Coliseum at Sunset. Photo: Guillermo Alonso

The Colosseum is one of the most enduring monuments to survive from antiquity. It is a triumphant testament to its builders’ ingenuity and foresight. A Traditional Fusion of Durability, Convenience, and Beauty. If you’re visiting this masterpiece, you need to understand better the impact the building had on ancient Rome.

Alternatively known as the Flavian Amphitheatre because it was built during the reign of Flavian emperors, the Colosseum owes its longevity and survival, despite plunder and natural disaster through the ages, to its creators’ decision to imbue it with a combination of behemoth strength, extensive utility and practical grace – the very embodiment of Vitruvian virtues.

Commissioned by Emperor Vespasian after he ascended to power in AD 69 and completed in the relatively short order in AD 80 by his son and successor, Titus, the Colosseum stands unsurpassed as the largest amphitheater amongst the more than 250 other amphitheaters in Roman times.

Structural Integrity

The immense weight of the oval-shaped Colosseum’s unprecedented size (with a horizontal span of 188 m x 156 m and with a nearly 50 m high exterior) and vast multi-tiered marble-faced seating area (which can accommodate up to 50,000 spectators) is supported by a massive concrete foundation (comprising an outer ring that extends to a depth of up to 13 m and an inner slab that is 4 m deep) and an intricate system of brick-faced concrete vaulted pathways, radial load-bearing travertine piers interspersed by an infilling of tuff (a type of volcanic rock) and concrete walls that buttressed the load-dispersing vaults.

The considerable multi-directional and multitudinous forces and pressures generated by the lines of thrust, horizontal thrusts, vertical weight and gravity emanating from and exerted upon the components of the superstructure are contained and stabilized by the encircling travertine wall of arches.

Multiple Access Ways

An efficient crowd circulation system within the superstructure prevented intermingling of social classes by dispersing spectators swiftly and safely to hierarchically-ranked seating areas, which are sectioned off. Seventy-six numbered ground floor entranceways segregated Romans according to their ranks into dedicated radial passageways that funneled the most elite directly to the innermost annular corridor and up ramps to premium ring-side seats away from the hoi polloi, while progressively lower classes were correspondingly sifted through 4 outer concentric corridors to reach discrete stairways leading to seats further up and away from the arena.

Cross Section of the Colosseum

These interior tunnels serve not only as an effective crowd control mechanism but the supportive properties of the vaulted interior help to reinforce the overall stability of the colossal building since vaults are an amplification of the basic arch design.

Mighty Splendour

The pièce de résistance of the Colosseum has to be its elaborately articulated exterior façade, which is an aesthetic coup of proportion, symmetry, structured elegance and stately uniformity, expressed by 3 circumambulating tiers of 80 superimposed pier-arches each. Apart from serving a decorative purpose, the classic Roman arch has held the Colosseum in steady equilibrium through millennia by virtue of its vaunted ability to resist tensile forces and withstand compressive stresses.

Greek mythological statues standing in the second and third-floor archways visually stamped the visceral might and grandeur of Imperial Rome unreservedly upon approaching spectators. Each arch is flanked by Classical half-columns superposed in a novel sequence of increasing slenderness – rustic Tuscan on the ground floor, graceful Ionic on the second and ornate Corinthian on the third – that was admired and often copied by Renaissance builders. This harmonious mélange is crowned by a fourth tier of Corinthian pilasters and decorative gilded bronze shields.

Till this day, the Colosseum remains one of antiquity’s greatest architectural and engineering feats, due in no small part to its sturdiness, efficacy and functional aesthetics.

Bibliography

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online

Hopkins, Keith. The Colosseum: Emblem of Rome. BBC History.

Hopkins, Keith, and Mary Beard. The Colosseum. London: Profile, 2005.

The Open University. Block 2: The Colosseum. Milton Keynes: The Open University, 1997.

Pepe, Andrea. Svbstructio. The Colosseum. 2001.

Scarre, Chris, ed. The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: The Great Monuments and How They Were Built. London: Thames, 1999.

Sear, Frank. Roman Architecture. 1982. Oxon: Routledge, 1998.

Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture. Translated by Morris Hicky Morgan. London: Oxford University Press, 1914.