The Colosseum was the greatest of Roman amphitheaters. Oval in shape it measured 610 feet by 509 feet; the outside walls were 163 feet high and there were four stories. The building of it was begun in AD 74 by the Emperor Vespasian; it was finished in about AD 80 by the Emperor Titus. Both these members were members of the Flavian family, which is why it was called the Flavian amphitheatre. It was not until the Middle Ages that it came to be known by its more familiar name of the Colosseum, not because of its great size but because on this site originally stood a colossal statue of the Emperor Nero. Although this was removed to make way for the amphitheatre, the name remained.
For more than two centuries the arena of the Colosseum was the scene of unbelievable cruelty; men and animals were slaughtered in their thousands to satisfy the Romans' thirst for excitement. It was also the scene of the martyrdom of many Christians. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 313, there were fewer gladiatorial fight, but it was not until AD 404 that the Emperor Honorius banned them altogether. Gradually, the Colosseum was abandoned, and in the Middle Ages it was used as a fortress. Although lightning, fires, and earthquakes damaged the vast building, humans were chiefly responsible for its destruction. For centuries it was the marble quarry of Rome, and many buildings, including St. Peter's, were built from materials pillaged from it. Yet even today enough still stands to give us an idea what it must have been like 2,000 years ago.
Scenes from the ColosseumThe poet Martial has left us a description of some of the shows that were organized during the first 100 days after the Colosseum opened on 1st May AD 80. On the first day more than 100 pairs of gladiators fought in the arena from morning to evening. The gladiator who lost his fight was usually killed by the victor, unless the crowd thought that he had fought particularly bravely.
On the following days the shows included venationes. These were wild-beast hunts, which took place in the area amid forest scenery. The more unusual the animals, the better the crowd were pleased; and tigers, ostriches, and even rhinoceroses were imported at vast cost just to be slaughtered. On one day over 5,000 beasts were killed. The naumachiae were also very popular. These were mock naval battles fought in small boats. For these shows the arena was filled with water.
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