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The Colosseum's Role In Ancient Roman Society

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The Colosseum's role in ancient Roman society

For as long as humans have existed, they have always found some way to entertain themselves. Even the earliest societies have left evidence of some sort of activity or hobby that they used as a form of entertainment. Perhaps the most famous building that was used as a form of entertainment is the Roman Colosseum, also known as the Flavian amphitheater. In ancient Rome, the most popular form of entertainment was the gladiator fights. These fights, usually among animals and trained public fighters, were staged in open arenas in a city's forum. There is evidence that the gladiator fights were originally staged in Rome's main town square because of a remark by the first-century B.C. Roman architect Vitruvius. He once wrote: "The custom of giving gladiatorial shows in the forum has been handed down from our ancestors." As the years passed, the fights became more and more popular so they drew more spectators. Since these spectators needed seating, games officials put up wooden seats around a forum just prior to a public show and dismantled them afterward. The name amphitheater is given to a public building of the Classical period which was used for spectator sports, games, and displays. Before the Colosseum was built, oval-shaped amphitheaters that could seat thousands of people were constructed of wood. However, many of them burned down and some collapsed. In A.D. 27, in a town not far north of Rome, an ancient wooden amphitheater collapsed because its foundations were not rested on solid ground and the wooden supports were not securely fastened. Fifty thousand people were crushed in the disaster. This made Romans realize that it was time to start building stronger, more permanent amphitheaters, ones made of stone. Building such a tremendous stone structure was no easy task. It was time consuming, required the labor of many workers, the heavy stone had to be hauled many miles to the work site, and it was expensive. The first stone amphitheater that was built was the amphitheater at Pompeii. Later, a Roman general named Statilius Taurus built an arena in Rome that was partially made of stone. Since the seats and other structures were made out of wood, a fire destroyed the amphitheater about ninety years after it was built.

It's no wonder why the Romans were forced to build something so impressive, so fascinating, and at the same time so practical that it would serve its purpose and last a long time. This is not the only reason why the Romans built the Colosseum, however. Rome had an imperial system so emperors needed a way to keep the people happy although they had lost the right to vote (the previous system had been democratic). The events that occurred in the Colosseum were obviously very important to the people of ancient Rome as a form of entertainment. It is important to note that in ancient times, a magnificent building or structure was linked to the emperor who reigned during the time it was built, not the architects who designed it. Rome's ninth emperor Vespasian is given credit for designing the Colosseum, even though the true architects are unknown. During the next few paragraphs, I will discuss the history of the Colosseum as well as how it influenced the people and emperors of ancient Rome.

There are records of gladiator games from as far back as 264 B.C. Gladiator games usually consisted of two armed gladiators battling until one was killed or pardoned. The tradition of gladiator games didn't begin with the Romans, but with an ancient group of people called the Etruscans. The Etruscans believed that the soul of a dead person needed to be honored by the spilling of human blood. In order to do this, two professional fighters would fight to the death on the grave of the departed person. There is evidence that Romans revived this practice by 264 B.C., when tree pairs of gladiators fought to the death at the funeral of Decimus Brutus Pera. Unlike the Etruscans, there was not much spiritual belief behind the gladiator fights. Early gladiator fights took place in funerals of wealthy Romans, but their main purpose was to give the people a good show. As the gladiator games grew in popularity, the funeral ritual tradition was eventually dropped and the games were staged for what they wereƐ'--a display of wealth and entertainment for the masses. By approximately 90 B.C., gladiator games began taking place in circuses and forums. Circuses were elongated arenas with a spine down the middle, designed for chariot racing. In a circus, the audience had good seats but a poor view of the event. Since circuses were built for chariot races, their long and narrow shape made it difficult for someone sitting on one end to see an event going on at the other end. A good example of a circus is the Circus Maximus. This structure was the first and largest circus built by the Romans and it could hold up to 250,000 people. Forums were open gathering places in the center of a town, often with a monument in the middle. Audiences watching a gladiator event in a forum still experienced problems because the ground was flat, so only the people in the first few rows could see anything. Over the years, the gladiator games became even more elaborate to the point where some fights included fights with wild animals. So the Romans now had a problem on their hands: how to fit a large number of people in a way that let them see everything that was going on.

The ancient Greeks had built theaters with raised tiers of seats, but they were semicircular so they didn't really surround the action. The Romans borrowed the Greek theater concept and decided to extend the building to make it completely circular. The word amphitheater comes from two Greek words that mean "theater in the round." As stated earlier, the first Roman amphitheaters were constructed out of wood and were very vulnerable to disaster. The amphitheater in Pompeii (the first permanent stone amphitheater, built in 80 B.C.) was buried in dense ash 159 years after it was built when a nearby volcano erupted. Gladiator games were expensive, so they were paid for only by the wealthiest individuals, such as emperors and public officials. In A.D. 57 Nero, the fifth Roman emperor built a second wooden amphitheater. Nero's gladiator shows were extremely expensive so he nearly emptied the Roman treasury during his reign. In A.D. 64, after a huge fire that started in the wooden seats of the Circus Maximus and left thousands of people homeless, Nero claimed a



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