7 Historical Facts About The Colosseum To Know

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Strangest question to hear at the Colosseum

‘What’s a gladiator?’ the lady asked her daughter as she sat to take a break.

We watched stunned as the daughter replied that a gladiator may have been a warrior. She then read a display nearby and elaborated that a gladiator was a captured warrior in ancient Rome that was forced to fight to the death, with the faint hope of freedom.

Okay. So a lot of people don’t know what a gladiator is. But those people aren’t travelling in Italy, or for that matter Rome. And hopefully, those people aren’t at the Colosseum, walking on the first level and taking a break sitting on one of those ancient stones that you’re really not allowed to sit on.

But perchance you will be taking a tour of the Colosseum, you know the World Heritage Site in the UNESCO-designated Historic Center of Rome, and don’t know what it’s all about, here’s a list of the interesting facts about the Colosseum you must know before (or after) visiting this testament to history.

Picture of the large white ancient columns in the Colosseum on the second level
Remains of ancient columns

1. It was a place of Death

Blood flowing down his spliced shoulder, the Thrax warrior reaches out with one last fell swoop of his sica to slice off of the arm of the Retaritus holding the hasta. Breathing shallow, he then lunges forward to push the Retaritus down with his shield. ‘Mitte! Let him go!’ some cried. ‘Iugula! Kill him!’ rang more strongly. A thumb goes down somewhere in the distance. And with one strong swing of the sica, the Retaritus’s head bobbed down to the floor and blood watered the sand as he joined his fallen brothers in the afterlife. The crowd cheers; and a victor is crowned. The Thracian will live to fight another day. Or he will succumb to his wounds and meet his fellow gladiators in the next world.

Maybe it didn’t happen just that way. But one must know that the Colosseum is not just one of Rome’s many magnificent marvels of architecture and engineering. It is a silent reminder of the thirst for power and the shedding of so much blood, to the many lives lost for the entertainment of some. It is not a place one can visit flippantly.

Yes, it is as beautiful as churches and awe-inspiring and magnificent, but it is also sombre and macabre. The Colosseum must be respected for what it is, a reminder of what a few blood-thirsty men can do to entire civilizations.

Picture of the tunnels on the lower level of the Colosseum that were used by the gladiators  to move around
You can see the tunnels underneath the Colosseum that were used by the gladiators and animals

2. History and Architecture of the Colosseum

The Colosseum was built by the Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD and took only 10 years to complete. Vespasian used booty from his 70 AD conquest of Jerusalem to build the Colosseum on the site of Nero’s artificial lake that had been filled in after his suicide in 68 AD, and called the Ampitheatrum Flavium after the Flavian Emperors ruling Rome at the time. The name Colosseum was inspired by the bronze statue of Nero standing nearby that was 103 feet tall and called the Colossus Neronis, that’s almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The remains of Nero’s house, the Domus Aurea is a short walk away.

The Colosseum took only 10 years to build and was the largest amphitheater ever built. Find out more with this short online tour that gives you The Secrets of the Roman Colosseum. And as opposed to the other concurrent amphitheaters that were built into hills for support, the Colosseum was a self-supporting structure. Just think of the architectural genius. Add to that the sections for class-wise segregation and detailed seating charts, it really was a marvel.

Talking of marvels, the Vatican is a marvel containing so much art, you could get lost in it. It’s pretty easy to find some of the best cheap Vatican tours in Rome.

Picture of the cross that is erected where the Roman Emperors once used to sit in the Colosseum
Cross erected where the Roman Emperors once used to sit

Many Christians were slaughtered in the Colosseum by the Emperors before Constantine. Emperor Nero would hold twilight executions where Christians were nailed to crosses and burned alive as torches to light up the arena. The cross is placed where the Emperors used to sit.

3. The Games

The Colosseum opened in AD with the Emperor Titus staging a sea fight there. That must have been a spectacle! The arena could be filled with upto a metre of water, before the Emperor Domitian built a basement to house the fighters, slaves and animals.

It was opened by Emperor Titus with a celebration of 100 days of games. Most times the games went on for days and were free to the people. The cost of the games was borne by an ‘editor’ who was usually a magistrate, and most times for the city of Rome it was the Emperor. The editor paid for the shows, the gladiators, and the animals used.

The routine followed included hunting and punishment by exposure to animals in the mornings, other types of executions in the breaks, and gladiatorial games in the afternoon. On the night before that, the gladiators last wishes were fulfilled by a coena libera.

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Some of the imperial punishments involved the tunica molesta where the condemned wore clothes filled with inflammable liquids. When the others started dancing, their clothes were set alight transforming the dance into striking contortions.

A replica of the hunts or venationes carved in white stone in the Colosseum---TheWingedFork
A replica of the hunts or venationes in the Colosseum

Hunts or venationes were started in 186 AD. They involved men and women dressed up in rich clothing and armed with weapons would hunt domesticated rhinos, elephants and hippos and slaughter them. The dead animals were butchered and their meat distributed to the people for free.

Famous hunts included the inauguration day hunt by Titus in 80 AD that involved 9000 wild beasts, and Trajans 107 AD show that involved 11000 gladiators and 10000 animals. What a world that must have been!

A vertical image of the Colosseum in Rome that has formed a beautiful backdrop for many movies and parades
The Colosseum is a beautiful backdrop for movies and parades

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4. A heap of ruins that now has a Green Thumb

The Colosseum lay in ruins for centuries after the dawn of the 5th century. Talking about Roman ruins, my friend Christian has visited the UNESCO ruins at Tipasa in Algeria. Definitely worth adding to the bucket list!

