Flooding the Colosseum

When Nero committed suicide in June, AD 68, Rome breathed a collective sigh of relief. The former emperor's vanity, cruelty and sheer stupidity, made him the worst emperor of Rome to date and among the worst in her entire history. The new rulers of Rome wished to underline the fact that they were entirely "different" from Nero: they had genuine battle honours, they were not in the least interested in playing the lyre on stage (or in any other effeminate Greek habits) and above all, they were going to restore Rome to its people.

In casting their eyes around for a suitable way in which to emphasise this last point, Vespasian's attention was drawn to Nero's most ostentatious project in the heart of Rome. The great fire of Rome had cleared the slums between the Caelian, Esquiline and Palatine hills, and in the space Nero planned to build a brand new city with brick buildings separated by wide streets. Characteristically, however, he took the choicest spot to build a huge "Golden Palace" for himself. As a demonstration of his power he had an enormous statue of himself erected in the vestibule of the palace. Designed by the Greek architect Zenodorus, it stood 120' high and the bronze of which it was made may have been gilded.

Naturally, no one (apart from its former inhabitants) wanted to see the slum back. The planned new city, however, could hardly be considered as a gift to the people, for its brick houses would probably be snapped up by the middle class of merchants and tradesmen. In any case, Nero's ostentatious palace was a continual reminder of the grievance felt by the poor, so Vespasian decided to demolish most of the palace and instead erect a public amenity on the site.

Rome already had plenty of baths, the preferred type of public building, so the next favourite was a place of public entertainment - an amphitheatre. Originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre, after Vespasian's family name, in the Middle Ages it became known as the Colosseum, after the huge statue of Nero, which was spared when the palace was demolished. (Vespasian may have intended - as later emporers actually did - to replace the head of the statue with his own and rename it after himself.)

As a structure, the Colosseum is interesting. Most theatres and stadia were built, at least partially, in an excavated hole. The side of a hill takes just a little remodelling to be turned into a Greek theatre, for example. The Colosseum, however, was built on flat land and is entirely free-standing. In design it is like two Greek theatres set front to front (or stage to stage), with the result that it is oval in plan, not circular as many people suppose. Its dimensions are suitably colossal: 615' along the long axis and 510' on the short axis, a total floor area of six acres. The outer walls are 157' high and a third of a mile in circumference.

Obviously, most of the internal area is taken up with the stepped seating, but the central area (which corresponded to the chorus of the Greek theatre but was, in fact, used as a stage) is also an oval, 287' long and 180' wide. It is surrounded by a 15' high wall, above which rose the seating. The purpose of the wall is obvious: "ealf'n'safety". Spectators have a curious aversion to being eaten by the lions they have come to watch and are similarly disinclined to be within reach of disgruntled gladiators.

Ancient authors claim that the Colosseum could seat 87,000 spectators. Modern estimates, based probably on modern seating requirements, reduce the figure to 50,000. Anyone who has seen Italians forming a queue (otherwise known as a "scrum" or a "riot") will probably be inclined to regard 87,000 as a conservative estimate. Although the majority of the crowd sat on stone steps, as in any other ancient theatre, there were luxury boxes at the north end for the emperor and at the south for the Vestal Virgins. On either side of these boxes were podiums for the senators and their families, who were allowed to bring their own chairs and cushions. Lesser beings were placed higher up the seating (and further from the interesting spectacle in the arena) and during the reign of Domitian a wooden gallery was added at the very top to accommodate women, slaves and the poorest. For reasons that have not been explained, grave diggers, actors and ex-gladiators were not allowed into the Colosseum.

The anchoring points for the awning that once covered the amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia.
At the top of the wall can be seen the anchoring points for the awning that once covered the amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia.

Around the top of the building were 240 stone blocks that served as anchorage points for the huge awning which provided shade for the spectators. The enormous area of canvas was handled by specially selected sailors, who alone had the necessary skills. Many years ago I climbed up a nerve-rackingly rickety iron staircase to the top of the amphitheatre in Pula (the seventh largest in the Roman world) and was delighted to discover that it, too, had been provided with anchorage points. In fact, I clung to one of those stone blocks as I surveyed the scenery, which was horribly far away and my fingerprints are probably still imprinted on the stone. I hate heights!

By the time of Vespasian's death, the Colosseum was nearly complete. Three stories were finished, each one decorated with pilasters in a different style: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The top-most storey, referred to as "the attic", was completed by Vespasian's son Titus, who held a suitably magnificent series of "games" as a dedication for the building. Over 9,000 animals were killed in a succession of hunts and combats and on a subsequent day, according to ancient writers, the arena was flooded for a naval battle.

It is this latter claim which has recently come under the spotlight.

For as long as I have been visiting Rome access to the Colosseum has been limited. At first you could park outside and wander in freely, stand beneath the arches and look out over the arena, now lacking its floor, and imagine the walls thus exposed crammed with animals and men waiting for their turn to appear "on stage". As the number of tourists increased a ticket office was installed, but at least you were allowed to wander the arcade round the entire building. Later the price was increased, but as compensation you were allowed to climb the stairs to the first floor and look down on the same old arena.

The one thing you have never been allowed to do, however, is go down into the basement area below the arena and explore the two storeys of cells and cages - which is a shame, as the Romans had extensive machinery down there - movable ramps, lifts, even hydraulic equipment - which they used to lift animals up to the floor of the arena.

