Musement takes a look at eight interesting facts about Rome’s most iconic landmark: the Colosseum.
My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
We see the crowd go wild, the shocked face of Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and the proud visage of gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) as the Colosseum stands tall in the background. An arena of death, blood and spectacle in Ancient Rome, prominently featured in several highly successful films—such as the aforementioned Gladiator by Ridley Scott—and a true emblem of Rome, the Colosseum welcomes visitors from around the world year round: it was the most visited monument in Italy in 2017, with seven-million tickets sold. Here’s a look at eight facts you probably didn’t know about the Colosseum.
The most popular theory on how the Flavian Amphitheater came to be known as the ‘Colosseum’ is that because a 100-foot statue of Emperor Nero stood outside…a true colossus. After Nero’s death, Hadrian had the statue moved–a task that required 24 elephants to complete! Until the 1930s, however, the base of the statue could still be seen next to the Flavian Amphitheater, testifying to the statue’s presence.
2. The numbers
The Colosseum is 160 feet tall, and the internal arena has a surface of just over 36,000 square feet. These are remarkable numbers, and the monument makes a powerful impression on those who find themselves in front of it for the first time. Ironically, Ridley Scott, the director of Gladiator, was not at all impressed by it. During location scouting, he found the Colosseum and its size—‘small’ according to him—so unimpressive that he decided to construct a replica in Malta that he could make as big as he wanted with the help of computer graphics.
3. Celebrations ancient and modern
While Ridley Scott helped us rediscover the immortal fascination of the bloodthirsty gladiator games that took place in the Colosseum, in ancient times it was the poet Martial who boosted the monument’s profile. He dedicated an entire book of poetry to the Flavian Amphitheater, which opened with a hymn glorifying it and comparing it with other ancient wonders like the Egyptian Pyramids and the Altar of Apollo at Delos—and he claimed it was superior to all of them.
4. Romantic nights
Visiting the Colosseum was a must for the young nobles and intellectuals of the 19th century who went on the Grand Tour of Italy and Europe. After Goethe and Lord Byron enthusiastically wrote about how spectacular the Colosseum was at night, everyone on the Grand Tour rushed to Rome to have the same incredible post-sunset experience. Just like when travel bloggers rave about a non-touristy place and suddenly turn it into a near-mainstream destination (Oops! Guilty as charged!), the number of night visitors to the Colosseum increased enormously after Byron’s Manfred was published, and the experience became a lot less ecstatic and romantic for everyone.
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5. A flowery garden
Many paintings and postcards depict the Colosseum adorned by lush vegetation. This is not just artistic freedom of imaginative painters, but actually how the monument used to look–at least until Rome became the capital of unified Italy. Then, the plants, herbs and flowers sprouting from the Colosseum’s lush arches were sacrificed in an effort to eradicate the weeds, and the cleanup was fatal to the entire ecosystem.
6. Satan’s hangout
During the Middle Ages, people believed the Colosseum was home to the Devil. It was said to have been a temple dedicated to the Sun, which is why it was thought to be a perfect place to perform spells and incantations. We find a very interesting account in Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography from 1558, where he wrote about visiting the Colosseum with a priest and a necromancer to perform a ritual among whose that required circles drawn on the sand, pentacles, chanting, sprinkled perfumes and a ‘little virgin boy.’
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7. Musical arena
While in ancient times the Romans would amuse themselves with battles, mass slaughter and other such harmless forms of amusement, in modern times the Colosseum has become a stage for more peaceful forms of spectacle: Paul McCartney played here in 2003 for an audience of 400 who paid 1,000 euros each to attend, and other musicians who have performed here include Ray Charles, Andrea Bocelli and Roberto Bolle.
8. The Colosseum in pop culture
The Colosseum has also become part of pop culture. In the 1953 movie Roman Holiday, the glamorous Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn pass by the Amphitheater on the legendary Vespa. Pepsi shot a commercial at the Colosseum in 20014 featuring some of the most famous contemporary gladiators: Beyonce, P!nk and Britney Spears.
K. Hopkins, M. Beard, Il Colosseo. La storia e il mito, Laterza, Bari 2008.
M. Borelli, Colosseo. Due o tre cose che so di lui, L’Orma, Roma 2015