Anyways, the stones of the Colosseum were later used as building materials for Il Palazzo di Venezia, La Scala Santa, the tribune of San Giovanni di Laterano (Saint John’s Cathedral in Rome), Palazzo Farnese, San Marco (Basilica of Saint Mark) in Venice, and more.

The unusual micro-climate at the base of the Colosseum has led to the growth of some rare plants in the ruins, with over 350 species having been identified (including the exotic plants). These plants are being studied since the 18th century.

Also, there’s a tour of the underground, the last one being at 3 pm. We missed it by 15 minutes. But it shows you the dark side and the green thumb of the Colosseum.

One of the alleyways on the upper levesl of the Colosseum against the backdorp of a clear blue sky
A walkway in the Colosseum

 5. A backdrop for parades and movies

Mussolini used the Colosseum to hold Fascist rallies in the 1930s. But on a different note, the Colosseum starred in the heartrendingly sad movie ‘Roman Holiday’ in 1953, where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn fall in love only to part. Isn’t that how all good love end? Sniff sniff. Where’s the box of tissues?

And then in 1972 Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris star in the action-packed comedy movie ‘Way of the Dragon’ or ‘Return of the Dragon. And guess where the final fight takes place? Ah, you’re smart. Yes, it was in the Colosseum.

After that, Russell Crowe followed them and decided to die in the Colosseum fighting for the ‘vision that once was Rome’ in the movie ‘Gladiator’. He’s quite a dish, isn’t he? Only thing, he didn’t, die in the Colosseum that is. The fight scenes at the Colosseum were filmed at a reconstructed set in Malta.

Pic of the viewing point at the Colosseum from the opposite side
The viewing point- Looks like a stage now, but it probably wasn’t

6. A famous Tourist Attraction

After the Vatican City and the Pantheon, it is the most visited tourist attraction in Italy, drawing well over 6 million visitors a year. So whenever you visit, expect it to be really crowded. The lines are really long, but with the efficient staff they tend to move quickly. It only took us about 45 minutes of standing in a regular line to get in. It’s worth the wait. The Colosseum is a must on your itinerary for a trip to Rome.

You have the option of buying your tickets in advance and skipping the lines. There are a few different combinations of tickets available as well, in combination with other attractions like the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and some museums. So we’ll leave it up to you to decide which grouping of tickets you prefer.

7. Beware of the small vendors outside the Colosseum

Once you exit the Colosseum, you hardly travel a few metres when you’re approached by Indian, Italian, African and Bangladeshi sellers with trinkets , souvenirs and sometimes food. But there’s another type of seller that you need to be careful about. These guys make a habit of selling bracelets and chains of copper or other metals to unsuspecting tourists.

Picture of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy taken by my sis Sarah for a post about the top Colosseum facts
Just loved the view of the sky against the Colosseum

Okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the middle of your conversation, they start telling you how happy they are today because they just got the news that their wife had a baby boy. They even go to the extent of showing you a picture of a newborn. And once you congratulate them and try to walk away, they ask for some gift for their new son. You look at them dumbfounded, and they tell you, even 20 dollars is okay. Seriously? We watched this happen with a couple of tourists before they tried it on us. There are quite a few of them too. So try not to fall for that trick.

Have a wonderful tour of the Colosseum when you get to Italy, and when you get back let me know if I’ve left something out. 😉

Or if you’ve already been, please comment below to let me know what else I should have added in.

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13 thoughts on “7 Historical Facts About The Colosseum To Know”

  1. We went there in Jan and outside the tourist season it’s a lot quieter with not much of a queue. Amazing place with so much history. Thanks for the extra info.

    Reply
  2. Lovely photos, brought back memories ! Rome is really an amazing city. I am a history geek and I have really enjoyed the visit of the Colosseum, Rome’s most iconic landmark ! Surviving several earthquakes, plant overgrowth after the fall of the Empire, modern day pollution and traffic vibrations, the Colosseum still stands mighty – a must see for any visit to Rome 😉

    Reply
  3. Great list of info. I feel that the colosseum is so touristy that the history gets lost. People simply go to take photos and not know WHY it’s so popular. So thank you for the background info!

    Reply
  4. I thnk that it is very important to know the history of the Colosseum before you visit. When I first went there I felt chills, stepping on the same stones as the Romans did and knowing that the Coosseum was an arena of death.

    Reply
  5. It is surprising and a little bit disheartening to hear certain question and comments while traveling. Sadly, some people do not research places before visiting (or at least grad some info on the visitors center). Anyway, I am glad you discussed so many interesting facts about the Colosseum. I find it fascinating that it is still standing even though a lot of material was taken to build other things.

    Reply
  6. I enjoyed my visit to the Colosseum. Here is another tip: buy tickets in advance! Gosh, I saved…hours and hours by simply going in with my pre-printed tickets. So important!

    Reply
  7. Great roundup about all that went behind Colosseum. I actually felt heavy-hearted when I stepped inside, it was as if I could still feel the sorrow and pain of all that died so tragically inside.

    The last tip in your post was very useful too!

    Reply
  8. So great that you included all those interesting facts and history! Too often, people see the Coliseum as just a pretty place for a photo. Definitely not so. Great read!

    Reply
  9. I bought a ticket with the guided tour provided by the Colosseum. It allowed me to visit all three levels. It helped me a lot to understand the history.
    It was interesting to hear the story.

    Reply
  10. I like very much your post on why this is colosseum in rome a must see place. Very good to read for knowledge about Rome history.

    Reply

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