Alejandra de Argos by Elena Cué

The Colosseum: Machine of Roman power


Coliseum director Dr Rosella Rea accompanies ABC Cultural on an exceptional visit through some of the recently restored, but as yet unopen to the public, areas of this prodigious monument . Back in Madrid, we consult with Pritzker prize-winning Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. “You need to close your eyes to imagine this gallery ... Archaeologists have found coloured, stuccoed areas and many frescoes. We know now that the interior of the Coliseum was red. Only the exterior was light, the colour of limestone travertine. Ancient architecture was always painted in bright colours and to forget this is to veer from reality", says Dr Rea, as we walk through a gallery whose restoration began in 2012 - thanks to a €25 million funding grant from luxury brand Tod's – and, although now completed, is still absolutely out of bounds to the public.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian





 Coliseo 1 


The Colosseum's Archaeological  director Dr Rosella Rea accompanies ABC Cultural on an exceptional visit through some of the recently restored, but as yet unopen to the public, areas of this prodigious monument. Back in Madrid, we consult with the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.

“You need to close your eyes to imagine this gallery ... Archaeologists have found coloured, stuccoed areas and many, many frescoes. We know now that the interior of the Colosseum was red. Only the exterior was light, the colour of limestone travertine. Ancient architecture was always painted in bright colours and to forget this is to ignore reality", says Dr Rea, as we walk through a gallery whose restoration began in 2012 - thanks to a €25 million funding grant from luxury brand Tod's – and, although now completed, is still absolutely out of bounds to the public. "We are in the highest reaches of the building, in an intermediate gallery that connects the third tier with the fourth and fifth. It was meant for the commoner. It is the only covered gallery preserved in its original state, with its frescoes, graffiti and ancient inscriptions."


 coliseo 2 

 Intermediate gallery connecting the third tier with the fourth and fifth. Colosseum (Rome). Photo: Marina Valcárcel

In this low-ceilinged, curved, narrow gallery the crowds would throng between lit torches or small windows of daylight, with shouting and screaming and the smell of food, dirt and latrines injecting the pure adrenaline of blood and death into the 100-day spectacle of festivals inaugurated by the Emperor Titus in 82 A.D. in his new Colosseum of Rome.

Robert Hughes insists we abandon the virtual images of TV series and video games portraying an "all-white Rome": white marble, white columns, men dressed in white togas looking very grave. "The real Rome was actually the Calcutta of the Mediterranean: crowded, chaotic and filthy," he writes in his book “Rome”.



  Coliseo 3 

View from the fourth tier. Photo: Marina Valcárcel


From this vantage point you have, by virtue of its height, the most impressive view of the Colosseum. We have a bird’s eye view of the huge skeleton of this stone beast with its open channels, its ribs of subterranean passageways, its arches jutting into the sky, the dark empty eyes of its vomitoriums, the rough skin of its concrete and its dark travertine covered in black scars, a wasp’s nest of square-shaped holes where metal clamps used to hold the stone blocks together before they were ultimately torn out and melted down.

From up here the Colosseum comes back to life in all its old colour, power and glory as it returns to the 1st century and 50,000 spectators enter the stands. Eighty arched entrances topped with 150 bronze statues and 40 golden shields at the attic level commemorate military conquests; senators and magistrates sit nearest to the arena, the commoner man on wooden benches in the top tier and the women and slaves in the "gods"; the roar of the amphitheatre becomes deafening, the grandstand is festooned again with marble and garlands of flowers. Above the windows of the highest level, the decorated beams hold the velarium that unfolds, manoeuvred by a special unit of sailors from the Miseno fleet to cover the amphitheatre with tarpaulin sails that protect spectators from the sun and shower them with water, steam, perfume and rose petals. The emperor, his family, the Vestal Virgins and the Roman priestesses sit on the podium while, through the Porta Triumphalis, the entourage of gladiators, musicians and hunters makes its entrance; opposite, through the Porta Libitinaria, their mutilated bodies will exit the arena ...

