More Options

Myths and Secrets of the Colosseum

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.1, January/February 2018

The Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the “Colosseum,” is the largest and most majestic amphitheater of ancient times. It is the second most visited monument in the world (after the Great Wall of China), and in 2007 was included among the new seven wonders of the modern world.

However, as much as it is known and is considered one of the symbols of Western civilization, there still are myths and legends that surround it, along with some little-known facts that shed interesting lights on its history.

By the Numbers

The Colosseum was built by Emperor Vespasian. The work started in 71 AD and nine years later, it was inaugurated by his son, Tito, with 100 days of games, where 2,000 gladiators fought and 9,000 animals were killed. The work was completed by Tito’s brother Domitian in 96 AD.

It has an elliptical shape, with a perimeter of 1,728 feet. It’s 170 feet tall (not counting the twenty feet underground), 616 feet long, and 511 feet wide. At the far end of the main axis was the Triumphalis Gate (west), where gladiators and musicians entered, and the Libitian Gate (east), from where the dead fighters were taken away. On the minor axis there was the entrance of the emperor (south) and that of the authorities (north).

It could hold 50,000 seated people and up to 73,000 if those on the highest stairs stood, though it took just three minutes to empty completely. The arrangement provided the best seats at the bottom, closer to the arena. It was the Ima cavea, where the emperor, the senators, and their families and the vestals sat. Going upward was the Maenianum primum, reserved for the exponents of the equestrian order; the Maenianum secundum imum and the secundum summum, reserved for the plebeians; and finally, the Maenianum summum in ligneis, wooden steps reserved for foreigners, slaves, and women.

The last fights between gladiators took place in 435 AD, the last fights between animals in 523 AD. The Colosseum remained in operation for a total of 443 years. And now, here are ten myths and secrets about the Colosseum.

  1. Is There a Reason the Colosseum Was Built Where It Was?

    Yes: that’s the exact spot where Nero built a pond for his Domus Aurea. He had taken possession of the area after a fire destroyed part of Rome in 64 AD. When Nero died, Vespasian chose to build the amphitheater right there, as a political move to show that he was giving back to the people what Nero had taken. However, there was also a practical reason: choosing that basin meant saving more than half of the work needed to dig the foundations of the building. It meant carrying a fifth of the land that should have to be excavated on a level surface. It was a smart way to save on work, money, and bureaucracy.

  2. Was the Architect Who Built It a Christian Who Ended Up Killed in the Arena?

    No, that’s a legend. It was the guides of the 1960s who stated that the Colosseum’s architect was a man named Gaudenzio, a noble Roman convert to Christianity, who ended up martyred in the arena he had built. In reality, the architect’s name is lost to time. This should not be surprising, since the names of those who built most of the Roman monuments are unknown. At that time, what counted was only the emperor of the moment, and the architect was treated as a worker whose name could never obscure that of his client. However, it is unquestionable that the construction of the Colosseum required an intelligence and originality that springs from every detail—a talent that has to be seen as a testimony to one of the greatest unknown geniuses of antiquity.

  3. Were There Ever Women Gladiators?

    There is little historical evidence in favor of the presence of women gladiators in the arena, but some exists and confirms that fighting women were a reality. Tacitus states with disdain that “many high ranking women and many senators have fallen for the arena.” Gladiators were, in fact, not slaves or poor citizens forced to grab arms in order to earn something. It was often a free choice that women chose in order to emulate men—a choice dictated by the desire for glory or, as Giovenale’s malice insinuated, by the possibility of being alongside with so many studs. There is an art relief found in Halicarnassus, in today’s Turkey, now kept at the British Museum in London, that shows two fighters who face themselves: that they are two women is guessed only by their art names, Achillia and Amazon.

  4. Did the Gladiators Always Say Before a Fight: “Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant,” Meaning They Expected to Die?

    Svetonio tells that during the reign of Claudio, in 52 AD, in order to celebrate the completion of the canal of Lake Fucino, a naumachia (a battleship) was organized, the largest ever documented. Nineteen thousand rowers and soldiers would clash on triremes and squares, divided between a fleet that would have played the role of Rhodes and one playing that of Sicily. At which point, before the battle began, the fighters greeted Claudio with the phrase: “Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant,” meaning “Hi Caesar, those who are going to die salute you.” Every emperor was called Caesar, as this was a title of honor after Julius Caesar. Claudio’s response unleashed the confusion. It seems that he said: “Avete, vos!” meaning: “Hi to you,” which in Latin, however, can also mean: “You are saved.” And the fighters, believing that in those words the emperor meant to say that they were no longer condemned and wanted to save them, they refused to fight. Claudio was forced to threaten, promise rewards, and finally plead for the fighters to start the battle. Eventually, they did and, after a lot of bloodshed, Claudio freed the criminals who survived. However, that episode is the only known time, throughout the history of Rome, where the fighters turned to the Emperor presenting themselves as morituri.

