From Flavian Amphitheater to Colosseum

Ancient Roman development of the familiar sports arena

The Roman Coliseum at night
Michel Collot

The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheater is one of the most well-known of the ancient Roman structures because so much of it still remains.

Meaning: Amphitheater comes from the Greek amphi ~ on both sides and theatron ~ semicircular viewing place or theater.

An Improvement Over the Existing Design

The Circus

The Colosseum in Rome is an amphitheater. It was developed as an improvement over the differently shaped but similarly used Circus Maximus, for gladiatorial combats, wild beast fights (venationes), and mock naval battles (naumachiae).

  • Spine: Elliptical in shape, the circus had a fixed central divider called a spina down the middle, which was useful in chariot races, but got in the way during fights.
  • Viewing: In addition, the spectators' view was limited in the circus. The amphitheater put spectators on all sides of the action.

Flimsy Early Amphitheaters

In 50 B.C., C. Scribonius Curio built the first amphitheater in Rome to stage his father's funeral games. Curio's amphitheater and the next one, built in 46 B.C., by Julius Caesar, were made of wood. The weight of the spectators was at times too great for the wooden structure and, of course, the wood was easily destroyed by fire.

Stable Amphitheater

Emperor Augustus designed a more substantial amphitheater to stage venationes, but it wasn't until the Flavian emperors, Vespasian and Titus, that the enduring, limestone, brick, and marble Amphitheatrum Flavium (aka Vespasian's Amphitheater) was built.

"The construction utilized a careful combination of types: concrete for the foundations, travertine for the piers and arcades, tufa infill between piers for the walls of the lower two levels, and brick-faced concrete used for the upper levels and for most of the vaults."
Great Buildings Online - Roman Colosseum

The amphitheater was dedicated in A.D. 80, in a ceremony lasting a hundred days, with the slaughter of 5000 sacrificial animals. The amphitheater may not have been finished, however, until the reign of Titus' brother Domitian. Lightning damaged the amphitheater, but later emperors repaired and maintained it until the games were ended in the sixth century.

Source of the Name Colosseum

The medieval historian Bede applied the name Colosseum (Colyseus) to the Amphitheatrum Flavium, possibly because the amphitheater -- which had taken back the pond on the land Nero had devoted to his extravagant golden palace (domus aurea) -- stood beside a colossal statue of Nero. This etymology is disputed.

Size of the Flavian Amphitheater

The tallest Roman structure, the colosseum was about 160 feet high and covered about six acres. Its long axis is 188m and its short, 156m. Construction used 100,000 cubic meters of travertine (like the cella of the Temple of Hercules Victor), and 300 tons of iron for clamps, according to Filippo Coarelli in Rome and Environs.

Although all the seats are gone, at the end of the 19th century, the seating potential was calculated and the figures are generally accepted. There were likely 87,000 seats in 45-50 rows inside the colosseum. Coarelli says social standing determined seating, so those rows closest to the action were reserved for the senatorial classes, whose special seats were inscribed with their names and made of marble. Women were separated at public events from the time of the earliest emperor, Augustus.

The Romans probably held mock sea battles in the Flavian Amphitheater.


There were 64 numbered doors to let spectators in and out that were called vomitoria. N.B.: Vomitoria were exits, not places spectators regurgitated the contents of their stomachs to facilitate binge eating and drinking. People vomited forth, so to speak, from the exits.

Other Noteworthy Aspects of the Colosseum

There were substructures under the fighting area that may have been animal dens or channels for water for or from the mock naval battles. It is hard to determine how the Romans produced venationes and naumachiae on the same day.

A removable awning called velarium provided the spectators with shade from the sun.

The outside of the Flavian amphitheater has three rows of arches, each built according to a different order of architecture, Tuscan (the simplest, Doric, but with an Ionic base), on the ground level, then Ionic, and then the most ornate of the three Greek orders, the Corinthian. The vaults of the Colosseum were both barrel and groined (where barrel arches intersect each other at right angles). The core was concrete, with the exterior covered in cut stone.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "From Flavian Amphitheater to Colosseum." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). From Flavian Amphitheater to Colosseum. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "From Flavian Amphitheater to Colosseum." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).