The words of the Dr Rea make perfect sense: "What impresses the visitor is not so much the visit itself as the fact of being here and living this experience."




View from the fifth tier and the buttress. Photo: Marina Valcárcel

So how are we to understand the secret to this feat of architectural engineering? The Flavio Amphitheatre, completed in the year 80 AD, reaches a total height of 52 metres; the major axis measures 188 metres and the smallest 156 metres. The total area covered by sand is 3,357 square meters. The Romans used slave labour, without which many of Antiquity's megalithic constructions, from the Egyptians to the Assyrian empire and Rome itself, would not have been viable. But how was it possible to build a monument capable of accommodating 73,000 people in eight years and without mechanical compactors, rotary mixers or any of today's motorized tools? Who invented the system of ramps and passageways that allowed the ingress and egress of the public in just 15 minutes? This system of mathematical accuracy is one that endures today in most of the football stadiums of the world and, of course, in all the bullrings that dot the geography of Spain in small amphitheatres. The Romans took so much from Greek art that they are sometimes considered mere continuators. As regards art, however, as important as the one who creates it is the one who passes it on. The Romans did indeed absorb Greek architecture and sculpture but they also endowed it with the gift of utility, multiplying it in terms of engineering and technical capabilities and, above all, political capacity. Roman art is understood better than ever from this high point of the Colosseum and it is an indescribable propaganda machine of imperial power. And the machinery’s cogs were activated by two generating factors - innovation in architectural materials and the very nature of the shows themselves.

Unrepeatable arquitecture

"The Colosseum, the Pantheon and even some Gothic cathedrals are examples of our architectural past that no modern architect would dare to build today. In the same way it would be difficult to reproduce the tempering of some Renaissance swords today, even though modern steel has great properties," Rafael Moneo points out in our conversation about the Colosseum back in his Madrid studio. "Roman architecture, and the Colosseum in particular, has that complete strength of definition that at times demands an architecture with a resounding constitution and huge dimensions. In this respect, the Colosseum, unlike the Pantheon, simultaneously resolves something very beautifully: the problem of form and use. It is an architecture that comes from Greek theatre; Greek theatres not Greek temples, because it’s understood that the problems of form are linked almost directly to the use that things are put to. In the case of the Colosseum it goes further still, with that slightly oval-shaped level, those specific measurements and that double focus of the ellipse set against the stricter, tougher condition of the circle", adds Moneo.


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Interior view of the Colosseum, access gallery to the stands. Photo: Marina Valcárcel

Roman architecture was first and foremost practical. It fulfilled its propaganda function - to spread mini Romes throughout the empire - with military rigour. They would all have their forum, their basilica, their aqueduct, their amphitheatre... "The history of civilization is not understood without Rome, without the empire and without the Church. All of that has become architecture. Culture is deposited in architecture and that is the lesson of that city," concludes Moneo.

To this end, Rome relied on two revolutionary discoveries: concrete and the spread of brick. Greek architecture was based on the straight line: pillars and straight lintels. The genius of Roman architecture was that it built curved structures. This could not be done, at least not on any magnitude, in carved stone. A plastic, malleable substance was needed, and the Romans found it in concrete. With it they erected aqueducts, arches, domes and roads. It was the material of power and discipline. It was strong and inexpensive, allowing very large structures to be built. And size had a special appeal to the Romans when it came to building their empire. But also, with the production of bricks, the Romans came to generate a material at an almost pre-industrial level. Each colony of the empire had its brick factory, each with its own local peculiarity. "It was like amphorae in that each city had its own typology: those of Bética were big-bellied and narrow-mouthed, and so the oil that arrived from Andalusia was distinguishable from the rest that arrived at the port of Ostia from elsewhere in the empire", explains Dr. Rea.


No known author

It is not known who the architect of the Colosseum was. We can only imagine him through Alma Tadema's painting in which he is depicted as a mature, thoughtful man stroking his chin with his left hand while drawing a rough sketch of a very large building in the sand with his right. It is as if the Dutch painter had wanted to honour Architecture through the drawing that this imagined artist presented to Vespasian and which would seem to hold all later architecture within it: from St. Petersburg to the Capitol in Washington; from one  magnificence to another.

