The Colosseum in Rome, Italy, was originally called the Amphitheatrum Flavianum. Since its construction (a.d. 72–80) this gigantic amphitheater has been regarded both as a symbol of Rome's power and as one of the world's greatest wonders. The structure, built of travertine blocks upon the site of Nero's Golden House by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus, is an ellipse 1,719 feet in circumference and 159 feet in height, with an arena 282 by 177 feet. In its best preserved section it is four stories high. The first three stories are formed by arcades with pillars of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders respectively; the fourth is a tier of blind arcading, broken by alternate panels and windows. The interior had three tiers of marble seats for about 50,000 spectators. Beneath the sanded arena was an elaborate structure of rooms, vaults, passageways, and drains.
The intricate system of substructures beneath the arena seems to indicate that it could be flooded for mock naval battles. There were efficient devices for the drainage of the entire interior, which have been in part restored. Surrounding the arena was a low wall surmounted by a railing high enough to protect the audience from wild animals and combatants. The primary purpose of the huge arena was entertainment, such as gladiatorial fights, naval clashes, and wild beast fights. While it has been venerated as the scene of numerous Christian martyrdoms since the 17th century, this late tradition has been seriously questioned by recent scholars, especially the Bollandist H. delehaye, as the ancient Christian sources make no mention of such martyrdoms.
Because of earthquakes and its use as a stone quarry, the Colosseum continued to deteriorate until Pope benedict xiv (1740–58) forbade further demolition. Because of periodic stories of buried treasure in the Colosseum, Pope pius ix, in 1864, gave permission for excavations. Nothing of intrinsic value was found. However, the excavations did give R. Lanciani an opportunity to examine the foundations of the vast structure. He found that the substructures were arched like those of the structure above the ground, and that underneath them was a very thick bed of concrete. Further excavations were begun in 1938. The outbreak of World War II in the following year suspended the work, which resumed at the end of the war. An eight-year restoration of the Colosseum in 1992 was part of a project of sprucing up the city of Rome for the new millennium. Archaeological excavations continue to be carried out in the elaborate system of labyrinths beneath.
Bibliography: g. lugli, The Flavian Amphitheatre: the Colosseum (Rome 1971). p. quennell, The Colosseum (New York 1971). m. l. conforto and a. m. reggiani, Anfiteatro flavio: immagine, testimonianze, spettacoli (Rome 1988). r. luciani, The Colosseum: Architecture, History, and Entertainment in the Flavian Amphitheatre, Ancient Rome's Most Famous Building (Novara, Italy 1990).
[t. j. allen/eds.]