Now, however, following nearly a decade of work, the underground secrets of the Colosseum are being opened to the public, together with a section of the top-most tier of seating. The work has involved stabilisation of the crumbling stonework, laying down walkways over fragile sections of flooring, and installing lighting and information boards, as well as warning signs in areas where the ceiling is low. The one thing the experts, such as Rosella Rea, chief archaeologist in charge of the work, have not been able to discover is the secret of how the Colosseum was flooded.

Rea points to the large, vaulted chambers in the middle of the area beneath the arena and suggests that boats may have been stored in them, but there are three problems: How could the area be flooded without drowning everything in the underground cells? Where did the water come from? and How much of a naval battle could you stage in a 287'x180' pond?

To take the questions in reverse order, the point of the "games" was blood-letting, so I don't suppose the Romans were unduly bothered about being able to have ships exhibiting fine seamanship and nautical tactics. A floating platform on which the butchery could take place - with the novelty of the dead disappearing with a splash instead of lying around littering up the sand - was all that was required.

In October 2003 Ranieri, an archaeologist and speleologist, discovered a system of drains and conduits beneath the Colosseum. He dated them to the time of Nero and decided that they were constructed to supply water to the artificial lake in the garden of the Golden Palace. It would, Ranieri claims, have been a simple matter to adapt these channels to supply water to the Colosseum and to drain it away afterwards. A dam on the upstream side would ensure that there was adequate volume and pressure to fill the space of the arena very rapidly, as the ancient sources claim.

It is the first question that is the most difficult - and yet may be the most simple. We know that the Colosseum underwent several stages of development and that the emperor Domitian, Titus' younger brother, was responsible for either enlarging or constructing the underground area. It may be, therefore, that the naval battle only happened once, when the building was first opened, and the subsequent construction of the hypogeum, as the underground area is called, made it impossible for such spectacles to be displayed thereafter.

Gladiatorial combats continued for over three centuries, the last known fight in Rome took place on January 1, AD 404. After that the building fell into disrepair, with the arcades being converted into housing and workshops. Around 1200 the building was taken over by the Frangipani family, who fortified it and turned it into a castle. Unfortunately there was a huge earthquake in 1349 which caused much of the outer south side to collapse. After that the Colosseum served as a convenient quarry for nearby palaces, churches and other buildings. The marble facade was burned to produce quicklime and the bronze clamps that held the stones together were pulled out, further weakening the structure.

In 1749 Pope Benedict XIV decided that the Colosseum was a sacred site because of the Christians who had been martyred there. He banned any further removal of stone and consecrated the building, which made the church responsible for its upkeep. Damaging vegetation was removed and the outer facade was stabilised, actions for which we can be grateful as without them the structure would be in a very much worse condition than it is today.


great fire of Rome This was, famously, the occasion when Nero "fiddled while Rome burned". To be strictly accurate, Nero played the lyre and sang an ode, comparing the burning city to the destruction of Troy, an action which he viewed as giving evidence of his own deep poetic feelings as well as his appreciation of history. Others - rightly, in my opinion - saw it as evidence of his total heartlessness, particularly if, as most people assumed at the time, the fire had been set at his orders.

As to why Nero should wish to burn down his capital city, opinions vary. Even his most ardent detractors baulk at claiming that he did so merely to provide a suitable backdrop for his singing. A more plausible reason is that he was short of money and had come to an agreement with property developers who would take over the slums that were the main victim of the fire and turn them into exclusive town houses for the wealthy.

Public anger was so intense that Nero was obliged to try to shift the blame, which he did by blaming the Christians and killing several hundred in particularly unpleasant ways. The ancient public, as unintelligent as their modern counterparts, swallowed the distraction. Tacitus tells us:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians, or Chrestians, by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.


January 1, AD 404 According to the church historian Theodoret of Cyrrhus, a town in Syria, the end of gladiatorial combats came about through the intervention of a monk called Telemachus.

Book V, Chapter XXVI: Of Honorius the Emperor and Telemachus the monk.

Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladitorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the number of victorius martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.
Theodoret, The Ecclesiastical History

The fact that Theodoret is the only source for this story has led many historians to doubt the tale. Personally, given the collective blood-lust of human beings, I think it must have been some dramatic cause which led to the end of the spectacles. After all, venationes or animal hunts continued until at least AD 523. Return

a convenient quarry The Colosseum became so ruinous that when Benvenuto Cellini wanted a suitably deserted place in which to practice necromancy without fear of interruption, he could find no better location than the floor of the arena! The tale is too long to quote here, but you can find it at Project Gutenberg, look for chapter "LXIV". Return

martyred there Recent historians have cast doubt on this belief andit must be admitted that there is no documentary evidence of Christians being put to death in the Colosseum. On the other hand, Christians were certainly martyred in Rome and there is no reasonable grounds for thinking that they were not among the thousands killed in the Colosseum. Given the vast appetite of the "games" for human lives, it would be surprising if Christians escaped when Jews, prisoners of war, common criminals and unfortunate artistes were fair game. Return

unfortunate artistes There are several records of singers or reciters who failed to please the mob and whose act was enlivened by the unexpected introduction of wild animals into the arena, with fatal results for the artiste. At least they got a genuine round of applause as they died.

© Kendall K. Down 2010