators disapproved of these actions and had reactions such as this:

One day I went to the midday games, hoping to enjoy light entertainment, rather than bloodshed. It was the exact opposite, the other shows I had seen were a picnic in comparison. This was pure murder. When one man fell another would immediately take his place. And this went on and on till none are left, even the last was killed. You may say but, 'that one committed a robbery.' So what? Does he deserve to be crucified? 'He committed a murder.' Even so, does he deserve to die like this? What sort of punishment do you deserve for watching him? All day long the crowd cries, 'kill him, flog him, burn him!' Why does he run on the sword so timidly? Why is he so unwilling to die? (Knapps, 1997).


WORKS CITED


This webpage was written by M. Berchtold and G. Giannetti, 3/22/98, for History and Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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