The Colossal Coliseum – the who, what, when, where and why of Rome’s most impressive building

The Coliseum by night is just spectacular! A must-see sight for all visitors to Rome.

Everyone can recognise Rome’s magnificent Coliseum – even if they can’t spell it at first go.

(On the spelling front, you do get two chances however, as Rome’s spectacular architectural wonder can also be spelled ‘Colosseum’, and in Italian, Colosseo.)

Whilst you’ve probably seen images of the Coliseum from many different angles, heights and exposures, nothing really prepares you for that first spine-tingling glimpse, perhaps just a tantalising flash of ancient brick spied at the end of a cobbled  narrow alleyway or suddenly as you round a corner on a bus or exit from the nearby metro station. However it occurs, you never forget your first time seeing the Coliseum.

Despite being more recognisable than a disgraced pop star, its fascinating history is somewhat less well known, so we’re here to give you a very brief who/what/when/where/why of Rome’s most magnificent sight.

Whilst this post may only be enough to get you through a simple pub quiz, we do have expert Rome guides who know many more interesting facts about this building, and Rome generally, than you could possibly imagine. But for starters…

Inside the Colosseum. You must see it first hand to truly understand the size. It’s, well, colossal!

WHO? The Colosseum was born as the brain child of Emperor Vespasian. Later seized and then added onto by Nero, the Coliseum was later added onto by Vespasian’s son Titus in the year 80, and later Vespasian’s youngest son, Emperor Domitian. Theodosius II and Valentinian III contributed to reconstruction work after fire and earthquake damage, and since then, restoration, damage and repair have been continual.

WHAT? Throughout its near-on 2000 year history, the Colosseum has been used most famously as the site of epic gladiator battles, but also for plays, executions, and even quite oddly plays concluding with real-life executions as part of theme (the starring role being played by a pre-condemned prisoner), a market, a quarry, as accommodation, a fortress, a monastery, a church with cemetery, for the staging of hunts using animals including crocodiles, rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, bears and even giraffes, elephants and ostriches, not to mention the more dangerous animals of the big cat family ? lions, leopards and panthers. Animals were also utilised to set the scene in reconstructions of natural scenes using real trees and flora to reconstruct nature scenes much to the delight of the city-dwelling locals. Pope Sixtus V even planned on turning the Colosseum into a wool factory that would provide employment to Rome’s prostitutes, however he died before this plan was ever put into action.

Today, of course, the Coliseum is arguably Rome’s most recognizable symbol and a must-see sight for any visitor to Rome. After a long history as the site of executions and to-the-death battles, it is nice to know that it is also utilised as the symbol of the world anti-capital punishment movement.

WHEN? Construction started around 70 BC. Since then, it has been completed, added on to, burned, crumbled, earth-quake damaged, re-built and reinforced. Major restoration works are also scheduled to begin in late 2011.

WHERE? In the heart of Italy’s majestic capital city, Rome, just near the Roman Forum.

WHY? The Colosseum was initially built as an amphitheatre, designed to house some 50,000 people to watch spectacles.

Of course, the complete history would take some years and a doctoral study or two to fully grasp, but we do have a more concise and fascinating 3 ½ hour walking tour of Rome’s city with an expert guide, a tour which includes skip-the-line entry into the Colosseum, along with visits to several other major sights in Rome. It’s called the Original Rome Walk, and this guided tour can be done as a small-group walking tour of Rome or a private guided tour of Rome with an exclusive tour guide.

We also have a small-group skip-the-line Vatican tour that can be done on the same day as our small-group Rome walking tour as part of our discounted Rome tours package, Rome in One Glorious Day or two. Note we say ‘(or two)’ because you do also have the option of doing the two tours over two days.

The My Exclusive Original Rome Walk private guided tour and the My Exclusive Masterpieces of the Vatican and St. Peters guided tour tours allow you do these fantastic tours as private guided tours.

We love Rome so much that we have many more private Rome tours with an expert tour guide for you to choose from, as well as tours in Florence/Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Venice and beyond, which you can see on our site,

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  1. I’ve been studying buildings for over 20 years. It is safe to say that this building is the most aspiring one on the planet.

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  3. Pingback: La Luna sul Coloseum – The moon over the Coliseum « ArtViva Italy