The Colosseum Symbol of Rome
“While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand. When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall, and when Rome falls – the World.” This poetic statement attributed to the Venerable Bede sums up every generation’s fascination with the great amphitheater of Rome. No building symbolizes the Roman Empire quite like the Flavian Amphitheater. For centuries it has inspired artists, architects, poets, musicians, and more recently, filmmakers. Conversely, the Flavian Amphitheater horrifies the modern conscience because of the blood spilled within its walls before mobs of cheering spectators. Despite these misgivings, we can appreciate the Colosseum for its enormous size, architectural complexity, and the advanced engineering required to build it almost two thousand years ago.
The Colosseum through times: functions and symbols
The Colosseum, one of the most important Symbols of Rome cannot be understood so simply as just the first permanent amphitheater to be erected in the city of Rome. The Colosseum is a result of a complex set of relationships and interactions from the time it was built to the present day.
The Colosseum sits in the valley between the Palatine, Esquiline, and Celian Hills. Despite the damage it has endured over the centuries because of fires, earthquakes and looting, after 2000 years it still remains an incredibly powerful Symbol of the city.
The Colosseum, (formerly known as The Flavian amphitheater) was certainly the most impressive arena the Classical world had yet seen. It was built in an area occupied by a manmade lake adjoining the Domus Aurea (Nero’s Imperial residence), at the behest of Vespasian and was inaugurated in A.D. 80 by Titus with games that are said to have lasted 100 days. It was completed by Domitian and restored by Alexander Severusus. The amphitheater was used for gladiatorial spectacles, animal hunts and capital punishment.
The Colosseum is in the shape of a grand ellipse that spanned 187m by 155m, with tiers of seating for 50,000 spectators around the central arena. Below this wooden area level, there were a set of complex chambers and passageways built for wild beasts and other provisions required for the spectacles. From the arena, eighty walls radiate and buttress the vaults for passageways, stairs and the tiers of seating. On the outermost edge circumferential arcades link each level and the stairs between the levels.
The construction utilized a careful selection of materials: concrete for the foundations, travertine for the piers and arcades, tufa infill between piers for the walls of the lower two levels, and brick-faced concrete used for the upper levels and for most of the vaults.
The Colosseum is one of the most famous, and instantly recognizable monuments to have survived from the classical world. So famous, in fact, that for over seventy years, from 1928 to 2000, a fragment of its distinctive colonnade was displayed on the medals awarded to victorious athletes at the Olympic Games as a symbol of classicism and of the modern Games’ ancient ancestor. The Colosseum’s tiered seating could once accommodate for 50,000 seated and 10,000 standing, all of whom could enter and leave in a matter of minutes, courtesy of 80 entrances.
The Colosseum, which is seen as an extremely classical monument, was in fact very avant-garde for its time. Not only did it invent this new stadium typology and push structural limits, it also created a new architectural language that questioned and reinvented a façade using classical elements in a new composition.
Its façade was originally graduated from simple Doric at ground level, to Ionic on the second and ornate Corinthian on the third, using these orders as metaphors of the larger social structuring of Roman society, from the nobility through the merchant classes. The articulation this facade has been a powerful regulating influence upon the facade aesthetic of buildings through to present times. The most notable of these was perhaps Renaissance palazzi such as Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, with its rusticated ground floor, piano nobile and top floor stacked with the different classical orders.
Name of Colosseum
The name Colosseum been considered to come from a colossal statue of Nero, that was situated nearby. The statue was given a different signification, by Nero’s successors, and probably became a statue in honor of Helios or Apollo. The head of the statue, imagining Nero was also replaced several times with the heads of the succeeding emperors. The statue was considered to have magical powers.
The monument eventually crashed and by the year 1000 the name “Colosseum” became synonymous to the amphitheater. During the Middle Ages, the name of the amphitheater was corrupted to Coliseum.
A container of functions
The Colosseum, built to house gladiatorial contests and public spectacles was used for contests well into the 6th century however it underwent many radical changes in terms of its function during the medieval period.
By the late 6th century it was used as a religious space and a small church has been constructed into its structure and the arena was converted into a cemetery. The numerous vaulted spaces under the seating area were used for housing and workshops, and were being rented as late as the 12th century. Soon after the 12th century the Frangipani took control over the Colosseum and converted it to function as fortification by using it as a castle. The Colosseum later functioned as a quarry after much damage was inflicted upon it such as the great earthquake in 1349. The materials looted were reused to build palaces, churches and hospitals around the city. In the mid 14th century a religious order began to occupy a part of the Colosseum and they used it as a shrine until as late as the early 19th century.
When Pope Sixtus V came to power, he found the treasury exhausted and the city full of beggars and unemployed. He decided to develop the export trade by reviving the old Roman wool and silk industries by transforming the Colosseum into a wool-spinning establishment, though this proposal fell through with his premature death.
In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV endorsed as official Church policy the view that the Colosseum was a sacred site where early Christians had been martyred. He forbade the use of the Colosseum as a quarry and consecrated the building to the Passion of Christ and installed Stations of the Cross, declaring it sanctified by the blood of the Christian martyrs who perished there, however there is no historical evidence to support Benedict’s claim.
Originally an entertainment and sports arena to a religious space, housing complex, a fortress and then a shrine, the Colosseum today serves as an archeological ruin. The Colosseum can thus be seen as a container of functions.