"The overlapping of classical styles on the facade of the Colosseum became an inspiration for the constructive art of the Renaissance. All later palaces have their origins here," concludes Dr. Rea.


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"The architect of the Coliseum", Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)


Subterranean Hell

Barbara Nazzaro, the Colosseum's Technical Director, now joins Dr. Rea and both suggest we end this visit with a "descent into hell". The basements, about six meters down, are a humid-smelling web of blackened stone tunnels with water underfoot and here we recall the dark legend of the Emperor Nero whose spectre seems to inhabit these dungeons. Nero had the artificial pool of his Domus Aurea built here in the Colosseum's valley. His suicide in 68 AD and posthumous damnatio memoriae - a kind of historical anti-memory law - only served to bury the imperial residence but the emperor ended up giving his name to the beast. Colosseum does not mean 'gigantic building' but 'place of a statue', in this case of him, 35 metres high and cast in bronze that presided over the esplanade of that folly of extravagance that was Nero's residence.                                


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Artist's impression of the bronze statue of Nero for the esplanade of the Domus Aurea

The basement was the secret machinery powering the spectacles taking place above in homage to the glory of the emperor: full-scale re-enactments and performances with lavish scenery, artificial forests and special effects. They housed everything from the dock where the ships anchored for mock seafights to the hunting extravaganzas. Exotic animals dazzled the crowds awed by the greatness of their empire: lions, panthers, leopards, tigers and elephants brought from Africa; wild boars, bears and deer from Germany. From  the tunnels crammed with cages and by means of freight elevators, the beasts ascended to the arena in a matter of minutes. Down in this labyrinth, the stench of animals mixed with the smell of slaves and smoke from the torches. Metal supports and beams that reinforced the service lifts were operated by a system of winches operated by slaves. At first there were 28 elevators. "We are talking here about it taking more than 200 people to get them up and running," says Dr Rea. Later, 32 more lifts were built. Trapdoors would be raised for the animals to enter the arena. About one million wild animals were killed in the Colosseum during the time it served as a place of entertainment for the masses, according to Dion Casio. The different plants that grow today between the stones of the Colosseum ruins constitute a legacy from these animals. They were the ones who brought the seeds from distant lands, populating the Colosseum with plant species left in peace to bloom throughout the building. 



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Replica of one of the lifts from the basements of the Colosseum. Photo: Marina Valcárcel


 Coliseo 7 

Dock in the interior of the Colosseum. Photo: Marina Valcárcel


From the first centuries after Antiquity and during the Middle Ages, the amphitheatre belonged somewhat to whoever appropriated it: monks from nearby country and vineyard monasteries settled there, as did aristocratic families - like the Frangipani - who fortified it, ordinary people who made it their refuge, their business, their home in which they ate, slept and cooked. The Colosseum is  unlike any other known building typology: it is not a temple, nor a palace, nor a church. As the centuries passed, this indeterminacy took on myriad contours: it would serve as a quarry for the construction of other churches - the travertine of its facade would become the stairs of St. Peter's in Vatican City, it would be filled with aedicules for the Via Crucis and it would be incorporated into the architectural projects of Bernini and Fontana who dreamed of building churches out of its sand and bringing its stories of martyrdom back to life.

“Quamdiu stat Colysaeus stat et Roma, quando cadet Colysaeum cadet et Roma, quando cadet et Roma cadet et mundus” ("As long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world."). This epigram, attributed to the Venerable Bede (672-735), would now seem to have been a prophecy endowing the monument with a fundamental responsibility and centering it as a testimony to the survival of history, as the mirror of Rome and, in turn, the mirror of the world.


 Coliseo 8 

Entrance gate to the Colosseum. Photo: Marina Valcárcel


 (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)


- The Colosseum, the engine of Roman power -                      - Alejandra de Argos -

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