After the death of Nero in 68 AD, the Roman Empire experienced a year of civil war and strife known as the Year of the Four Emperors. During this time, there was an intense power struggle to take control over the imperial throne. After the dust settled, Vespasian, a Roman general at the time, rose to power and brought a period of political stability. In order to cement his rule and establish his legitimacy amongst the people of Rome, Vespasian wasted little time enacting public works projects. These projects were often monumental in scope, and among them was the Colosseum.
Construction on the Colosseum began in 70 AD, almost immediately after Vespasian took power. Its intention was to project the newly established emperor’s power over the empire by displaying the vast reach the government had over various resources and regions. Funds for the construction of the Colosseum came from the sacking of Jerusalem after the Judean revolt in 66 AD. After the final suppression of this prolonged revolt, and the expulsion of the native people living in the region, the Roman Empire seized as many valuables as they could attain and brought them back to Rome to serve as trophies of the Roman victory as well as slaves to work for the Empire.
The project behind the Colosseum was a massive undertaking that required a vast amount of construction materials and manpower in order to be completed. Even with all the slaves and state-owned quarries, it would take ten years for the Colosseum to be opened to the public. Because of the length of this project, Vespasian would not live to see the inaugural day for the Colosseum, since he died in 79 AD, one year before its completion. Vespasian’s son, Titus, would succeed Vespasian as emperor, and oversee the final construction of the Colosseum.
The engineering feats that went into the Colosseum are astonishing, even by today’s standards. Some of the most impressive features include the underworkings of the arena. Down here, the Roman engineers designed vast passages and tunnels to accommodate the gladiators, prisoners, exotic animals that would be used for the shows, as well as navigate the slaves who would work in almost complete darkness at times to operate the lifts and gates of the arena.
In addition to this, the Colosseum was also equipped with an intricate aqueduct system which many archaeologists and scholars speculate was used to flood the arena with water to throw mock naval battles for the audience’s entertainment. However, it is not clear if the facilities the Colosseum had at its disposal allowed for repeated flooding and draining of the arena, or if this feature was a one-time only deal used for the initial opening ceremonies for the Colosseum. For days where the weather was poor, the Roman engineers added massive awnings that would extend and detract from the attic of the Colosseum. These awnings would be operated by off-duty naval sailors since they had experience dealing with rope-based mechanisms and sails.
Many spectacles, shows, and executions were held in the Colosseum for the entertainment of thousands upon thousands of Roman citizens. The state often gave many days off as holidays to allow the citizens of the Imperial capital a chance to participate and spectate in these games. This was not out of pure benevolence, however, but an often-used tactic of gaining political power/support as well as appeasing and pacifying the masses. Buildings like the Colosseum were elaborate tools for these powerful men of the era. While we can admire the engineering and artistic value the Colosseum has to offer, we should also keep in mind the costs of its construction and the consequences of the events that took place within its walls.