Geek’s Guide to the Colosseum & Roman Forum

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The Colosseum and Roman Forum are, inarguably, two of the most famous icons of ancient Rome . As the centre of activity in the ancient world, thousands of people gathered daily for entertainment, commerce and rituals.

When we added the Colosseum and Roman Forum to our European Adventure, we decided to take a tour with The Roman Guy.  While the tour was entertaining, I felt like it left a lot of information out.

It was disappointing. How many other visitors feel depraved of knowledge they may have missed out on by going on these guided tours?  Thus, the need for a Geek’s Guide to the Colosseum and Roman Forum.

So, let’s dive in… 

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… Starting with The Colosseum

The Colosseum, built from 72 – 80 CE under the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, 69 – 96 CE), was situated east of the Roman Forum. Its location made it the optimal centre of entertainment in Rome, along with its size, holding anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 spectators, which would’ve included the emperor, the Senate, and important political figures.

As the Colosseum was constructed under two emperors under the Flavian dynasty, the original name was, appropriately, the Flavian Amphitheatre. It served as not only a ground for famed gladiatorial battles and executions, but also as propaganda. With the name of the dynasty in its own, it would’ve been a reminder not only to ancient Romans, but also to modern visitors, of when it was built and who paid for the construction. The power of the emperor was enormous, and Vespasian would’ve wanted this reflected in the size.

When the construction of the Colosseum was completed, Titus called for 100 days of celebration. Unfortunately, like his father Vespasian, he didn’t live long enough to see the conclusion.  He died before the celebrations were completed. His brother Domitian, credited with many buildings and features of ancient Rome, became emperor and finished the celebrations.

Beneath the Colosseum are the Dungeons, only accessible via a guided tour.  It's pretty creepy but well worth it to get a realistic idea of how life once was.

As we all know of the infamous Gladiatorial shows, they were not the only spectacles held at the Colosseum, though they were quite popular. There were also criminal executions, simulated sea battles (which were done by shallowly flooding the arena floor and using custom flat-bottomed boats to re-enact famous matches at sea), and animal hunts, which were perhaps the most popular type of show.

And while we’re speaking of gladiatorial shows, let me settle one inaccurate fact that Hollywood seems to have created:  Spartacus was not a real gladiator. It’s suspected that he was an agricultural slave who lived long before the time of the Colosseum, sometime between 753 BCE and 72 CE.

The underground of the Colosseum, which we explored as part our tour, housed hundreds of animals and gladiators, to have them ready for when they would be forced onto the viewing floor of the Colosseum. There was a variety of beasts kept, mostly imported, such as rhinoceros, panthers, bears, crocodiles, elephants and even giraffes.

Surprising, yes?  You hear about lions but rarely of the others.

The remains of the Colosseum shows just how much time and modern times have affected the building.

The design of the flooring was incredibly clever.  A wood base was completely covered by a layer of sand. The sand was meant to soak up blood. It also meant that trapdoors could be hidden so that the gladiators didn’t know from where the animals would enter the arena. The sand was also easy to replace, due to Rome’s proximity to the port. Ingenious, right?

In addition to the brilliant structure of the flooring, there were also 36 trap doors placed around the arena floor, where the beasts would enter. A reconstruction of one such trap door has been placed at the Colosseum, so visitors may be able to understand how they worked.

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It should also be recognised that The Colosseum has been destroyed, rebuilt and repaired over the millennia.

This is partially due to the popularity of the city attracting tourists and robbers, who were not afraid to ‘take home a bit of the Colosseum’, especially thirty years ago when it would’ve still been legal. Additionally, Rome’s location so close to a fault line (approx. 100 kilometres) means that Romans would’ve suffered many earthquakes (such as in recent times in Central Italy). This would’ve bent the stone used to build the Colosseum. This is the reason why only a sector of the Colosseum goes up to the full four stories, and other areas do not.

The colour of the Colosseum has also changed quite a bit.

The emperor Vespasian had the building constructed out of travertine, a soft stone set with iron clamps, few of which clamps remain today. The outer pillars were wrapped in marble to keep them stable, but any marble from the Colosseum has been removed and used in the Vatican on the outskirts of Rome. Due to this, and combined with earthquakes, parts of the free-standing building collapsed.  Only the inner travertine stone is left. The marble, had it been left alone, would’ve provided another sturdier layer to the outside of the Colosseum, yet by being removed, the Colosseum left is a fragile skeleton of what it once was.

Travertine, being a soft stone, is also very absorbent. The once-white colour has turned to a murky dark grey due to the pollution of Rome.  It’s being fully cleaned for the first time in history under the generous donation and discretion of Diego Della Valle, the owner of Tod’s, a shoe-and-luxury goods maker in Italy. Thus, the Colosseum is on its way to being the lovely white it once was.

You can walk around the Colosseum but you must pay to enter.  It's still a surreal moment to be able to see this monument up close.

The Roman Forum

The tour also took us to the central Forum ruins, which was vastly different to what I had imagined. The ruins were much more congested than I had believed, both people-wise and ancient structure-wise. I had envisioned it to be larger and more open, with a large rectangular opening in the centre and buildings along the outside (and alas, I was thinking of the Forum in Pompeii).

Unfortunately, our tour only took us to a few of the remaining structures, and they seemed to be the best preserved. The Forum consisted mostly of government buildings as well as several temples. There were several basilicas littered around, where Romans politicians would gather and practice law.

In addition to the basilicas, the numerous temples around, including the Temple of Romulus and the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, demonstrate the dedication Romans held to their gods.

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Temples were not meant to be used as places of prayer. Their main function was to be used as centres for the cults of the gods who were worshipped in Rome, such as at the Temple of Vespasian and Titus. This is where the Imperial Cult was centred, dedicated to the deified emperors of Rome (which, of course, is another display of propaganda).

The temples were also used as propaganda for whichever politician paid for the donation of the particular temple. Besides being the centres of cults, public sacrifices were also held at the temples, usually in mass rituals. Other rituals and worship, such as prayers to the patron gods and goddesses of Rome, were conducted within the home, which was more convenient.

The Forum was added to by many emperors and rulers, most notably Julius Caesar and Augustus, who began the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was developed over many centuries and opened onto a large rectangular square where citizens gathered and went about their errands, usually going to the macellum (fruits and vegetables market) for their groceries or meeting at a thermopolium (a shop that sold hot takeaway food, such as fish) with friends for lunch.

In addition to serving a judicial and religious purpose, there was also an important military presence in the Forum. When emperors and other conquerors returned from campaigns, they would parade around the Palantine Hill and the Forum on a Triumph, a parade dedicated specifically to their victory in battle.

Grand gestures prompted by ego give us the Roman Forum.

There are so many buildings in the Forum that there is truly not enough time – or room – to speak in depth about all of them. I could go on for hours. I spoke generally to give as much of an overview as possible, and I encourage doing more research if you’re interested.

There is so much history with the ruins that studying just the Forum could take a lifetime.

It was a shame that our tour was only four hours for both the Colosseum and the Forum, because it would’ve been easy to spend four hours just at one of the locations, learning about its extensive history and how it interplays with Rome today.

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NOTE: This was a sponsored experience and one we sought out ourselves.  We do not promote any brand we have not used or experienced for ourselves.  All opinions are our own. Please follow our advice at your own risk.

Additionally, this post uses the terms ‘BCE’ and ‘CE’ as replacements to the previously used ‘BC’ and ‘AD’. They simply mean ‘Before Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’.

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