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Roman Architecture - The Colosseum

( Originally Published 1915 )

No Roman town of importance, either in Italy or in the Colonies, was considered complete without its amphitheater. The most important of those still existing are at Rome, Verona, Pola, Capua, Pozzuoli, and Pompeii, in Italy; at Syracuse, in Sicily ; and at Nimes and Arles, in the south of France.

The largest and most famous is the Colosseum, built on the site of Nero's " Golden House " by the Flavian Emperors, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, and opened for use in the year 80 A.D. Like all the others, it is elliptical in plan, being about 620 feet in length by over 500 in width. The arena itself is about 290 feet by 180 feet, and around this are grouped the seats which rise in tiers,One above the other,supported by vaults of concrete and by piers of stone. Each section of this great auditorium has its separate entrance, which opens into a wide corridor running all around the building. As with our theaters, each seat was lettered or numbered, and the tickets of admission bore corresponding marks. The rooms for gladiators, the dens for wild beasts, and store-rooms for scenery and so forth were under the level of the arena. The beasts were prevented from jumping among the people by the walls around the arena, on top of which were metal railings.

The entire area of the auditorium was covered by an immense awning stretched from masts, fixed on the outside of the building, to the top of other masts around the arena. At least 40,000 spectators could be provided with seats, and some authorities think as high as 80,000 people sometimes attended at once.

Ruined as it now is, no building in existence gives such an impression of imposing size, and apart from all historical and sentimental interest, the power of this building grips one like a vise. The imposing appearance of the Colosseum is due far more to the sweeping lines of the entablatures, and to the reduplication of parts, than to its mere size. The lowest story is of the Doric order, the second is Ionic, the third Corinthian and the fourth Composite.

Firm Doric pillars formed the solid base,

The fair Corinthian crowned the higher space, And all below is strength, and all above is grace.

There is a certain logic in thus having the plainest, simplest, and in appearance the strongest of the' columns on the bottom tier, which must support those above it. The columns on the exterior of the Colosseum were what is known as " engaged columns." They were not there to support the weight above, as in the Greek temples, for that was done by the walls, but they were made to appear as though they did. They were built into the wall so as to look as though a part of the column were concealed. This is a departure from the Greek ideal as well as from our statement of the principle that forms in architecture should express their use; that is, that they should have a real constructive meaning. The Romans here used a Greek form for ornament only, but their walls were so massive that the structure looked much better for this ornamentation, and it was fitted in appearance to the character of the building. This excuses the Romans, who did not pre-tend to be following out Greek ideals. But we shall see how a certain school of architects, hundreds of years later, carried this meaningless imitation to such an extent as to build columns in this same way into many buildings now held in low esteem.

We may note in the Colosseum that its oval shape grew out of the fact that it was built to afford a view of the rings or arena within. Emerson says that any one may see its origin who looks at a crowd running together to see a fight, an accident, or any unusual appearance in the street. The first comers gather round in a circle; those behind stand on tiptoe; and further back they climb on fences or window-sills and so made a cup of which the object of attention occupies the hollow arena. The architect only pushed up some benches and enclosed the cup with a wall and behold a colosseum! Emerson tells this to illustrate his principle: " Whatever is beautiful rests on the foundation of the necessary."


Nothing is known with certainty as to the architect of the Colosseum, though tradition ascribes the building to Gaudentius, a Christian martyr who, afterwards, suffered on the spot. At its dedication, there were battles and combats of gladiators, and five thousand animals were slain within its circuit. The show was crowned with the flooding of the arena and a sea-fight.

Great as is the Colosseum, another Roman building, the Circus Maximus, now entirely obliterated, was more than four times as large, and contained seats for three hundred and sixty thousand people.

In the year 1332, a bull-fight after the fashion of the Moors and Spaniards was celebrated in the Colosseum itself and the spectacle was described in a diary of the times. The lots of the champions were drawn by an old and respectable citizen, and the gladiators descended into the arena or pit to encounter the wild bulls on foot, as it would seem, with a single spear. Combats in the amphitheater were dangerous and bloody.

Every champion successively encountered a wild bull, and the victory may be ascribed to the quadruped since no more than eleven were left on the field, with a loss of nine wounded and eighteen killed on the side of their adversaries. Some of the noblest families might mourn, but the pomp of the funerals afforded a second holiday to the people.

The topmost seats were for women of the lower classes and no ticket was required for the gallery, so that to gain a seat here it was necessary to be at the amphitheater before sunrise.

It is said that Gregory the Great presented some foreign ambassadors with a handful of earth from the arena as a relic for their sovereigns, and, upon receiving the gift with disrespect, he pressed it in his hands, whereupon blood flowed from the soil.

Matthew Arnold says of the great ruin : "I gazed upon the scene with intense and mingled feeling. The world could show nothing greater."

Condemned criminals made up a large contingent of the fighters in the arena. The gladiators marched into the amphitheater in processions and saluted the Emperor with the words: " Hail, Caesar, those about to die salute thee."

When a gladiator was wounded severely, the people shouted " Habet," and if they wished the wounded man to be killed, they turned up their thumbs. If a man had fought valiantly, they often spared him. The amphitheater could be flooded when nautical combats were exhibited and the spectators could watch the slowly failing struggles of the drowning. The air was cooled by fountains scented with perfumes, and, as the show lasted through the whole day, food had to be distributed at various intervals.

" They who will," writes Charles Dickens, " may have the whole great pile before them as it used to be, with thousands of eager faces staring down into the arena. It is the most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand, majestic, mournful sight conceivable."

The name Colosseum is probably derived from its great size; it is colossal. Byron quotes the following saying:

While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls, the world.

Once or twice every winter, the Colosseum is illuminated.

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