Jun 7, 2011

Seven Wonders of the Medieval World - Part Two

The Colosseum of Rome

Emperor Vespasian, founder of the Flavian Dynasty, started construction of the Colosseum in AD 72. It was completed in AD 80 by his son, Titus, and known as the Flavian Amphitheatre.

The name "Colosseum" was not used until 7th century, and was derived from the colossal statue of Nero that once stood nearby. This statue was later remodeled by Nero's successors into the likeness of Helios, or Apollo, the sun god, by adding the appropriate solar crown. The statue remained standing well into the medieval era and was credited with magical powers. It came to be seen as an iconic symbol of the permanence of Rome.

The statue did eventually fall, possibly being pulled down to reuse its bronze. By the year 1000 the name "Colosseum" had been coined to refer to the amphitheatre. The statue itself was largely forgotten and only its base survives, situated between the Colosseum and the nearby Temple of Venus and Roma.

The exterior of the Colosseum is made entirely of travertine, a form of limestone, stretching 527 metres around and four stories high. The arches of the second and third stories were originally filled with statues. There were 80 entrances, with the two principal ones reserved for the emperor and his entourage.

The Colosseum was covered with an enormous awning known as the velarium to protect the spectators from the sun. It was attached to large poles on top of the Colosseum and anchored to the ground by large ropes. A team of some 1,000 men was used to install the awning.

The interior was made of brick, tufa (another form of limestone) and marble. The central area, the arena, was covered with a great wooden floor and canvas to make it waterproof. Over this was a layer of sand to absorb blood. The word "arena" derives from the Latin word for sand. The floor is now exposed down to its underground passages, where beasts and gladiators awaited their fate, and crossed by a modern walkway.

Above the ground are four storeys, the upper storey contained seating for lower classes and women. The lowest storey was preserved for prominent citizens and surrounded by a 5 metre-high wall to protect them from attacks by wild beasts. Below the ground were rooms with mechanical devices and cages containing wild animals. The cages could be hoisted, enabling the animals to appear in the middle of the arena. In total the Colosseum could hold up to 55,000 spectators.

The amphitheatre was used for gladiatorial combats, mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The inaugural festival of the Flavian Amphitheatre, which was the largest amphitheatre in the world, lasted 100 days, during which over 5,000 wild beasts were killed in the arena.

The Colosseum was damaged by fire and earthquake several times but was continually restored until the end of the 5th century. Gladiatorial combats were outlawed by the Christian emperor Honorius in 407 and fights with wild beasts were banned in 523. After this, the arena went out of use.

It fell into disrepair shortly after its closure in 523. In 526, the barbarian Totila and his forces destroyed parts of it in order to take the valuable bronze clamps that held the stones together. After that, Romans freely helped themselves to the great arena's stones in order to build their houses.

In this period the Colosseum was also used as a Christian burial ground. Early Christian tombs have been found in three areas around the amphitheatre: in the foundations on the north and east sides and on the exterior ground near the present entrance.

In the Middle Ages, the Colosseum was situated on the most important pilgrim route in Rome, which led from St. Peter's to the Lateran, and a small suburb grew up around it. In this period the great arena was thought to be a Roman temple to the Sun because of the Colossus statue of Nero-turned-Helios that stood next to it.

In the 13th century, the Colosseum was fortified and occupied by the Frangipani family and the suburb around it became a prosperous area of Rome. However, the area later fell prey to malaria and was abandoned.

Looting of the stone continued on-and-off until the 18th century, when Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) declared the Colosseum sanctified by the blood of early Christian martyrs and added Stations of the Cross to the arena. After this it was restored and excavated, a work that continues to the present day.

Although in the 21st century it stays partially ruined because of damage caused by devastating earthquakes and stone-robbers, the Colosseum is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome. It is one of Rome's most popular tourist attractions and still has close connections with the Roman Catholic Church, as each Good Friday the Pope leads a torchlit "Way of the Cross" procession that starts in the area around the Colosseum.

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