Colosseum Few Buildings in History Have Attracted Term Paper

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Few buildings in history have attracted as much attention or been the site of so many historic events as the Colosseum in Rome. While the structure is a mere shadow of its former glory today, much of it still remains standing and what is there is clearly suggestive of its magnificence. Mock naval battles, contests between exotic wild beasts from all over the world and armed (and unarmed) men (and women), and gladiatorial contests to the death on a daily basis were clearly serious attractions for the citizens of ancient Rome. While modern observers might cluck over the grisly nature of these events, virtually everyone marvels at the structure in which they were conducted. This paper provides a review of the peer-reviewed and scholarly literature to provide the history, a physical description, a discussion of how the ancient Romans used the structure, the source of its name and its usage today, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

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The Colosseum just looks like it has always stood where it is today. In their book, Marvels of Ancient Rome, Morey and Scherer (1955) report that, "The Colosseum was a 'marvel' of Rome when it was new, almost nineteen hundred years ago, partly because of its size and partly because the circumstances under which it was built made it one of the world's great 'gallery plays'" (80). According to these authors, Vespasian was responsible for draining the artificial lake in the gardens of the hated Nero's so-called "Golden House" and used the prime real estate in the heart of Rome for the Colosseu, the "vast theatre for the games and spectacles dear to Roman hearts, which his son Titus was to finish" (Morey & Scherer 80). In fact, the Colosseum was almost ready for its use intended use by the time Vespasian died in AD 79; therafter, Titus inaugurated the still-unfinished structure in AD 80, complete "with magnificent gladiatorial games and naval contests for which the arena was flooded" (Morey & Scherer 81). The Colosseum was finally completed by Domitian, Titus' brother and successor; however, over the years, the structure had to be restored a number of times as the result of fires caused by lightning and numerous earthquakes (Morey & Sherer 81).

The Colosseum continued to host gladiatorial contests even after the Roman Empire had become Christian, but on a diminished scale, because the bloody spectacles had become firmly entrenched in Roman tradition ("The History of the Colosseum" 386). Following the collapse of the West Roman Empire, though, the Colosseum fell into gradual decay due to a number of earthquakes and a paucity of maintenance, especially for its elaborate hydraulic features ("The History of the Colosseum" 386). According to the editors of Architectural Science Review, "In medieval times it was adapted to accommodate a church and the castles of a number of noble families. In the 12th century the Frangipane family abducted the Pope, and kept him a prisoner in the palatium Frangipanis, which was a part of the Colosseum ruins [the frangipani flower received its name after another Marchese Frangipane in the 16th century made a renowned perfume from its flowers]" ("The History of the Colosseum" 386). Over time, the Colosseum became a quarry that provided a vast wealth of building materials that can be seen in some places in the buildings and monuments in Rome today ("The History of the Colosseum" 386). During the 18th century, some restoration and conservation efforts were undertaken by the Capitoline Senate; however, Napoleon's conquest of Rome in the early 19th century was responsible for the introduction of serious archaeological investigation and conservation that continues today ("The History of the Colosseum" 386).

Physical Description.

Superlatives quickly fail when describing the Colosseum. The encyclopedic entry for the Colosseum (2004) reports that it is a four-storied oval measuring 617 feet (188 meters) by 512 feet (156 meters), much of which is remains standing today; the building featured a tier on tier design comprised of marble seats that could accommodate about 45,000 spectators; in addition, the Colosseum encloses an arena measuring 250 feet (76 meters) by 151 feet (46 meters) and gladiatorial combats were held there until AD 404 (the Colosseum 357). The Temple of Venus and Rome faced the Colosseum (Robathan 84). According to this author (1950), "Recent investigation reveals that there was no colonnade on the side facing the Colosseum. Beneath the platform at that end where the temple stood high above the level of the Colosseum valley a series of rooms has been found. The suggestion has been made that these may have been used as storerooms for some of the machinery used in the amphitheatre" (Robathan 85).

A cutaway view of the Colosseum's architecture and the relative social ranks of the spectators and their seating arrangements can be seen in Figure 1 below.


Source: Claridge, Cubberley and Toms 279.

Romans and the Colosseum.

Absent cable television, motion pictures and the Internet, the ancient Romans were clearly desperate for some entertainment and a restless and discontented population is never good for the ruling elite in any era. Not surprisingly, the Colosseum was enormously popular among the citizens of Rome, and entire days would be spent there watching the increasingly bloodthirsty events being played out before them as the day progressed. The Romans also had ready access to the structure.

The Colosseum was strategically situated beyond the Forum, in the low spot between the Palatine, Caelian and Esquiline hills; this location made the enormous structure easily accessible from the inner parts of Rome, but kept it sufficiently isolated from the mainstream of the city to allow for the easy movement of crowds (Morey & Sherer 81). According to these authors, the Colosseum:

could seat about forty-five thousand, and probably had standing room for about five thousand more in its upper gallery. Its great oval shell was about one-third of a mile in circumference, its longer axis measuring about 617 feet, its shorter about 512. The long axis, whose entrances were used for processions, runs parallel with the Roman Forum, roughly southeast and northwest. The imperial seats were at the south side, facing along the shorter axis, to give a closer view of the spectacles. Immense awnings, handled by sailors from the imperial fleet, sheltered the spectators. (Morey & Scherer 81)

Source of Name.

Although it would seem reasonable to believe the a "colossal building" would naturally have been called the "Colosseum" from the outset, but this was not the case and the ancient Romans called the building the "Flavian Amphitheatre" after the family of Flavius to which Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, belonged (Morey & Scherer 81). The building's current name became popular at some point during the early Middle Ages, with the first-known use of the amphitheatre as the Colosseum being cited in an 8th-century Latin work traditionally attributed to an English monk and historian by the name of Bede; this author quotes a Saxon pilgrim's proverb to this effect: Quandiu stabit Coliseus, stabit et Roma; quando cadet Coliseus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus, which, according to Byron's translation in Childe Harold:

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;

When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall:

And when Rome falls -- the world' (quoted in Morey & Scherer 82).

In fact, no one today likely remembers the Flavians all that well, but it is hard to ignore a building the size of the Colosseum: "It seems more likely that such a proverb would grow up about an immense and enduring building than about a statue which was only one of several of its kind in Rome, and that the building was first called 'colossal amphitheatre' and then 'colosseum' because of its great size"… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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