It’s hard to believe, but what was once an artificial lake on the grounds of Emperor Nero’s palace the Domus Aurea is now one of the most enduring and identifiable landmarks in human existence. The Flavian Amphitheater in Rome, Italy, better known as The Colosseum (for an enormous 130 foot statue that once stood outside the entrance), was built over eight years from 72 AD to 80 AD and is among the grandest and best examples of Roman architecture, engineering, and ingenuity. The four tiered stadium held over 50,000 spectators and included everyone from slaves and women at the upper level to the emperor on the lowest level. These audience members were witness to what was then seen as the height of entertainment; what is now widely considered barbaric. During the opening celebration lasting 100 days over 90,000 animals were killed for the amusement of the viewing public. During the four and a half centuries at the height of its use, it is estimated that 500,000 people met their deaths on the grounds of The Colosseum. One festival celebrating Emperor Trajan saw 9,000 gladiators take their last bloody breaths over 117 days. Today, the gruesome history of the stadium is a backdrop to its draw as a tourist attraction. In fact, nearly 2,000,000 people a year visit The Colosseum; making it the second most visited place in Italy after the Vatican.
One of the most amazing aspects of The Colosseum is that it was built to be able to accommodate mock naval battles. That’s right; they would actually close certain gates at the base of the structure and then flood it so that ships could be floated in the middle of the stadium. This engineering feat was accomplished in the 1st century AD. There is also significant evidence that complex machinery operated through a hydraulics system underground to facilitate the lifting and lowering of props, scenery, and animals to the arena’s main floor. The Romans even constructed a retractable awning to protect spectators from sun and rain. Sadly, a series of fires and numerous earthquakes have left the structure unsuitable for its intended use as only a few hundred seats remain. The Colosseum has been used as a backdrop for several performances in recent years providing it with a rebirth of sorts.
Oddly, despite (or perhaps because of) its bloody history, The Colosseum is now the centerpiece in the worldwide conflict over capital punishment. Italy, having long ago abolished the death penalty, changes the lighting scheme at night whenever they feel important strides are made in the permanent elimination of capital punishment. Ever since a seven year $20 million restoration in the 1990’s the building is looking better than it has in centuries. Probably the best part of the visit to The Colosseum is being able to see up close just how massive and impressive the structure is, even in its ruined state. The fact that as much of the arena still exists is a testament to the highly skilled artisans, architects, and engineers who designed and constructed this building so many years ago. Truly a wonder of the world, a visit to The Colosseum is a trip into Roman history and culture that is not to be missed.
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