  5. Could the Basement Be Filled with Water in Order to Represent Ships Battling?

    This probably happened only during the inauguration, for very soon the basin of the arena was filled with rooms and corridors for all the people needed in order to put on the show. This was the real backstage, where technicians and workers operated, the scenes were hidden, the animals caged, and all the maneuvering facilities and apparatus was maneuvered in order to create spectacular effects. Here the gladiators waited for their turn to get on stage and those condemned to death spent their last few minutes before meeting their fate. Today, the Colosseum’s undergrounds are open and visible, but they do not differ greatly from how they appeared when the Roman Empire fell, since they had been buried until their rediscovery in the late 1800s.

  6. Is It True That the Colosseum Was Free?

    Those who organized the games usually distributed official invitations to public figures, senators, priests, and their families, then reserved some places for themselves and influential friends and instructed locals to sell the rest. The vast majority of tickets, therefore, were distributed through the “clientele” system. The aristocrats, that is, had a large number of tickets available to their friends and clients. It was a system that, in addition to enhancing customer relations, distributed the streams of spectators in the various sectors of the Amphitheater, avoiding crowding some of them. In the end, only the foreigners were left to pay for the ticket, since they came to town only to watch the games and, living elsewhere, they could not prove politically useful to the game organizer. Such incomes did not nearly cover the huge costs, but they at least reduced the inevitable losses.

  7. Does “Thumbs Up” Mean Life and “Thumbs Down” Death?

    In Latin texts, the gesture made by the emperor to demand death is a thumb or pollicem vertere, thumb down. But the meaning is controversial. A thumb protruding from a hand could be symbolic of a swaddled sword and, therefore, thought to symbolize death. It is true, in fact, that the pollicem premere indication, where the thumb is held inside the fist, like a refined sword, means that the defeated was spared. The idea that the thumb upward corresponds to a grace and a thumb down to a condemnation was born in the nineteenth century, through the paintings recalling the fights in the Colosseum.

  8. Is It True That the Colosseum Was the Place of Christian Martyrdom?

    There is no evidence of this, as the narratives of martyrs all date to the fifth century AD, by which time the Colosseum had fallen into disuse. Christianity had already become the religion of state and the Acta Martyrum, the records of proceedings and deaths of martyrs, were essentially novels with educational purposes and made references to conflicts between Christians and authorities that occurred centuries earlier. In the sixteenth century, the Acta started to be treated as historical sources and the idea of the Colosseum as a place of martyrdom was born. Today the Church, as well as Catholic historians, is reluctant to argue that some well-known martyrs had indeed found death in the Colosseum. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have happened, although it seems unlikely, since it is well-known that, compared to other provinces and especially Africa, Rome never saw the worst excesses of persecutions. Furthermore, in Rome, Christians were usually executed in the public place of execution, which was on the Esquiline hill and not at the Colosseum.

  9. Was the Colosseum Doomed to Become a Silk Factory and then a Basilica?

    At the end of the sixteenth century, Pope Sisto V intended to transform the Colosseum into a silk factory and home for the workers employed in it, and so he commissioned the architect Domenico Fontana to work on the project. The Church started collecting the huge financial resources needed, but the work never started because in 1590, the pope died. In 1671, Pope Clement X commissioned another great architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to transform the amphitheater into a temple devoted to the martyrs, to preserve it as a sacred place. A shortage of funds, again, ended the project.

  10. Why Does the Colosseum Have Its Present Shape?

    What gave the Colosseum its asymmetric shape, known worldwide, was sixteen centuries of misadventures. Numerous earthquakes caused the fall of parts of the monument, especially on the southern side (the one now devoid of the two outer rings and the two upper arches) that rises on the alluvial sediments of an ancient tributary of the Tiber, which at that point formed swamps, unlike the northern side, built on more solid volcanic rocks. The rubble was reclaimed and reused to build other buildings, and from the ninth century onward, the Colosseum became a quarry of materials for the new palaces of papal Rome. In 1744, Benedetto XIV declared the Colosseum “sacred soil,” and only then the spoliation ended. The two sloping clay spurs were built in the 1800s to give stability to the ruin and prevent further collapses.

Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at www.massimopolidoro.com.