The Flavian Emperor Vespasian began building the Colosseum atop a giant lake that was part of Nero’s Golden House or Domus Aurea in 70-72 AD. Vespasian’s son, Trajan completed it in 80 AD. The speedy construction of the biggest amphitheatre ever built relied on tens of thousands of slaves and ingenious Roman engineering. This stadium hosted bloody forms of public spectacle, gladiator fights, ruthless public killings of criminals, and exotic, brutal matches between animals such as lions, zebras, and elephants brought from distant provinces.
Pacification of the masses was a primary function of this stadium that held up to 75,000 audience members from all classes. It was a free, public space that replaced the megalomaniacal Nero’s multi-acre personal palace. Bread and circuses, the satirical poet Juvenal suggests, is all the masses need. Entertainment, the circus of distraction, serves the purposes of many forces of power over time.
This elliptical site of spectacle’s state of ruin is remarkable. It has been freely plundered to build other spaces for millennia. For example, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican incorporates 2,500 cartloads of materials from the Colosseum into its structure. The lack of medieval and Renaissance era connection to the Imperial Roman culture that constructed this four story, six acre sight of contest, execution, and entertainment allowed for its current state of sublime dilapidation.
In addition to entertainment, socializing and the assertion of social stratification were integral to the Colosseum’s structure. Vendors sold food in its ambulatory arcades where Romans chatted over roasted meat and other fare. The class based assigned seating enforced social stratification, the equestrian class and vestal virgins (more on them in tomorrow’s post!) were close to the action on the first tier, Roman citizens were right above on the second level, and the plebs sat in the upper nosebleed seats.
This vast space of amusement was free and the events could last for days, with animal fights kicking off the day in the am, followed by gladiator fights in the afternoon. The animals who died in morning fights were cooked and fed the people later in the day. The drama and feasting helped to keep the people happy and arguably pacified potential unrest.
Humans don’t really change that much over time!