Treasures of the Church- Holy Sites
Brief History of the
The Roman Coliseum or Colosseum, originally the Flavian
Amphitheatre, although in ancient Rome it was referred to as the
Amphitheatre of Ceasar, was built by the Flavian emperors in the
first century AD as a gift for the Roman citizens over the same
place where the emperor Neron had built his residence. The
amphitheatre was used for hunting games and gladiatorial contests.
Construction was started between 70 and 72 AD under the emperor
Vespasian and was completed in 80 AD by his son Titus who
inaugurated it with the games that lasted 100 days.
The Coliseum is located between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine
hills southeast of the Forum and its construction used 100,000 cubic
meters of travertine stone which was transported in 200 carts hauled
by ox. Many Hebrew prisoners were used for the construction of the
Coliseum. This structure more than 160 feet high and with 80
entrances had the capacity to seat 50,000 spectators.
During the battles, 10,000 people were assassinated. The fighters
were slaves, prisoners, or volunteers. The spectators would watch as
Christians were followed and assassinated by the lions. Public
events such as gladiatorial contests, mock naval battles, and wild
animal hunting also took place in the Coliseum.
The mock naval battles would take place by removing the wood floor
and filling with water the lower floor cells where animals and
prisoners were kept. Since the gladiator battles were so popular,
the naval battles were moved to another place and the wood floors
The Coliseum had marble seats for the high class and wooden benches
for the low class. Ramps facilitated the movement of the multitudes
and archers from the very top of the building would shoot against
any animal that was out of control. A mural of approximately 15 feet
separated the spectators from the bloody events in the arena.
The Domitian emperor, brother of Titus, completed the structure that
continued to function during four and a half centuries. There is
numerous evidence that shows that additions and reparations were
previously done. In 217, lightning struck the floor of the superior
part and for the subsequent five years the games took place in the
circle. There have also been many earthquakes such as the ones of
442, 470, and 847. Little by little the use of the Coliseum began to
change due to the many invasions Italy suffered and the military and
financial crisis of the empire which did not support the high costs
of maintaining the various events, making the building become
obsolete. The last reported combat between gladiators took place in
404 and the last hunt took place in 523.
During the medieval ages, houses and churches were built inside the
Coliseum which was used as the residence and strength for the Roman
barons. Its destruction advanced rapidly during the Renaissance
period and later on it was used as source of building material until
its restoration began again in the 18th century and it has not
stopped since then.
The Coliseum in the Middle Ages
due to the earthquakes, the city residents began to use the stones
that tumbled down as building material. At the end of the 6th
century, the population of Rome consisted of 90,000 residents and in
its greatest period of expansion it counted on one million
residents. This amount was reduced in the 14th century to 17,000
when the Papal See was transferred to Avignon, France. For that
time, Rome became a small city concentrated within a small nucleus,
surrounded by farms, vegetable fields, ruins, and haciendas. This
lasted until about the end of the 14th century.
During this time, the Coliseum was located in the outskirts of the
center of this medieval city which surrounded the river banks.
Subsequent earthquakes in the 19th century were probably the cause
of the destruction of the columns of the superior part which held
the wooden roof. The amphitheatre began to be filled with plants,
weeds, trees, and wild animals such as wolves which made it their
home. The hallways beneath the arena were full of dirt and the
arches below were halfway full of rubble.
Disputes over the possession of the Coliseum
In the 11th century, Rome was controlled by baron families who
would constantly fight against each other. These families would live
in tall towers for security reasons. Some towers have lasted until
today as a memory from the conflictive Middle Ages. One of the
strongest families was the Frangipane family who would reside in the
area of the Coliseum which they turned into a fort.
In the year 1216, the Annibaldi family challenged the Frangipane
family for the possession of the Coliseum and the battle lasted
until the end of the this century when the Annibaldi family won the
fight. They ended up having to return it to the Church in the year
Established as a source of material for construction
In the year 1231, part of the exterior wall collapsed due to a
strong earthquake and there was more destruction in the year 1349
when some of the arches collapsed. In the 14th century, the Orsini
and Colonna families received permission to take some stones and
marble pieces. It was not until then in the history of the Coliseum
in which the marble, the stones, and bricks were taken from the
site. This removal of parts of the Coliseum lasted many generations.
Many of the churches and the palaces of this time were built with
stones from the Coliseum. It is told that between the years
1451-1452, around 2,522 cargos of stone were taken from the Coliseum
for the construction of the Vatican and the walls of Rome.
Subsequent Divisions of the Property
The property was subdivided. Some religious orders received
sections of the amphitheatre as a donation. One of the religious
orders connected their part of the Coliseum with their convent,
building a wall.
Ignorance of the Purpose of the Coliseum
During the Middle Ages, the memory of the games was lost and the
people came to think that the building had been a temple dedicated
to the devil. During this time, the tourist guides of the city of
Rome described the Coliseum as a circular temple dedicated to many
gods that in antiquity had been covered by a bronze or copper dome.
Beginning of the Restoration
Under Napoleon, between the years 1809-1815, the cleaning
project of the amphitheatre began and the rubble was picked up. For
the first time a survey was done and the necessary reparations
began. The walls blocking the arches were also eliminated.
In 1815 when control of the Coliseum was restored to the Church the
restoration projects continued. What was left of the exterior ring
was reinforced and in the year 1820, the arches were reinforced with
The restoration project has not been completed yet. Many advances
have been made since the beginning of the restoration of the
building. Efforts for its cleanliness and conservation are taking
place thanks to both private and governmental donations.
Current Use of the Colisseum
Since the year 1749, Pope Benedict XIV declared the monument as
a public church, consecrated to the memory of the Passion of our
Lord Jesus Christ and his martyrs. The stations of the Via Crucis
(way of the Cross) were placed around the arena and a new cross was
placed in the center. The Holy Father founded an archcofraternity
dedicated to Jesus and Mary and which carries out
processions in the amphitheatre. It is now a tradition in the Church
that the Holy Father prays the Way of the Cross in the Coliseum on
Good Friday, the place where so many Christians offered their lives
as witnesses of their faith in Jesus Christ. The lives of many of
the Christians of the early Church were blinded in this holy
monument which for many it was solely a fountain of mundane show and
for the witnesses of Christ it was a fountain of celestial glory and
a land of abandonment for the evangelization until our time.
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