Engineering Rome

Entertainment in Rome: A Comparison of The Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico

By Elena Johnson

All photos are from the author unless otherwise stated.

Entertainment in Rome

Entertainment has played a very important role in Roman culture since the ancient Roman times. Much like today’s sport cultures and demand for streaming services, Romans valued their leisure time and emperors valued staying in favor by keeping their citizens happy. Leisure time, represented by the word ‘otium’, could involve a number of different activities. Similar to today’s sports culture, sports were important in Rome as well. In Campus Martius, male Romans enjoyed playing sports such as wrestling, boxing, and racing. Swimming was a particularly popular sport. Surprisingly, boys participated in their favorite water activities in the Tiber River. This is in stark contrast to today’s Tiber River that is flowing with brown, unclean water. Romans also swam in Roman Baths including the Baths of Caracalla, a large public bath house on the south east side of town. Women largely did not participate in these physical activities (Fife 1). 

Included in games Romans played were ball games that were held in ball courts (‘palaestra’ or ‘sphaerista’ as they called it). A sport resembling present day soccer, or football, is among these games. There are even some reports of females participating in these games. However, women were more likely participating in other entertainment areas such as board games and watching theater. The Circus Maximus held chariot races and musical theater performances (Fife 1). Finally, there was the Roman Colosseum. Maybe the most well known legacy of all, the Colosseum was used with the same intent as any other form of ancient Roman entertainment: to keep citizens appeased and prevent uprisings. Thus, entertainment was not only important to the citizens, but also to the emperor (Fife 1). 

Today, we keep ourselves entertained constantly. Whether it’s with a phone, television, or kindle, we are always looking for something to keep our mind occupied. However, outside of these new forms of entertainment that came with the advancement of technology, we still largely participate in activities that resemble those of the ancient Romans. Sports still play an influential role from mainstream media and on elementary school playgrounds. Theaters are still popular with the addition of movie theaters. This leads one to believe that our forms of entertainment really don’t differ too much from what they used to be. For example, how different is one of today’s Roman ‘football’ games from a day at the ancient Roman Colosseum thousands of years ago? In this paper I analyze both the culture of the games and the structures they take place in to see how much, or little, Roman entertainment has changed over the centuries.

Figure 1: Map from showing the locations of the Colosseum (red) and Stadio Olimpico (blue).

The Colosseum

The Colosseum’s original name was the Flavian Amphitheater or ‘Amphitheatrum Flavium’ as it was referred to in ancient Rome. It earned this name because it was built under the Flavian Emperors: Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian (“Architecture” 1). It first received its name ‘Colosseum’ from a prophecy read by monk Beda the Venerable who was the Doctor of a Catholic Church. His prophecy reading in a Benedictine monastery in Sunderland stated, “As long as the Colosseum exists, Rome will exist; when the Colosseum falls, Rome will fall also; but when Rome falls, the world will fall too” (“The Prophecy” 1). It is believed that the monk’s prophecy used the word ‘Colosseum’ after ‘The Colossus’, a 35 meter tall statue of Emperor Nero just outside the amphitheater. This statue is now destroyed and some fragments remain in the Capitoline Museum (“The Roman” 1)  

Figure 2: The Colosseum at sunset

The purpose of building the Colosseum was to return Rome to its previous glory. Following emperor Nero’s taking of his own life in 68 A.D., Rome was  unsettled. A series of civil wars took place during the rule of four different emperors. The fourth emperor, Vespasian, was the first of the Flavian emperors. He put an emphasis on civil welfare, so he decided to construct the Colosseum as a gift for his people to help appease them. It was built on the site of emperor Nero’s old palace and artificial lake which was located in a vibrant, central part of the city. This location also made for easy construction because the artificial lake already provided a dug out area to be used for the foundation (“Colosseum” 1). 

Planning for the Flavian Amphitheater began in 70 A.D., but construction did not commence until three years into Vespasian’s rule in 72 A.D. In 80 A.D., the amphitheater was dedicated by Vespasian’s eldest son, Titus (“History” 1). The main component of the Colosseum’s construction was travertine, a class of limestone. As I learned on a travertine quarry tour, the stone is abundantly found in the areas surrounding Rome and is a good building material. An estimated 100,000 cubic meters or about 3.5 million cubic feet of travertine was used in the building of the Colosseum. About 300 tons of iron clamps were used to bind stones together. Roman cement, brick, and tuffa were also used in building the Colosseum. Marble decorated the exterior as well (“Architecture” 1). Laborers for building the Colosseum were Jewish slaves taken prisoner from Jerusalem following the Jewish-Roman war between 66 and 70 A.D. (“First” 1). The Colosseum was a particularly impressive amphitheater because it was freestanding, unlike earlier amphitheaters that were traditionally built into hillsides for support. At about 620 feet in length and 513 feet in width, the Colosseum is as wide as a football field and over twice as long (“Colosseum” 1). 

