The Colosseum proclaimed the greatness of the Roman Empire, and even today its ruins are so impressive we almost forget that the arena was built for a terrible purpose -- as a place where men and animals were slaughtered for the amusement of the crowd.
A majestic sight to this day, the Roman Colosseum stands more than 150 feet high.
See more pictures of the Colosseum.
The Colosseum was a remarkable feat of engineering by people who lived approximately 2,000 years ago. The building itself was 615 feet long and 510 feet wide. With the walls standing 159 feet tall, it held as many as 55,000 spectators.
To efficiently direct the huge throng into the arena, each spectator was given a token indicating which of the stadium's 80 arched entrances to use and which seat to take. The entire crowd could enter and exit very quickly. Spectators were shielded from the roasting Mediterranean sun by the remarkable velarium -- a huge awning roped to masts along the building's upper story. It resembled a ship's sails, and, in fact, sailors worked the canvas.
Beneath the stadium floor a maze of chambers and cages held condemned prisoners and wild animals. Manual-powered elevators lifted the cages to a level where the animals could escape -- but only through a trapdoor into the arena. At the Colosseum's opening in A.D. 80, bloodthirsty spectators enjoyed the slaughter of 5,000 animals.
During the "games," criminals and Christians were regularly thrown to the lions. To absorb the spilled blood, the arena's wooden floor was covered with sand. (Arena means "sandy place" in Latin.) But gladiatorial combat was the main event. Combatants paraded into the arena, bowing before emperors like Julius Caesar to shout: "We who are about to die salute you!" Indeed, half of the gladiators could count on being killed that day.
Since the era of the gladiators, the Colosseum has fallen to ruin. Earthquakes took a toll, Renaissance palace builders used it as a source of building materials, and modern Rome's air pollution is blackening the stadium with soot that eats away at the stone. Recent restorations are helping to preserve the great monument -- an auspicious development, because an old proverb warns: "When the Colosseum falls, Rome also ends, and when Rome falls, the world will end."
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.