Weird History
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What It Was Like To Be A Spectator In The Roman Colosseum

Updated March 6, 2019 35.5k views13 items

Ancient Romans loved their sports and entertainment, and the Colosseum put on the grandest games in all of ancient Rome. With its gladiators, interchangeable arenas, exotic animals, and the rare naval reenactment, being a spectator in the Roman Colosseum would have indeed been a spectacle.

Crowds of 50,000 people, spanning every region and socioeconomic class of the empire, gathered at the stadium to watch shows and get away from the disgusting life of everyday Rome. They enjoyed food, wine, music, and theatrics in a large venue, all paid for by the emperor himself. 

At the Colosseum, the audience could munch on chickpeas while waiting for the mid-day execution, watch for lions and other exotic animals released through the arena's hidden trap doors from their cramped seats, or see Roman elites collecting sweat from a gladiator (they thought it was an aphrodisiac). Events held at the Colosseum were so varied and elaborate that onlookers never knew what to expect.

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  • The Top Rows Couldn't See Or Hear Much

    With over 50,000 seats, the Colosseum was easily the largest amphitheater in the Roman world. But because of its immense size, spectators in the nosebleed section probably couldn't see or hear much of the action. The Colosseum was around 12 to 15 stories high, and the highest part sat upon a wall which extended 16 feet above any other spectators.

    The crowds at the top, made up of mostly women and the impoverished, strained to see the fights below. And while the roar of the crowd could make it to the top, the spectators in the highest seats probably couldn't hear much else from the fighting ring. 

  • Spectators Were Kept Away From The Emperor

    Spectators Were Kept Away From The Emperor
    Photo: Jean-Léon Gérôme / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The emperor sat in the best seat in the house, the imperial box. Gladiators fought in front of the emperor, sometimes appealing to him for mercy. And spectators watched the emperor to see how he reacted to the fight. After all, the emperor could order a gladiator's end at any time. 

    While Roman elites might sit close to the emperor, the mighty ruler was separated from the other spectators. The emperor even had dedicated doors to enter and exit the Colosseum, so he never ran into the rabble.

  • A Massive, Moveable Awning Kept Attendees Cool On Hot Days

    A Massive, Moveable Awning Kept Attendees Cool On Hot Days
    Video: YouTube

    The Mediterranean heat can be intense during the summer months, but the Colosseum provided a place of respite thanks to the velarium. The velarium was the building's system of adjustable awnings designed similarly to a ship's mast and sails. And there was a ship crew stationed near Rome designated to maneuver the Colosseum's velarium.

    Using ropes and pulleys, the stationed crew could pull a large piece of fabric, or smaller separated strips, across the top of the structure and block the sun as needed.  

  • There Might Have Been A Soundtrack

    There Might Have Been A Soundtrack
    Photo: Fyodor Bronnikov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Fights at the Colosseum were often accompanied by music. Spectators listened to trumpets, horns, and water organs while watching gladiators take on each other or exotic animals. The musicians even played during the tense moment when the emperor was deciding whether a gladiator had shown enough bravery to live.

    The music was more than just entertainment for the spectators though. It also acted as a cue for the stagehands. The music might tell them when to release a wild animal into the arena or when the next fight was about to start.