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Definition: Colosseum from Philip's Encyclopedia

Ampitheatre in Rome, built ad 72-81 by the Emperor Vespasian. One of the most awe-inspiring examples of ancient Roman architecture, it measures 189 x 156m (620 x 513ft) by 45.7m (150ft) high, and seated c.50,000 people. Citizens of Rome came here to watch gladiatorial contests and, according to tradition, the martyrdom of Christians.

Summary Article: Colosseum
From The Classical Tradition

The largest and best-preserved amphitheater of imperial Rome, begun by Vespasian and dedicated in 80 ce by his son Titus.

From the moment of its inauguration, the Colosseum became the symbol of Roman architectural achievement. Over the centuries its stubborn resistance to wear and tear has made it the icon of the Eternal City. Pomponio Leto acknowledged the authoritative status of the Colosseum in a lecture published in 1510, in which he echoed Suetonius by describing it as being in the middle of the city, in media Urbe amphitheatrum, even though the Colosseum then stood on the fringes of the papal capital. Nevertheless, as Pomponio recognized, despite the uncertainties of time and fortune, the Colosseum continues to represent the symbolic heart of Rome.

Originally called the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum acquired its now universally familiar name in the Middle Ages, perhaps as an invented term inspired by an adjacent colossal statue built by Nero. Gladiatorial combat there ended in the 5th century, and the amphitheater began to decay as scavengers extracted the metal clamps pinning its stones together. As early as the 8th century, a catastrophic earthquake destroyed more than half of the external arcades, creating a gigantic pile of rubble called the Coscia Colisei. In the 12th century the Colosseum served as a fortress for the Frangipani, a Roman baronial family, who built their palatium at the eastern end of the arena, but eventually the monument was restored to the public domain. From the early 15th century onward two-thirds of the amphitheater was subject to the jurisdiction of the civic government; the remaining third belonged to a religious confraternity, the Compagnia del Salvatore.

The Colosseum always provided a convenient quarry for new construction in Rome, and during the Renaissance building boom the scale of excavations increased exponentially. In 1452 alone, under Pope Nicholas V, more than 2,500 cartloads were hauled from the site. Landmark structures such as the Palazzo Venezia and the Palazzo della Cancelleria exploited the Colosseum for its building stone while also emulating the design of its superimposed arcades. But the presence of the civic government as official custodian of the ruins limited demolition at the Colosseum. Civic officials protected the surviving arcades, delegating the Coscia Colisei to the Salvatore confraternity, which sold off rubble to support their charitable works. Stone was removed from the Colosseum as late as 1796, just before the construction of the monumental buttresses. The remarkable survival of the arcades testifies not only to their rugged construction but to the vigilance of the Roman civic guardians who preserved them intact.

Religion played a more prominent role at the Colosseum after 1490, when the Gonfalone confraternity began to stage their annual Passion plays in the arena. Successive popes proposed consecrating the Colosseum—with the notable exception of Sixtus V, who proposed either rehabilitating it as a textile mill or leveling it—and in 1749 Benedict XIV dedicated the monument as a public church, erecting a crucifix and tabernacles marking the Stations of the Cross in the arena. Modern excavations have effaced much of this religious atmosphere, but the Colosseum still provides the setting for the reenactment of the Via Crucis on Good Friday.

Contemporary sports stadiums often claim to be the modern equivalents of the Colosseum (Americanized as coliseum), but the design of such mega-structures continues to move away from the ancient model. The primary external feature of the Colosseum was its masonry shell, whereas domed roofs, or cantilevered boxes, now dominate stadium design. But the Colosseum's amphitheater remains a popular setting for films. For Gladiator (2000), a cast of 2,000 filled a full-scale model of the lowest tier, encompassing nearly a third of the original circumference; the upper tiers, and the remaining 33,000 spectators, were recreated using digital technology.

  • Antonetti, Stefano and Rea, Rossella, "Inquadramento cronologico delle tracce del riuso," in Rota colisei, la valle del Colosseo attraverso i secoli ed. Rea, Rossella (Milan2002) 283-327.
  • Di Macco, Michela, Il Colosseo: Funzione simbolica, storica, urbana (Rome1971).
  • Hopkins, Keith and Beard, Mary, The Colosseum (London2005).
  • Newbigin, Nerida, "The Decorum of the Passion: The Plays of the Confraternity of the Gonfalone in the Roman Colosseum, 1490--1539," in Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Italy ed. Wisch, Barbara and Cole Ahl, Diane (New York2000) 173-202.
D. KA.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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