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Probably the best known landmark in Rome, and given new life through computer imaging in the film "The Gladiator," the Colosseum stands semi-erect east of the Forum, and next to the Arch of Constantine.

Its real name is the Flavian Amphitheatre, so-called because it was begun under the direction of the Emperors of the Flavian family, beginning in 72 C.E. with Vespasian, and was inaugurated by his son Titus in 80 C.E., completed by Domitian in 82 C.E.

Normally, you would think that its name came from its great size. It occupies more than a full city block by today's city layouts, but it might have picked up the name from the colossal statue of Nero, mentioned before, that stood nearby. Roman tradition of construction has this structure rising straight up out of the ground, opposed to the Grecian habit of leaning on hillsides.

If you have seen the film "Gladiator,” you know the place was built to entertain the masses and whoever was Emperor at the time. Vast dioramas were created, pitting gladiator against gladiator or beast. Contrary to popular legend, the Colosseum supposedly never bore witness to Christians being thrown to lions; that happened in the Circus Maximus (not too far away in old Rome).

The ellipse measures 188 meters on its major axis (617'), and 156 meters on the minor (511'), with a circumference of 527 meters (1,729'). Externally, there are 80 arches on each of the first three floors, beginning with Doric, then Ionic, and Corinthian on the third level. The fourth level is essentially the attic floor, with no arches, just rectangular windows. Total height of the Colosseum is about 48.5 meters (159'). Although arches, really barrel vaults, were the basic structural component, attached columns were applied to the exterior façade - again the use of "suspenders," when a "belt" was already holding things together. Nevertheless, the structure, equal to about a 12-15 story building in today's terms, was extraordinary in its time.

One thing about dimensions - personally, I have not measured any of the buildings we discuss. But it is a bit disconcerting to have to note that rarely will two historians agree on a dimension, unless one flat-out copies another. Just so that we understand each other - I have tried to bring to you consensus dimensions throughout this course.

Blocks of travertine were used for facing the exterior, held together without mortar, but with iron clamps. Much of the exterior was stripped during the Middle Ages.

Internally, the floor of the arena (from the Latin, possibly Etruscan, for sand, with which it was covered) is also an oval, measuring 87 meters by 55 meters (287'x180'). There was an awning-like device shading the spectators that stretched across the top of the Colosseum. Known as a velarium, it was in use in a number of such structures throughout the Roman world, sometimes in partial layout. Sort of like an early retractable roof, in that we can suppose it could have been removed when not desired. Apparently, a squadron of sailors was on duty to maneuver the awning; sort of like rigging a horizontal sail.

The interior was covered with marble, which befit the rather illustrious Roman high society, which occupied the lower level; the center level was reserved for "citizens,” and the upper deck for the "people."

Weirdly, men and women were separated beginning with the second level going up. The Colosseum could hold 50,000 spectators. Ramps existed for easy access of the patrons to and from their seats.

The arena, or floor, was the site of all sorts of spectacles, with illusory effects created for entertainment - hills with caves from which wild animals would lunge, for instance. The floor was of wood under the sand or soil, spanning over a multitude of subterranean spaces, including cages for those same animals, dressing rooms, and holding cells for the slaves who would eventually be fed to the animals, etc.

That is my soldier-son Rahm, who traveled to Rome with me prior to his first tour of duty in Iraq.

The Colosseum could not have been built without the Roman invention of concrete. Barrel vaults run from the outside towards the arena, and are composed of concrete, the strength of which saved a lot of material; space could then be had for access and circulation throughout the levels. The Romans changed the aggregate in their concrete to meet structural requirements. Lava was used in the foundations, tufa (compacted volcanic ash) for supporting walls, and pumice (a lightweight aggregate) for the vaults to reduce their weight. The Italians talk about tufa a great deal - the country has a mountainous spine running practically its entire length, and undoubtedly many volcanoes existed, making the above ingredients plentiful; question is: what is the exact distinction between lava and tufa? But historians make clear distinctions when describing the levels and their construction.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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