The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire

Learn all about the iconic monument that truly showcased the Roman Empire's engineering and technological talents.
Kashyap Vyas

The iconic amphitheater, the emblem of Rome, the Colosseum is one of the most easily recognizable wonders of the Roman Empire.

Despite these base associations, no one can neglect the majestic architecture of the building and its influence on the Romans.

The RomanColosseumm has undergone a transition from a premier amphitheater to a stone quarry and iconic monument.

It still stands for the great Roman Empire, which shaped the world as we know it.

The History of the Colosseum

Amphitheaters were a result of the tradition of funeral games held by Romans to help facilitate the journey of the deceased to the afterlife, by pleasing the gods.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: INTVGene/Flickr

Circus Maximus was the site of gladiator fights and other games in Rome before the construction of the Colosseum.

After the suicide of the infamous Emperor Nero, civil wars broke out in the Roman Empire. Vasperisan emerged out victorious and overtook the throne.

He laid the foundation of the Flavid Dynasty.

In 72 CE, he ordered the construction of largest amphitheater of all times in the heart of Rome – The Colosseum.


The Flavian amphitheater was decided to be built at the same site where Emperor Nero erected his extravagant Domus Aurea. This symbolized the ascension of Vasperisan to power and his might.

The 'Golden Palace' was torn down, and its famous lake was drained to give way to the construction of the Coliseum.

Emperor Vespasian could not see his ambitious project completed as he died in 79 CE; the building had only two-story built at that time.

The rest of the structure was completed by Emperor Titius, the eldest son, and heir of Vespasian.

He dedicated the amphitheater to the public in 80 CE with the inauguration of 100 days of games although the construction was not finished.

The successor of Titius, Emperor Domitian added the hypogeum to the Colosseum in 82 CE, hence completing the structure as we know it.

Colosseum draws its name from the Colossus, a colossal statue of Nero situated near the amphitheater.

One of the Grandest Designs Ever Built

The war spoils from the sack of Jerusalem ensured a limitless supply of men and wealth for the construction of the grand monument.

Over 100,000 slaves were employed to finish the construction of the Colosseum as soon as possible.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: kmaschke/Flickr

Unfortunately, the architect of this wonderful structure is unknown.

The grand design of the Colosseum suggests extensive planning, perspective drawings, and other architectural aids, but none of these can be attributed to a man or a group.

The monument is an example of fine engineering and demonstrates technological advancement of the Romans.

The structure spans an area of 6 acres encircled by an outer circumference of 545 meters. It is 189 meters long and about 156 meters wide.

The outer facade stands 48 m high above the ground, equivalent to a 12-story building. The amphitheater is elliptical in shape.

Unlike other massive structures of that time, the Colosseum is a freestanding building owing to a complex system of groin and barrel vaults.

It was constructed in a level valley between the Esquiline and Caelian Hills.

The most prominent features of the building are its columns and arches.

The first story is decorated with Tuscan order columns, the second story with Ionian columns and the third one with Corthinian style columns.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Andrew Crump/Flickr

The fourth story of the Colosseum is mainly decorated with pilasters and Corthinian capitals.

While the lower three-stories have abundant arches, the fourth story lacks them and instead features small windows.

These windows have plinths, which most probably were used to support the Velarium.

The arches were decorated with statues of gods and emperors.

The exterior top of the building was covered with a gilded bronze shield.

An Arena with 36 Trap Doors and 2 Underground Levels

The arena comprised of a wooden floor with 15cm of sand which was often colored red to disguise the spilled blood.

The arena was the place of 'action', all the events took place here. It measured 83 meters by 48 meters.

The arena was dotted with 36 trap doors, which were used to make impressive and sudden entry of animals, gladiators, and scenery.

The second son of Vespasian, Emperor Domitian, improved on the design and added the Hypogeum.

The hypogeum consisted of a two-level underground network of corridors and cells.

Well-designed machinery was installed to bring in the gladiators and the wild animals in the arena.

The hoisting device called Hegmata was employed to hoist up heavy animals on to the arena.