Figure 3: Inside the Colosseum to show size. People in photo for reference.

The Colosseum exhibited the classic roman arch which uses pressure and compression to stay up. As I learned in my class, these arches were a three-hinged arch in pure compression. Thus, the arches were vulnerable in tension and used the surrounding arches for support. Semi-circular columns supported about 80 arched entrances on the three stories. Each story had a distinct type of column supporting its arches. Starting at the bottom, simple Doric columns were used. Then Ionic columns were used and finally ornamental Corinthian columns (“Colosseum” 1). Arches on the second and third floor were decorated with large statues. The arches formed an elliptical shape for the amphitheater to maximize spectators, allowing about 80,000 viewers at a time (“Architecture” 1). 

Figure 4: An example of a Roman arched entrance into the Colosseum

The Colosseum also had an underground area or ‘hypogeum’. Although this section had been part of the original plans, it was added after the building’s inauguration in 80 AD. The hypogeum, a two-leveled network of tunnels and chambers, had 80 vertical shafts through which the gladiators and animals held underneath could access the arena. Large moving platforms and man-powered pulleys were used to lift large beasts and gladiators up. There were also underground tunnels leading back to gladiator barracks, nearby animal stables, and an exit for the emperor to move about safely. Some speculations say that prior to the construction of this underground portion, the Colosseum was flooded for ‘naumachia’, or mock naval battles. They believe two were held before the hypogeum’s completion, but no one is sure (“Architecture 1). 

Figures 5 & 6: The hypogeum and stage from different angles

All of the Colosseum’s grandeur was built for one purpose: to entertain. For its inauguration in 80 A.D., 100 games were held. The spectacles lasted all day with spectators arriving in the morning and leaving the show at dusk. Emperors showed their power and love for their citizens by providing a great show and free food throughout the day. Seating in the arena was segregated: senators had their own section and women were only allowed on the top floor. There was also a man-powered awnings at the top of the Colosseum used for shading and protecting the viewers from the elements (“Colosseum” 1).

Shows at the Colosseum often started with Chariot races to the accompaniment of hydraulic organs and trumpets. Combat generally began through comic and fantasy duels. This included fights between women, dwarfs, and the disabled. During the lunchtime lul, the Colosseum was used for public execution and punishment. Emperors used the arena as their public stage for justice. Their hopes were to keep other subjects from committing the same crimes through such public consequences. Other events included animal hunts and, of course, battles between gladiators. Animal hunts incorporated numerous exotic animals like lions, elephants, leopards, hippopotamuses, bulls, bears, tigers, lions, and so on. Skilled hunters often killed these animals at a distance with hundreds of animals being killed and butchered in a single day’s events. Occasionally, defenseless animals such as deer, ostriches, and giraffes were also used for entertainment (Cartwright 1).

Gladiator fights had multiple taking place at a time. Gladiators were often slaves that were bought and fought to eventually earn citizenship, though few did. They were often dressed up to be more of a spectacle and given nicknames. Their nicknames were given after their first fight; after they proved themselves at least once as a gladiator. Their weapons included swords, lances, tridents, and nets. Gladiators were held in dark, solitary rooms below stage until they were brought up to fight. In order to keep battles interesting, they were given opponents of similar ability. In the mid 5th century, gladiator combat stopped, while the Colosseum continued to be used for animal hunts. Later, in the 6th century, its original use was stopped completely and the amphitheater became a place for houses and workshops.  (“History” 1).

The Colosseum went through structural changes as well. The entire wooden upper level was completely destroyed in a fire in 217. Furthermore, in 1349 an earthquake damaged the building. This earthquake caused an entire section of its wall to collapse. This lack of wall can still be seen today. Like many other Roman buildings, the Colosseum was stripped of its expensive and desirable materials to be reused in other buildings. The iron clamps holding stones together were taken, melted and reused. Some of the marble was also repurposed and was used in the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. After years of deterioration and being taken for parts, Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the Colosseum and proclaimed that it must be protected. This proclamation in 1749 was based on the belief that Christian martyrs’ blood had been spilled in the arena making it a holy place, but there was no evidence to support this. Nevertheless, the pope’s verdict saved the Colosseum from further damages (“History” 1). 

