Roman Civilization: When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do


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Rome, a civilization that conquered a vast stretch of land from Europe to North Africa whose thirst for expansion could only be rivalled by their love for entertainment. At nearly every civilization the Romans took over, you will find immense amphitheatres built to entertain the masses that settled there. These massive arenas symbolized the power, wealth and engineering prowess of the Roman empire and in most cases, were the tallest and most grandeur building in their respective city. Out of all the amphitheatres constructed by the Roman Empire, none are as famous as the Flavian Amphitheatre, also knows as, the Colosseum. The celebration of the Colosseum opening was marked by 100 days of continuous gladiatorial exhibitions, games, and venationes (enclosed hunting of wildlife). All of these games were personally payed for by Emperor Titus (79–81 AD, these included battles between two people, groups of people, venationes of all kinds of animals (over 10,000 wild animals were killed throughout all of these events), punishment of the condemned to death by recreating mythological stories, and water filled the base of the arena, setting the stage for Naumachia (mock naval battles). The Colosseum (which takes its name from the dynasty of the Flavi) was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian in the year 72 AD and although he never lived to see it, it was completed by his successor Titus in 80 AD. The Colosseum was a marvel of Roman engineering, its towering size, intricate network of underground corridors, jaw-dropping shows, advanced hypogeum and retractable velarium are all features that distinguish the largest amphitheatre ever made amongst other arenas during its time.

Although the Romans excelled at building technologies such as aqueducts and grain mills, some of Rome’s greatest architects and engineers designed and built structures that were used for public entertainment. For a long period of time, gladiatorial games, races, sports and theatrical performances were originally part of religious festivals. After many centuries, the main focus of these events shifted from celebrations of holidays and religious ceremonies to celebrating military triumphs and the empire’s growing wealth. Free public entertainment was a way for emperors to distract the poor from economic and social problems and also let them impress the masses and gain more popularity. Although the Colosseum is Rome’s most famous “stadium” it wasn’t its first. Rome’s Circus Maximus (latin for “largest race track”) is believed to be constructed in late seventh or early sixth century BC. Chariot racing was Rome’s oldest form of large scale public entertainment and Circus Maximus was the main stage, spanning over 2000 feet in length, this stadium could seat over 150,000 people. As “games” became more and more popular, the public acquired a larger thirst for more extravagant and violent spectacles. However, events such as gladiatorial combat and exotic animal hunts were too dangerous for the Circus Maximus or other public spaces because the spectators were too close to the field. In amphitheatres, this problem was resolved by having the fans be seated high above the fighting area, Rome’s oldest surviving amphitheatre, the Amphitheatre of Pompeii was the first account of this new design. The Amphitheatre of Pompeii was also the first known to be built out of stone (all others before it were built out of wood), the Colosseum was the second to be built out of stone even though it postdates it by over a century. The main ovular arena of the Colosseum has a total surface area equal to about 3600–3800m2 and was formed by segments of circles just like its great ancestor in Pompeii, mentioned earlier. Just like the antecedent in Pompeii, the Colosseum also had “cavea” (the tiers of boxes for the audience) that were raised high above the arena floor. Although, the Colosseum had a similar design to other amphitheatres during its time, the engineering that went into the innovations of the Colosseum is unmatched by any stadium during this era in human history.