Elevators and pulleys were employed to change the props and scenery in the arena. The hypogeum was filled with animals, slaves, gladiators who worked to keep the shows going.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: tomasz przechlewski/Flickr

The arena had a Gate of Life and a Gate of Death for the entrance and exit of the victorious and the killed gladiators, respectively.

There is also evidence of a hydraulic mechanism to flood the arena for a mock-sea battle.

The spectators' area and podium were well-shielded from the arena with 15ft wall and a large ditch.

Aqueducts Built in the Colosseum for the Spectators

The Colosseum was not only well-designed for great performances but it featured 'state-of-the-art' public convenience as well.

It included hundreds of fountains to satiate the thirst of the spectators.

Many aqueducts were constructed for storing water. Pipes were laid in the walls to facilitate the supply of the water.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Coy!/Flickr

Hypogeum had a sewer and drainage system which collected disposal waste from the arena and the public toilets and carried it to the main sewer which encircled the Colosseum.

Holed seats were provided for public toilets.

The water and drainage system was very efficient and marked great architectural skills and planning of the Roman engineers.

The Architecture Revolution That Made the Colosseum Possible

The Colosseum would not have been possible without Roman advancement in technology.

The invention of concrete and vaulted arches made possible the construction of such a massive structure in a short period of time.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: SnippyHolloW/Flickr

The Colosseum has withstood the blow of time; this tells us about the durability of the materials used and the superiority of the construction techniques.

A wide variety of materials were used in the construction work.

The outer facade was built with an estimated 100,000 cubic meter of Travertine limestone.

Travertine was quarried in Trivoli, 20 miles from Rome.

It was held together by 300 tons of iron clamps.

Concrete was used extensively in the construction of vaulted arches, which were used as the ceiling for the passages.

This provided the structure excessive strength without adding much to the weight. Bricks were also used in the inner walls and arches.

A strong but light volcanic rock Tufo was used in the cement and inner walls to make the structure light-weighted.

The seats were made up of marble.

Stairs and seats were made in the workshop and later brought to install them in place. This technique saved construction time.

The seat for the Emperor was made with a colored marble and was wider than other seats.

Tiles were also used to decorate the walls and the floors.

An Amphitheater with 80 entrances and a Frontage Shield

The problem of crowd control inside the Colosseum was addressed using the same solution we use today: numerous entrance and exit points.

A total of 80 entrances were used in the amphitheater, out of which 76 were numbered and the rest unnumbered.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: debs-eye/Flickr

The numbered entrances were used by the common citizens, while the Emperor and other significant folks used the other gates, which were grander and more elaborate.

The spectators were allocated tokens to help them find the seats assigned.

The whole building could be evacuated in a couple of minutes owing to an ingenious system of stairs, corridors and entrance gates.

The amphitheater hosted Velarium, a retractable overhang, to shield the spectators from the sun and the rain.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: dalbera/Wikimedia Commons

The Velarium was made up of canvas and net and covered over two-thirds of the structure.

It was controlled and maneuvered by a team of sailors.

Spectators’ Experience

The amphitheater could hold about 50,000 spectators at a time, who were seated in a tiered pattern which mimicked their social stature.

The North end and South end provided the best view and were reserved for the Emperor and Vestal Virgins.

On the same level, there were seats for the Senators. The first tier of seating was reserved for knights and other nobles.

The details in the seating and wall structure diminish as we move up.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

The above strata were meant for common citizens; the wealthy took the lower seats, and the poor took upper ones.

Another story was later added to the amphitheater, which provided space for women and the poor.

It was mostly seat-less and the spectators had to enjoy the show standing all the time.

Moreover, this upper story was about 100 m from the center of the arena, which really ruined the spectator experience.

Iconic Entertainment at the Colosseum

The Flavian Amphitheater was one of the most happening places in not just Rome, but all over the world.

The gladiator fights are most iconic of myriads of events that took place in the arena.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Yale University Art Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

Two gladiators fighting to the death, hurting each other presented a joyful sport for the Romans.

