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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Icon of Roman History

The Colosseum is probably the most impressive building of the Roman Empire. Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, this magnificent structure was the largest of its time.  While the monumental structure has fallen into ruin, even to today it remains an imposing and beautiful sight.
Romans were huge sports fans, and the Flavian emperors catered to their tastes by building splendid facilities. Construction of the Flavian Amphitheater, Rome's greatest arena, began under Vespasian in 70 CE and was completed under Titus, who dedicated it in 80 CE. The Flavian Amphitheater came to be known as the "Colosseum" because a gigantic statue of Nero called the Colossus stood next to it. "Colosseum" is a most appropriate description of this enormous entertainment. Its outer wall stand 159 feet high. It is an oval, measuring 615 by 510 feet, with a floor 280 by 175 feet. This floor was laid over a foundation of service rooms and tunnels that provided an area for the athletes, performers, animals, and equipment. The floor was covered by sand, arena in Latin, hence the term "arena" for a building of this type.
   Roman audiences watched a variety of athletic events, blood sports, and spectacles, including animal hunts, fights to the death between gladiators or between gladiators and wild animals, performances of trained animals and acrobats, and even mock sea battles, for which the arena would be flooded. The opening performances in 80 CE lasted 100 days, during which time it was claimed that 9,000 wild animals and 2,000 gladiators died for the amusement of the spectators.
   The amphitheater is a remarkable piece of planning, with easy access, perfect sight lines for everyone, and effective crowd control. Stadiums today are still based on this efficient plan. Each level of seats was laid over barrel-vaulted access corridors and entrance tunnels. The intersection of the barrel-vaulted entrance tunnels and the ring corridors created groin vaults. The walls on the top level of the arena supported a huge awning that could shade the seating areas. The curving outer wall of the Colosseum consists of three levels of arcades surmounted by a wall-like attic story. Each arc is framed by engaged columns. Entablature-like friezes mark the divisions between levels. Each level also uses a different architectural order, increasing in complexity from bottom to top: the plain Tuscan order on the ground level, Ionic on the second level, Corinthian on the third, and Corinthian pilasters on the fourth. The attic story is broken by small, square windows, which originally alternated with gilded-bronze shield-shaped ornaments called caratouches, supported on brackets that are still in place. 
   Emperors used the Colosseum to entertain the public with free games. Those games were a symbol of prestige and power and they were a way for an emperor to increase his popularity.
   Games were held for a whole day or even several days in a row. They usually started with comical acts and displays of exotic animals and ended with fights to the death between animals and gladiators or between gladiators. These fighters were usually slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals. Sometimes free Romans and even emperors took part in the action.
   The southern side of the Colosseum was felled by an earthquake in 847. Parts of the building - including the marble facade - were used for the construction of later monuments, including the St. Peter's Basilica.

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