The elliptical building is immense, measuring 188m by 156m and reaching a height of more than 48 meters (159 ft). The Colosseum could accommodate some 55,000 spectators who could enter the building through no less than 80 entrances.
Above the ground are four storeys, the upper storey contained seating for lower classes and women. The lowest storey was preserved for prominent citizens. Below the ground were rooms with mechanical devices and cages containing wild animals. The cages could be hoisted, enabling the animals to appear in the middle of the arena.
The Colosseum was covered with an enormous awning known as the velarium. This protected the spectators from the sun. It was attached to large poles on top of the Colosseum and anchored to the ground by large ropes. A team of some 1,000 men was used to install the awning.
Bread and circuses
Emperors used the Colosseum to entertain the public with free games. Those games were a symbol of prestige and power and they were a way for an emperor to increase his popularity.
Games were held for a whole day or even several days in a row. They usually started with comical acts and displays of exotic animals and ended with fights to the death between animals and gladiators or between gladiators. These fighters were usually slaves, prisoners of war or condemned criminals. Sometimes free Romans and even emperors took part in the action.
Hundred-day games were held by Titus, Vespasian’s successor, to mark the inauguration of the building in 80 AD. In the process, some 9,000 wild animals were slaughtered.
The southern side of the Colosseum was felled by an earthquake in 847. Parts of the building – including the marble facade – were used for the construction of later monuments, including the St. Peter’s Basilica.