The largest Roman amphitheatre ever built, the Colosseum is an extraordinary achievement of Roman engineering.
It is the only building in the world to feature what has been termed the ‘Composite’ order of column.
About the Colosseum
Situated in what has to be one of the most historically interesting locations in the world, with the Roman Forum just opposite and the Capitoline Hill a short walk away, the Colosseum is one of the architectural highlights of Rome. I visited in the morning on a rather warm day in August while on a five day trip to Rome. It’s worth arriving early to avoid queuing for a long time and for the opportunity to enjoy the architecture of the Colosseum before it is filled with thousands of people.
A huge amount has been written about the history, the architecture, and the engineering of the Colosseum – I won’t write in quite the same level of detail. The amphitheatre took about ten years to build and having been started under the reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian, was completed during the reign of Titus. Both emperors were aprt of the Flavian dynasty, which gives the Colosseum the name Flavian Amphitheatre. It is thought that it could hold up to 80,000 spectators who would watch gladiator matches, animal hunts, re-enactments of battles, mythological dramas, and at one point even sea battles. The Colosseum ceased to be used for this type of public entertainment in around 500AD and was used instead to house various different functions including a church, housing, workshops, and a cemetery. The south side of the building collapsed in 1349 and was not rebuilt.
While based on form of the Greek amphitheatre, the architecture of the Colosseum is quite different. A full circle, well not quite circle, compared to the Greek semi-circular form and free standing instead of built in to a hillside, the Colosseum measures an enormous 189m by 156m. The outer wall, which would once have supported additional timber seating, is 48m high. The immense scale of the building, along with the extravagant use, references the power of the Roman Empire at a time when it extended through Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Many of the animals used for the entertainment – which included lions, rhinoceros, crocodiles, and panthers – were not native to Italy and were imported from other parts of the empire.
Architecturally, the facade of the building is fascinating. The colonnades of Classical columns, or more accurately pilasters, have no structural role, the actual building is supported on a series of vaults, and exist purely for decorative purposes. Every order is present: Doric on the ground floor, Ionic above, Corinthian above again, and Composite on the closed uppermost storey. What is striking is the harmonious disconnect between construction and ornamentation. The columns are proportioned as is usual in Classical antiquity, by their own set of rules. They frame the structural vaults behind beautifully but are not aligned with them with regards to height or width. The structure is serving the engineering requirements of the building while the ornamentation is serving the aesthetic requirements of the column. Given the arguments in architecture around expression of structure vs. expression as aesthetic choice this is particularly poignant.
Visiting details: the Colosseum
Check online for the latest visiting hours and costs. A ticket to the Colosseum also includes entry to the Roman Forum.
There is no required dress code to visit the Colosseum.