COLOSSEUM, ROME

   The Colosseum in Rome is one of the largest arenas built in antiquity. This huge monument to Roman sporting events and other public spectacles could seat over 55,000 people in tiered rows of stone benches that rise over 150 feet into the air. The oval shape of the arena is a colossal expansion upon the earlier semi-circular amphitheaters built in Ancient Greece and used to host theatrical performances. It was begun under Vespasian in AD 72 and completed under the rule of Titus, and was widely copied across the Roman Empire.
   The four-story exterior of the Colosseum consists of three levels of open arched colonnades called arcades, topped by an attic level articulated by flat pilasters that are in turn topped by a cornice. The arched colonnades alternate round arches with columns attached to the wall, called engaged columns. The ground floor columns are Doric, followed by Ionic columns above and then by Corinthian columns. This hierarchy of order originated in classical Greek architecture and was described in detail by the Roman architect Vitruvius in his manual written in the first century BC titled The Ten Books on Architecture. Once the visitor enters through any of the arched porticoes on the ground floor, stairwells connect to different sections of seating on all three levels via barrel-vaulted hallways. Sectioning the seating indicates the organizational skill of the Romans, as seats and specific seating areas could be numbered and located easily, and thousands could exit at about the same time.
   Inside the arena, an oval stage about 280 feet long was covered with sand and elevated on a platform above a series of basement service rooms and tunnels. These subterranean rooms were used for storage of equipment and to house performers, who were often slaves brought from the farflung regions of the Roman Empire. Lions and other animals used in various events were kept in cages beneath the stage, ready to burst into the arena on cue. Known for brutal gladiator battles and subsequent early Christian persecutions, the Colosseum, one of the largest public buildings from antiquity, came to symbolize Roman authority, civic ideals, and public policy.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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