Another famous event was wild animal hunting. Exotic animals from Africa and the Middle East were brought to the Colosseum where they were used in different performances.

The fierce animals were hunted by the gladiators and other participants.

Most of the other games were equally gory, heinous and cruel. These games were frequently organized, sometimes continuously for tens of days.

Some less violent activities also had their place in the arena. Mythological legends were often enacted by the performers. For such events, extensive sceneries and props were employed to make things as lively as possible.

The valor of the heroes, the power of the Gods and the death of some eminent figures was the subject of such enactments.

There are also records of processions and sacrifices being performed in the arena. Animal sacrifices were made to the gods before the games to ask for gods' favor and to appease them.

But the most wonderful events at the Colosseum were the enactment of sea warfare.

The arena was filled with water and specially trained horses and oxen were used in the battle. Men with weapons and their ships fought these mock wars; this made a great show for the Romans.

Such sea battles were held even at the initial 100 days of games under Emperor Titus.

The Colosseum fulfilled many other purposes other than showcasing social prestige and might of the Roman Emperors. It served as a source of distraction for the unemployed and unsatisfied Plebs (the citizens); this helped in keeping a social unrest at bay.

The events at the amphitheater were used to spread propaganda for the Roman Emperors. It helped them in reaching masses and instill a sense of fear and obedience in the heart of the public.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Colosseum finds a place in Christianity as well.

Since the amphitheater was used as a site of criminal executions, a large number of Christians convicted for blasphemy were executed here.

The church holds this place sacred in the remembrance of the martyrdom of the faithful Christians.

How the Colosseum Fell with the Roman Empire

With an impressive tenure period of the Romans, Colosseum enjoyed the attraction of the Romans for a very long time.

It was not until 3rd century that the Colosseum started losing its stature.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Many factors contributed to the demolition of this magnificent monument.

Cultural changes promoted by Christians altered people's view of the violent games of the Colosseum. The gladiator fights, animal hunt, and sacrifices were soon labeled inhumane and cruel acts.

Even the Emperors and the priests distanced themselves from the games in order to appear modest and humane. The church encouraged people to attend the religious events and stop visiting Colosseum.

Another major factor was the weakening economy of the Roman Empire.

The events and games at the Colosseum were too grand and costly. They cost the Empire about one-third of its revenue, and the Emperors didn't try to cut on cost.

But the decreasing political stability of the Roman Empire and consequently a dwindling economy forced the rulers away from spending on repairs and maintenance.

The great amphitheater soon fell into a state of negligence. Colosseum was now a target for stone-robbers and vandalists.

It was made into a quarry and many parts of Colosseum were torn down to supply stones for the construction of many other monuments in Rome.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Pattie/Flickr

Frequent lightning strikes and earthquakes worsened the situation.

The catastrophic earthquakes of the 5th, 9th and 14th century demolished the monument at a large scale.

The church, which contributed to the decline of its importance, ironically saved it from further degradation as it was a place of Christian martyrdom.

It was not until 19th century that restoration attempts were made to repair the Coliseum.

The Italian state-sponsored excavations in the area around and at Colosseum.

A systematic and sincere restoration attempt was undertaken in the 1990s.

Recent governments are trying hard to preserve its glory and establish it as age-old symbol of their accomplishments.

Colosseum Today: the Most Visited Monument in Italy

Colosseum has now reclaimed its position as the symbol of the power and prestige of the Rome.

It is the most visited monument of Italy and one of the main tourist attraction in the world. About 4 million people visit this splendid monument every year.

It also houses a museum dedicated to Eros.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Miguel Discart/Flickr

The Colosseum is also a site of Christian ceremonies in the modern time.

It has inspired some modern architectural works like Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia, Palazzo Della Civilta Italiana, etc.

The Colosseum: An Engineering Marvel of the Roman Empire
Source: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

As mentioned earlier, some other Roman amphitheaters can be found, which resembles the Colosseum.

Some notable examples are Pula in Croatia, El-Jem in Tunisia, Leptis Magna in Libya and Nîmes in France.

They are about as old as the Colosseum and some are even older.

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