Roman Colosseum History

The suicide of emperor Nero, in 68, was followed by eighteen months of civil war, the first Roman civil war since Mark Antony’s death in 30 BC. During this period, Rome witnessed the successive rise and fall of three emperors until the final accession of Vespasian, first ruler of the Flavian Dynasty.

The first task of the new Emperor Vespasian was to rebuild Rome after the civil war, to stamp his own identity on the city and to wipe away the memory of Nero. He rebuilt the Temple of Jupiter and constructed a vast new Temple of Peace. The Roman Colosseum was to become the showpiece of the new Flavian dynasty of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian. The location chosen for the new amphitheater was most significant. It was built on the site of the infamous Golden House of Nero. This grandiose palace, complete with its own lake and parkland setting, had been built in the very heart of Rome. The lake was filled in and the land reused as the location for the new Flavian Amphitheatre.

Vespasian’s decision to build the Colosseum on the site of Nero’s lake can be seen as a gesture of returning a part of the city to the people which emperor Nero had appropriated for his own use. Ironically, the modern name for Vespasian’s great amphitheater is one that makes it more of a memorial to Nero than to the dynasty that replaced him. The word Colosseum is derived from the colossal statue of Nero (the Colossus) that stood nearby, commissioned by him for his Golden House.

Vespasian did not live to see his amphitheater completed. After he died in 79, his oldest son Titus continued construction on the Colosseum. Titus opened it to the public in AD 80. During the dedication of the Flavian Amphitheater 9,000 animals and hundreds of gladiators were participating in a hundred days of games on an unparalleled scale. After Titus’s untimely death the following year, Domitian, Vespasian’s youngest son and Titus’s young brother, built the underground caverns and finished the decorative work.

Roman Colosseum aerial

The Colosseum remained in service for 450 years. Major repairs were carried out after 217 AD, when the amphitheater was hit by lighting and a fire broke out. For five years the gladiator games had to be held at the circus and the Colosseum was not fully repaired until about 240. Repairs were also carried out after several earthquakes, most notable in 443 and 484.

Gladiatorial games began to disappear from public life during the 3rd century, due to economic pressure and opposition by the increasingly predominant new religion of Christianity. Gladiatorial fights are last mentioned around 435 while animal hunts continued a century longer. Romans start taking the iron clamps that held blocks together and looting stone from the Colosseum. Pope Alexander VI even leased it out as a quarry, collecting one-third of the profits.

It was not until 1749 that Pope Benedict XIV forbade the removal of stone from the structure, consecrating the arena to the Christian martyrs who died there and erecting a cross in the center. Later popes initiated various restoration projects, reinforcing the façade and removing the extensive vegetation which had overgrown the structure and threatened to damage it further.

Today the Colosseum is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attraction attracting millions of visitors every year.