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The Coliseum is Rome’s most famous and perhaps most impressive structure. This enormous Roman amphitheatre, commissioned by Emperor Vespanian, was built from concrete, peat and brick and accommodated more than 50,000 spectators. An army of slaves from the Jewish-Roman War took a total of 8 years, from 72 to 80 A.D. to build the 50-metre-high ‘il Colosseo’.
Inside the beautiful arched curves of the Coliseum gladiators fought each other or with wild animals; spectators would also watch chariot races, boxing matches and archery contests. Theatre performances were often quite bloody as convicted criminals were cast in the role of victims; they would actually be killed on stage during the performance. Cruel or not, the Roman people would stand up and applaud this kind of theatre performance.
In the 5th century A.D., the Coliseum, as well as the rest of Rome, came under attack by Barbarians and fell into disrepair. “Barbarian” was the general Roman term for all non-Roman people. Looting and natural disasters further damaged the Coliseum. The low point came in the Middle Ages when the theatre was reduced to a stone quarry. Stones would be taken from the Coliseum to be used as building materials – some of these stones were used in the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Benedict XIV put an end to the looting in 1749; he recognized the Coliseum’s historic value because of the early Christians who had been tortured to death here.
Few people are aware that in the early days the Coliseum could be covered with an enormous canvas called a velarium. This cover protected the spectators from the strong sun. It was tied to large poles on top of the Coliseum and anchored to the ground with ropes; the job of rigging this canvas required the help of more than a thousand people. But with this many people the task was quickly accomplished; within 15 minutes the entire velarium would be unfurled and put in place.
Nowadays the Coliseum is one of the top attractions in Rome. It is an imposing monument and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Today there are no longer any performances or spectacles at the Coliseum, but the building is open to visitors. Underneath the arena visitors may tour the convoluted maze of hallways and cages once used by animals and gladiators. These cages were hoisted up from below so the humans and animals could enter the arena at the stage level. After many years in deplorable conditions, the Coliseum is currently undergoing a colossal restoration that will take several years to complete.