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The Colosseum was divided into three parts; the arena, cavea and podium and whilst enormous (standing at 160 feet tall), it was appropriate for the one million or so population of Rome at the time. One innovation that was implemented with the Colosseum was ticketing. Although events were free of charge (mainly financed by the emperor himself), tickets were put into place to make crowd control much easier. Having numbered sections above each entrance, an intricate network of corridors and large stairwells were all key factors put into place for the functional distribution and flow of spectators, designed to allow easy escape as well just in case a, emergency happens (a fire or a loose dangerous animal). The cavea was formed by concentric rings divided into five sectors, appearing as gigantic steps and a defined social hierarchy determined the access of seating, those seats closest to the arena were reserved for senators. The optimal seating was along the “transverse” or “minor axis,” seated here were the honoured tribunes of the emperor, the high-level officers, the VIPs, and the religious authorities; it was also at this level of seating that eyes of everyone would turn towards the emperor to learn the final and irrefutable verdict—concerning the life of the gladiator—through the infamous “thumbs down” known in during this time as “pollice verso.” The main arena floor was covered by a “mobile surface” capable of opening trap doors, elevators or changing the terrain. It was constructed out of wood with layers of sand on top to help soak up the blood of any dead animals, criminals, or gladiators. Underneath the Colosseum’s arena’s floor was a 7–12 metre deep basement network known as the Hypogeum, which contained tunnels, passages, ramps, stairs, elevators, prisons, rooms for gladiators and exotic animals, infirmaries, equipment rooms (blacksmiths), and scenic elements for specific settings (trees, painted backgrounds and rocks to represent Africa for when a lion comes out). Besides the infamous gladiator battles, exotic wild animal hunts were held inside the ovular arena. Venationes was a type of entertainment involving violent acts amongst or upon different exotic wildlife. The variety of shows usually took place as the first event in the morning and featured many African and Asian fauna such as: elephants, ostriches (which were the favourite amongst emperors for cutting the bird’s head off with a sword), lions, tigers, leopards, crocodiles (which were placed into the flooded basin during staged naval battles), giraffes, rhinoceroses, panthers, etc). The animal shows ranged from mock-huntings to violent battles between animals and also included the killing of criminals and traitors by feeding them to various predators as a form of capital punishment. By the time the animal-related shows have completed it would be around mid afternoon, and on a typical Roman summer day, it could have gotten quite hot. Alongside, beast battles and gladiatorial fights were the violent retellings of famous mythological stories. The story of Prometheus was recreated by having a man tied to a large boulder and supposedly having a trained hawk rip out his insides, specifically his liver. The myth of Orpheus was recreated by having a criminal’s hands tied to a harp while they are viciously attacked by predators. In addition to the violent shows, one major innovation of the Colosseum that differed it so much from other amphitheatres at the time was its velarium, a retractable roof. Along with 110 drinking fountains, if the spectators wanted to cool down, the outer part of the Colosseum, had pillars that were put into place on the fourth order of arcades, these pillars were designed to support the giant stretch of canvas operated by around 1000 professional sailors and intended to protect the audience from the hot summer sun by being able to shift around in the suns direction.

Probably the most unknown yet, spectacular event the Colosseum would host are the Naumachia. Naumachia originated in Julius Caesar’s reign (around 100 BC) over a century before the Colosseum would be built. These staged naval battles were first held on man-made lakes and ponds and were immensely popular even up until Vespasian’s time as Emperor of Rome. Although, historians today are still not 100% certain how Roman engineers accomplished the great feat of filling up the arena floor with roughly five feet of water, some suggest a giant Aqueduct was diverted into the arena while others think the system of chambers and trap doors used for draining the water quickly could have also been used to fill it. But, even with over a million gallons of water, the Romans needed to build custom ships that didn’t have curved hulls so that they wouldn’t constantly hit the base of the arena floor. These shows had multiple teams barbarically jump onto each other’s ships, killing or incapacitating each other until only one team was left standing. However, not every “water-show” was based around violence. A submerged stage was often placed underneath the water so that men appearing as Neptune (Roman god of the sea) could ride in chariots across the surface of the water and even nighttime shows were popular with nude acrobatic swimmers performing under torchlight. These Naumachia became so popular that all future events were eventually moved to a much larger man-made lake leaving the basement of the Colosseum to be used as the network of tunnels mentioned earlier. Although the Colosseum was immense, it was not imperious to natural erosion and natural disasters. Restoration on the Colosseum had been done several times following fires (in 217, 250, and 320 AD) and earthquakes (429 and 443 AD). Any of the remaining arches left over from natural disaster were often studied by engineers and architects and eventually inspired a number of façades with “superimposed orders flanking arcades” (for example: the cortile of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome).

In conclusion, Rome was a hub of innovation in engineering and none of their public buildings showcased this more than the Colosseum. Although many large-scale stadiums came before it such as the Circus Maximus and The Amphitheatre of Pompeii, non have become more cemented in history as an engineering marvel as the Colosseum. The Colosseum took the size of Circus Maximus and the intricacy of other amphitheatre’s during its time and improved on them greatly to become one of the most famous buildings in human history. Without the architectural innovations from the Romans when designing the Colosseum, today’s society wouldn’t have gotten some of its most beloved buildings and structures. With its astonishing heritage of incredible architecture and ferocity, the Colosseum has survived through nearly 2000 years still intact with all of its cultural and symbolic reverberations, making it worthy of the title “The Seventh Wonder of the World.” 

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