Figure 7: Part of a Colosseum wall destroyed by the earthquake

Today, the Colosseum has been restored. Over 4 million visitors come to see it in all of its glory each year making it the most visited tourist attraction in all of Italy. It is one of the oldest and best preserved human-made structures in the world, and one of the most popular and recognizable to date (“History” 1).

Stadio Olimpico

Built against the green slopes of Rome’s Monte Mario, Stadio Olimpico is the current home field of Rome football (soccer) teams SS Lazio and AS Roma. Contrary to how the name might sound, the stadium was not originally built for an Olympic game. Although it did later hold the 1960 summer Olympic games as well as the 1990 FIFA World Cup and 2020 UEFA Euro. Its construction, beginning in 1927, was part of a larger complex called the ‘Forno Mussolini’. This was a fascist sporting complex started by Musselini. The stadium’s original name was ‘Stadio Dei Cipressi’ or Cypress Stadium. Musselini built the complex intending to show off the might of Italy and bring his followers together. It was originally small, so it was decided to not be used in the 1934 Italian World Cup. Work on enlarging the stadium was suspended during World War II until it started again in December of 1950. It was then completed and inaugurated May 17, 1953 with an Italy vs Hungary football game. At this time, the sports complex was given the name ‘Foro Italico’ and the stadium was renamed to ‘Stadio dei Centomila’ meaning ‘stadium of a hundred thousand’ for the 100,000 spectators it was supposed to hold. However, the most recorded spectators in the stadium was just under 83,000 fans for the 1990 FIFA World Cup (“Stadio” 1). 

Figure 8: Inside of Stadio Olimpico

The stadium received its third and final name, Stadio Olimpico, for the 1960 summer Olympics. It transformed from a place of fascist propaganda to cordial competition and friendship (“Olympic” 1). In 1990, Stadio Olimpico underwent a large renovation for the FIFA World Cup. This consisted of the addition of a roof lead by architect Annibale Vitellozzi. Its roof, originally a cantilever roof, was replaced by a membrane structure that makes a circle around the whole stadium. Stadio Olimpico’s grandstands are made of a reinforced concrete structure. Its playing field is 68 meters wide and 105 meters long, and it officially seats 72,698 spectators (“Structurae” 1). Today, Stadio Olimpico is an important part of the Roman city landscape and the backdrop for dramatic Roman rivalries. I, myself, got to experience the stadium in a football game between Monza and Roma. It was a spectacular experience. The stadium erupted with noise for the entirety of the game; fans cheered and sang before the match even started. The love of football culture from the attendees was palpable.

Figure 9: Stadio Olimpico’s current roof

Figure 10: Devoted AS Roma fans

The Colosseum vs Stadio Olimpico

Both The Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico have played, and continue to play, an integral role in Rome’s history and culture. Both the amphitheater and stadium are comparable sizes with a similar holding capacity in their primes. They each used something to protect guests from the elements and have (or had) locations for food and drink inside that spectators can use. Unlike the Colosseum, viewers are free to sit wherever they want in Stadio Olimpico as long as they buy the tickets. 

The football battles that Stadio Olimpico provides are not too far off from the battles once held in the Roman Colosseum. Spectators come to see a fight between teams and are entertained by the physical effort of the spectacle, much like viewers at the Colosseum. I am sure the loud cheering and applause is similar to what would have been at the Colosseum. Fans can pick their favorite gladiator, or player, to be extra passionate about as well. 

The origins of the two Roman structures are also not too far off. Both the Colosseum and Stadio Olimpico were initiated by leaders wanting to show their power. In the time of the Flavian Emperors, they wanted to disconnect themselves from the past troubling years and bring together their empire under a new unity. In the time of Musselini, he wanted to show off Italy and unify his country under his powerful regime. Thus, both leaders gave their subjects these large arenas.

Overall, from ancient times to the present day, Romans deeply value their entertainment. Though switching to a less cruel form of entertainment, the Roman football culture is comparable to its gladiator counterpart just under 1500 years before. Funnily enough, Stadio Olimpico is actually located on ‘viale dei gladiatori’ or gladiator street (Martinoli 1). However, this time it is a new kind of gladiator taking to the stage. Throughout their history, Romans have enjoyed cheering, screaming, yelling, and even singing at these two extravaganzas that, after a closer look, are more similar than one might have innately realized.

Figure 11: ‘Gladiator Street’ after a football game


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