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.
The Colosseum Hosted Naval Reenactments, Among Other Shows
The Colosseum had a wide array of different possible entertainments. Though many depictions of the arena show seats surrounding a sand pit, the floor had a complex layout of walls and chambers underneath a wooden platform. Different pieces of scenery could be elevated through the Colosseum floor, providing new and distinct scenarios for every show.
Among the intricate caverns under the Colosseum, there were even runoff canals to drain the arena after a naval performance, called a naumachia, was performed. The wooden platform and its supports were removed from the Colosseum floor; water was then diverted from aqueducts into the center, creating an artificial lake up to 5 feet deep. Scaled-down ships were brought into the stadium to reenact famous naval conflicts from earlier history and improvise the more specific details of the engagement.
The first mention of a naumachia predates the Colosseum, but there is a record of one being held there, although it was a terrible disaster. According to Cassius Dio, a naumachia was held for Emperor Titus in 86 CE, but a major rainstorm hit Rome during the midst of it. The Colosseum flooded past the standard level for the naval events, and every crew member from the ships perished, along with the majority of the spectators.
The truth of the story is questionable, however, since Cassius Dio was writing about an event that preceded him by about two centuries.
Successful Gladiators Were Commemorated As Celebrities
Most people assume gladiators were enslaved people or law-breakers convicted to perish within the arena, but this wasn't always the case. Romans voluntarily signed up at gladiator schools to become professionals. For those who did, the benefits of being a victorious gladiator outweighed the inherent risk of the work, because gladiators could win prizes and glory.
Gladiators were treated like celebrities in Rome, akin to modern athletes. Roman children could even buy clay action figures representing famous fighters. Victors sometimes had affairs with aristocratic women, and graffiti from Pompeii bragged about their supposed prowess. Gladiator sweat was considered an aphrodisiac, so Romans sometimes mixed it into their face creams.
The Bestiarii Faced Off Against Exotic Animals From Around The Known World
One of the many shows held within the Colosseum was the animal hunt. Specific gladiators trained to face wild animals, called the bestiarii, squared off against a wide array of wild animals found throughout the Roman Empire. The animals included lions, tigers, bears, hippopotamuses, elephants, deer, giraffe, and allegedly even whales.
The bestiarii fought a combination of both harmless and potentially dangerous animals, but the fighters were rarely at risk. Of the thousands of animals slain throughout a single day, many were taken out from afar with spears or bows.
Spectators Probably Didn't See Lions Eating Christians
Even though it has been highly propagated as fact, and though it is possible, there is no evidence to suggest Christians were slain at the Colosseum. The association between the Colosseum and Christian suffering was first stated in the 4th century, but then largely forgotten until the 17th century.
During the 4th century CE, Christian and Latin scholar Lactantius and bishop of Caesarea Eusebius wrote of emperors, specifically Nero, intentionally slaying Christians. Such actions were never imperial policy, however, but scattered events which occurred around the empire.
During the medieval and early modern era, persecutions were never mentioned. The association only reemerged in the 17th century CE, when Christians sometimes gathered sand supposedly discolored by those persecuted and turned it into a relic.
The Colosseum did regularly feature punishments referred to as the "midday games," where law-breakers and POWs, called the damnati, were condemned through a multitude of different methods. Sometimes, the damnati were put into the arena defenseless amid wild animals, while others were forced to fight among one another.