No trip to Rome is complete without marveling at the Colosseum. But just getting close to this wonder of the world is not enough for those who want to hear its stories and secrets. To help quench your thirst for knowledge, here are 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Italy’s iconic amphitheater.
1. It’s practically a new
We all know the Colosseum is very old, but how old is very old? Well, its foundations were laid way back in 72 AD, and the construction was completed in just eight years under the watchful gaze of emperors Vespasian and Titus. While the Colosseum may date back some 1950 years, it’s practically a new-build compared to the Pyramids of Giza, which are over twice as old, while Stonehenge is thought to have been built some 5000 years ago.
2. It wouldn’t look good on a fridge magnet
There are certain things you can’t imagine having another name, and the Colosseum is definitely one of them. Believe it or not, Italy’s icon was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater. This not-so-catchy-name (that, let’s face it, wouldn’t look as good on a fridge magnet) comes from the all-powerful Flavian dynasty who ruled the empire from 69 AD to 96 AD. Historians believe the current name originates from “The Colossus of Nero,” a 35-meter tall bronze statue that stood outside the amphitheater.
3. The infamous Emperor never set foot inside the arena
When you think of the Roman Empire, one man’s name springs to mind: Julius Caesar. You can imagine him watching gladiatorial battles in the Colosseum while enjoying a glass of wine or two. Yet, while the Colosseum and Julius Caesar are two icons of Rome, the infamous Emperor never set foot inside the great arena. As you now know, the Colosseum was finished in 80 AD while Julius Caesar was assassinated almost 125 years before the first games even happened. It was, in fact, Emperor Vespasian who commissioned the Colosseum while his son, Emperor Titus, oversaw the final stages of construction after his father’s death.
4. Woe betide any slave who struck the emperor
The majority of gladiators, who were called the Kings of Entertainment, were slaves or former prisoners. It was pretty unusual (to put it mildly!) when Emperor Commodus decided to take his obsession with the sport from the stand to the arena floor. As you can probably imagine, his fights were far from fair. His opponents would use wooden swords and woe betide any slave who struck the emperor. While his fights wouldn’t draw much blood for the baying crowd, his ego-boosting act of slaying animals sure did.
5. Mock naval battles sound pretty far-fetched
Flooding the Colosseum to hold mock naval battles sounds pretty far-fetched, but the Romans were known to going the extra mile. Julius Caesar was famous for holding small (but incredibly expensive) “naval battles” on man-made islands in Rome. There were plans to hold an event like this in the Colosseum, but historians still debate if one ever took place in Rome’s iconic amphitheater
6. It’s in pretty good shape
For an almost 2,000 year-old building, the Colosseum is in pretty good shape. That’s because several earthquakes have shaken the famous site, causing damage mainly to the south side. The rubble was quickly used to build churches and palaces found across Rome.
7. The Gate of Death was on the western side
Of the Colosseum’s 80 entrances, 76 were used for the general public while the other four were built to the cardinal points. Important dignitaries used the south and north entrances. The two remaining gates were for the gladiators — but they served two very different purposes. The Gate of Life was located on the eastern side of the Colosseum. This is where gladiators would enter before the spectacle began. The Gate of Death was located on the western side. This is where unlucky gladiators were carried out.
8. Entry to the games was free
If you were short of cash but enjoyed the blood and thunder of the Colosseum, you were in luck — provided you were Roman, that is. Emperors used the arena to promote their political policies, so entry to the games was free to all Romans. Foreigners were of no political use to the leaders, so they had to shell out a coin or two to watch the spectacle.
9. Hollywood didn’t think the Colosseum looked all that impressive
For the Hollywood movie “Gladiator,” director Ridley Scott actually got permission to film inside the most famous amphitheater in the world. Imagine the bureaucracy! However, Scott later decided the Colosseum didn’t look impressive enough so took the film to Malta, where he built his own Colosseum to film the movie.
10. It’s absolutely massive
The Colosseum could sit an incredible 87,000 spectators, making it the largest amphitheater in the world, according to the Guinness World Records. In comparison, London’s ultra-modern Wembley Stadium can seat just a couple thousand more. While today’s stadiums share many of the same characteristics of the Colosseum, there are, as you would imagine, some distinct differences — but not always for the better. As well as enjoying free entry, the stadium could empty in just 10 minutes. Think of that next time you’re waiting for an Uber after a concert!
Learn more about the Colosseum with our in-depth, 3-hour guided tour. Read more here.