The Roman Coliseum

by Hiroe F. Enatsu

“Honor him.” – Lucilla from The Gladiator

I remember watching The Gladiator with my mom, and both of us teared up at the end. Having seen it again, the end still hits the spot. The Gladiator is a 2000 historical epic film about a gladiator, once a Roman general, named Maximus Decimus Meridius, seeking revenge against the new emperor Commodus for the betrayal and death of his family. In the latter half of the movie, the Roman Coliseum set the stage for the climax and epilogue, and its rich character, setting and people immersed viewers in the magnificence and brutality of Ancient Rome.

The Roman Coliseum (Italian: Colosseo) as we all know it today was originally called the Flavian Ampitheatre, commissioned by Flavian emperor, Vespasian in A.D. 72. It was dedicated to him in A.D. 80 with the slaughter of 5000 animals, as he died in A.D. 79, though the completion of the ampitheatre may have gone through various emperors.

It is located east of the Roman Forum, and beside the Coliseum stood a colossal statue of Nero which may have gotten its new name from. Eliptical in plan, it is 48 meters tall and 188 by 156 meters wide. Its 80 arches allowed the ampitheatre to be evacuated within five minutes. Its outer wall is made from travertine stone and consists of arcades spaced at regular intervals and framed by Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian orders, and statuaries and Corinthian pilasters on the top.

The ampitheatre was a microcosm of Roman society, with the seating arrangement among the four storeys based on the person’s rank. The upper storey seated the lower classes and women, while the lowest storey seated the rich, the Senators, the Vestal Virgins and the Emperor. It was also covered with an enormous awning (a velarum) which protected spectators form the sun. The underground level had rooms with mechanical devices and animals stored. Gears were used to lift the cages up to the arena floor.

As shown in the film, the Coliseum was used for gladiatorial shows. The gladiators were either criminals, slaves or prisoners of war, and could be male or female (although rare). They were owned by lanistas, in this case, by Proximo.

Gladiators could eventually buy their freedom with the money they receive. But some people chose to be gladiators out of the new meaning in life and the prestige this gave them—a fame equal to being in the Roman army— while only having to fight two, three times a year.

“Oh you should see the Colosseum, Spaniard. 50,000 Romans watching every movement of your sword, willing you to make that killer blow. The silence before you strike, and the noise afterwards, it rises, rises like…like a storm, as if you were the Thunder God himself.” – Proximo in The Gladiator

The ampitheatre was also used for a variety of events such as dances, performances, animal games and sacrifices, and mock naval battles (which the arena was said to be filled with water). These were mostly hosted by private individuals rather than the state. But both the emperors and senate, the poor and rich frequented these shows (called a munera). Reenactments of victories and mythology were main themes in these munera, and natural scenes with real trees and bushes planted in the arena floor were also constructed. As in the film, the gladiators would play the roles of the characters in such themes and be killed, burned or mauled by animals and opponents, much to the amusement and cheer of the public. Gladiatorial games could be staged throughout a day, and if the ground was soaked in blood, it would be covered with a fresh layer of sand to continue the games.

Even Emperors played as gladiators, however opponents had to feign a fight for the emperor to win.

Presently, much of its southern side was destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 847, and a part of the stones of its façade were used in the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Still, millions of visitors flock to the Coliseum to awe at such a free-standing architectural marvel for its time.

The city of Rome in The Gladiator comprised of constructed sets with computer-generated imagery used to fill in the rest. The Coliseum we see in the movie was a replica built in Malta, about one-third of the Coliseum, and made from plaster and plywood with a height of 52 feet.  The other two-thirds, remaining height, and tiers of spectators in the set were added in digitally. The streets of Ancient Rome, from the marketplaces, insulas, statuaries and colonnades, were constructed behind it.

The film was inspired by historical persons and events, but its story is fiction. Commodus did not die in just a few months after his reign. Maximus is not real, but rather an amalgamation of historical persons at the time. Some of the weapons and props shown did not exist yet in A.D. 180 and so on.

Interestingly enough, the brainchild of the movie was based on Jean-Leon Gerome’s 1872 painting entitled Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down).

So, which would you choose? Kill? Or Live?



Word Count: 799, exclusive of movie quotes.


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