The Colosseum - Roman Death Trap - NOVA Video Review

Engineering of the Roman Mysteries behind the Amphitheaters

Roman Colosseum - View of the Arena Floor Substructure
Roman Colosseum - View of the Arena Floor Substructure. NOVA - WGBH

On February 11, 2015, PBS's scientific documentary series NOVA began Building Wonders, a three-part program examining the architecture and history of three of the best preserved and most famous ancient buildings on the planet: Petra (in what is Jordan today), the Hagia Sophia (Turkey) and the Colosseum (Italy). The first of the programs is The Colosseum: Roman Death Trap.

Built in the first century AD, the Colosseum still stands today, a miracle of solid construction and water control.

The 2015 video from WGBH features late 20th and early 21st century investigations into the Roman building's history and archaeology, with emphasis on what scientists have learned about the substructure of the arena floor.

New Excavations and Studies

Most people have heard about the Colosseum, if only from recent television programs and movies about Roman gladiators. Those programs are based, more or less, on the ancient writers who waxed rhapsodic about the huge gory spectacles that took place within the Colosseum and other Roman amphitheaters: gladiators fighting hand-to-hand, mass crucifixions, ritualized murders, and animal hunts. The scale of death at the Colosseum was pretty horrific, with an estimated million human deaths over the 400 years of operation and 11,000 animals killed each season: all of that explains our cinematic fascination.

But it wasn't until the 20th century that the substructure of the arena, filled in during the 6th century AD, came to light.

Colosseum: Roman Death Trap focuses on a reconstruction of the mechanics of that substructure, identifying the magicians behind the curtain that created the spectacles. How did the Romans get wild animals to appear magically in the middle of the arena set for battle? Did they really flood the arena to recreate sea battles?

Program Highlights

The main focus of Roman Death Trap is on architect Heinz Beste, who describes how he found evidence for a massive set of pulleys and levers used to move wild animals--crocodiles, ostriches, rhinos, bears, and tigers--onto the arena floor. Beste worked with modern engineers on staff at the Colosseum to rebuild a working device, one of an estimated 28 such devices which lifted and released the animals into the arena. That process is detailed, from mysterious markings on the substructure walls to the construction of a scale model, and then a full-sized working model placed within the Colosseum walls and operated.

Much appreciated is the input of historian Katherine Welch, who describes the political climate of the Colosseum's construction, how it was created to support the Flavian dynasty and overcome the damage inflicted on Rome's physical and moral fiber by the crazed emperor Nero and by the volcanic destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Also of assistance in understanding the context is architect Mark Wilson Jones describing the differences between Roman and Greek amphitheaters. He points out that the deadly functions of the Colosseum are a direct reflection of the unsubtle differences between the two civilizations.

Nitty Gritty

Other featured individuals include Italian sewage engineer Adriano Morabito, who describes how he stumbled across the sophisticated water control system used by the Colosseum to fill the arena with water and drain it out again quickly. That system enabled the mock sea battles and, more important for those of us in the 21st century, helped preserve the Colosseum's structural integrity over 2000 years of neglect, earthquakes, and repurposing.

Forensic archaeologist Fabian Kanz reports his analysis of the human remains from 68 people at what evidence shows was a cemetery of gladiators at Ephesus in Turkey, including physical evidence for violence and strontium isotope analysis as clues to Roman medical history.

The film also features the late 20th-century discovery and decipherment of the original dedication of the Colosseum written for Vespasian's family--and a clue to the where funding for the massive structure came from.

Bottom Line

The Colosseum - Roman Death Trap reports on several aspects of the ancient building that were new to me. Weaving history, archaeology, and architecture, the video shows us the grim reality of Roman life ​and sets the Colosseum in the context of Roman culture and politics. What kind of mindset would construct such a ghastly monument to death? An all-too-human one, as we have all too much experience these days to deny.

The Colosseum: Roman Death Trap. 2015. Written, produced and directed by Gary Glassman executive producers Valerie Abita, Manuel Catteau, senior producer Chris Schmidt, Managing director Alan Ritsko, senior executive producer Paula S. Apsell. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders, and featuring Mark Wilson Jones, Katherine Welch, Heinz Beste, Rosella Rea, Umberto Baruffaldi, Giovanni Squillacioti, Flavia Campanelli, Carmelo Malacrino, and Fabian Kanz. A NOVA production by Providence Pictures, co-produced with ZED and ARTE France. WGBH Educational Foundation. 56 minutes

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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Colosseum - Roman Death Trap - NOVA Video Review." ThoughtCo, Feb. 19, 2017, Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, February 19). The Colosseum - Roman Death Trap - NOVA Video Review. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Colosseum - Roman Death Trap - NOVA Video Review." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 18, 2017).