History of the Colosseum

Oct 11, 2016

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena? (The Gladiator, 2000)

Every visitor, tourist and traveler wants to see The Colosseum. This landmark has become the iconic image of Italy, both past and present, and is arguably Italy's top site. We say arguably because Italy is home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and some people give the Canals of Venice presidence. The first time I went to Rome, I went on a class trip. Our professor was reluctant to take us to the Colosseum, because, as he put it, why would you want to see just another old building? Look over there! There's one! Yet, as we all know, the Colosseum is not just another old building. It has stood the test of centuries, and visually provides us with the stark contrast between past and present. A reminder of the rich history of the Roman empire.


When it was originally built, the Colosseum was called the Flavian Amphitheater. This is because its construction began in 72 AD under Emperor Vespasian of the Flavius family. Vespasian became emperor after years of misrule and excesses by previous emperor’s. The Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheatre, was built as a gift for the Roman people, as well as to demonstrate the wealth and generosity of the emperor, providing ordinary citizens with an opportunity to see their ruler in person. Unfortunately, Vespasian didn’t live to see the completion of the amphitheater, although it was completed a decade later, a relatively short period of construction for such a grand building. Vespasian’s son and successor, Titus, opened the amphitheater with 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights. The Colosseum was a very advanced amphitheater. It could hold 50,000 people, and according to Discovery News, seating was very similar to that found in stadiums today. It had large awnings that unfurled to protect the crowd from the hot Roman sun. During gladiatorial games, a vast network of man-powered machinery made animals and scenery appear from beneath a wooden floor. Similar to the film The Gladiator, gladiators were usually slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners. The Colosseum was also home to more complex events, such as mock naval engagements, in which the arena was flooded with water. The Colosseum remained in use for 450 years, but sustained damage due to lightening, earthquakes and other natural causes. It was then used as a quarry and a source for building materials until the 18th century. At that point, various popes sought to conserve the arena as a sacred Christian site. It had been speculated that early Christian martyrs met their fate, similarly to gladiators, in the Colosseum, although this has since been disproved.


Recently, a $35 million project was approved to restore both the beauty and strengthen the Colosseum. This will be the first full cleaning in the Colosseum’s 20 century history, a necessary procedure if we want it around for the next 20. Still, the restoration plan has been accused of giving the Colosseum a theme-park feel, and detracting from its rich historical and cultural value. Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini says the restoration funds are aimed at the cultural sites that have the greatest tourism potential, yet many people say that important cultural sites will be neglected (you might remember the article about entrepreneurs funding restoration ). Franceschini insists that the calibre of events to be held at the Colosseum will prevent its cultural descent, mentioning ballets and tragedies as key performances. Many are still cynical about what this will mean for the landmark. 

Visiting the Colosseum

Admission to the Colosseum is 12 euros and includes admission to the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. The hours vary depending on what season you go - the rule of thumb is 8:30am to one hour after sunset (but actual hours can be found on the Colosseum website). You can get to the Colosseum on the Metro Line B (blue line), get off at the stop for the Colosseo, two stops after the termini. Once you exit the metro station, it is impossible to miss! Although tempting, we don’t recommend going straight for the lines at the Colosseum.

  • Buy a combination ticket for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum at the nearby entrance to the Palatine Hill. There are rarely lines, the ticket is good for two days, and you can see all three. You can get a bird’s eye view of the Colosseum from the top of the Palatine Hill, and then wander down through the Roman Forum. Do not go all the way to the entrance of the Forum, as that makes for a longer walk. Instead use the Exit Only door nearby the Colosseum entrance.
  • Buy your Rome Colosseum combination ticket online in advance. Similar to buying your ticket at the Palatine Hill, only via the internet.
  • Buy a Roma Pass. If you buy this citypass your first two attractions are free and you get to skip the line!
  • Take a guided tour of the Colosseum. Guides often have the power to skip the lines, and they provide you with great information. Depending on the tour, they leave you in the Colosseum so you can spend more time there if you so desire.
  • Go before 8:30. The gates open at 8:30, so there are rarely people there before then, giving you one of the prime first spots in line!
  • Come with us on an Ultimate Italy Tour! We’ll make sure you skip the lines, drop some knowledge, culture and history bombs, and provide you with ample time to see more on your own if you would like!