What Happened to the Missing Half of the Roman Colosseum?

What hap­pened to the miss­ing half of the Colos­se­um? It may be a ques­tion about ancient Rome you were afraid to ask in school, as the title of Dr. Gar­ret Ryan’s video above sug­gests. Or maybe, after see­ing the mas­sive ancient ruin’s jagged pro­file all your life on piz­za box­es and soft­ball t‑shirts spon­sored by your local Ital­ian eatery, you nev­er thought much of the Colos­se­um’ shape at all. You could spend hun­dreds of dol­lars and build a LEGO Colos­se­um, hun­dreds more and vis­it it your­self, or dri­ve past it every day on your com­mute, and nev­er think much about it.

Despite cur­rent­ly host­ing more vis­i­tors per year than Tre­vi Foun­tain and the Sis­tine Chapel com­bined, the mon­u­ment to bread and cir­cus impe­r­i­al Rome suf­fered from severe neglect in the mil­len­nia and a‑half after it was used as a glad­i­a­tor are­na – “some 1,500 years of neglect and hap­haz­ard con­struc­tion projects,” Tom Mueller writes at Smith­son­ian, “lay­ered one upon anoth­er.” Used as a quar­ry after the 6th cen­tu­ry, for most of its long, decay­ing life, the amphithe­ater and its “hypogeum” (the intri­cate sys­tem of tun­nels and earth­works under­neath) went ful­ly to seed.

For most of its his­to­ry, that is to say, humans most­ly ignored the Colos­se­um. But curios­i­ty about its his­to­ry pays:

Down through the cen­turies, peo­ple filled the hypogeum with dirt and rub­ble, plant­ed veg­etable gar­dens, stored hay and dumped ani­mal dung. In the amphithe­ater above, the enor­mous vault­ed pas­sages shel­tered cob­blers, black­smiths, priests, glue-mak­ers and mon­ey-chang­ers, not to men­tion a fortress of the Frangi­pane, 12th-cen­tu­ry war­lords. By then, local leg­ends and pil­grim guide­books described the crum­bling ring of the amphitheater’s walls as a for­mer tem­ple to the sun. Necro­mancers went there at night to sum­mon demons.

In the late 16th cen­tu­ry — before popes parad­ed through the are­na to hon­or Chris­tians fed to wild beasts — “Pope Six­tus V, the builder of Renais­sance Rome, tried to trans­form the Colos­se­um into a wool fac­to­ry.” The ven­ture failed, and soon after the huge vari­ety of wild plant life began to attract botanists, who cat­a­logued some 337 dif­fer­ent species. The hypogeum, the archi­tec­tur­al mech­a­nism that once pow­ered spec­ta­cles on the floor above, was only cleared in the 1930s by Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni in his glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of clas­si­cal Rome.

Restora­tion on the Colos­se­um did not begin until the 1990s and vis­i­tors have only been allowed to see the ruin’s inner work­ings since 2011, almost 2000 years since it was first con­struct­ed between 72 and 80 AD. Orig­i­nal­ly called the Fla­vian Amphithe­atre, the build­ing’s name was changed to reflect its prox­im­i­ty to the Colos­sus of Nero, a mon­u­ment to impe­r­i­al hubris that has itself long dis­ap­peared. So, what about that miss­ing half? “The short answer,” writes Dr. Ryan, “is: earth­quakes and popes, in that order.”

The longer answer, as you might imag­ine, is far more col­or­ful, and far blood­i­er, involv­ing events like the Emper­or Tra­jan’s 123-day cel­e­bra­tion of his vic­to­ry in Dacia, “in the course of which 5,000 pairs of glad­i­a­tors fought and 11,000 ani­mals were killed.” After around 500 years of this kind of blood­sport (and oth­er amuse­ments) and anoth­er 1,500 years of dete­ri­o­ra­tion, I’d say the Colos­se­um has held up remark­ably well, a trib­ute to Roman archi­tec­tur­al engi­neer­ing, the one thing the Roman Empire seemed to love more than vio­lent death.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When the Colos­se­um in Rome Became the Home of Hun­dreds of Exot­ic Plant Species

The Roman Colos­se­um Has a Twin in Tunisia: Dis­cov­er the Amphithe­ater of El Jem, One of the Best-Pre­served Roman Ruins in the World

An Ani­mat­ed Recon­struc­tion of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Vir­tu­al­ly-Recre­at­ed Streets

An 8‑Minute Ani­mat­ed Flight Over Ancient Rome

How Did Roman Aque­ducts Work?: The Most Impres­sive Achieve­ment of Ancient Rome’s Infra­struc­ture, Explained

The His­to­ry of Ancient Rome in 20 Quick Min­utes: A Primer Nar­rat­ed by Bri­an Cox

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (7) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (7)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Michael says:

    So bummed. Why didn’t we hear more about the miss­ing wall? The actu­al title of the arti­cle. What earth­quake? More than one? Where are the parts? A pope caused the wall to fall? That’s my new sto­ry I’m telling peo­ple. He thought it was a pagan tem­ple and got a wreck­ing ball to it.

  • Brent says:

    I felt the same, then watched the video. It explains it in more detail.

  • Mark Hammill says:

    ‘For most of its his­to­ry, that is to say, humans most­ly ignored the Colos­se­um.’ Who were the oth­ers that did pay atten­tion! Wow not a con­vinc­ing start or this arti­cle nor authors’ grasp of anthro­pol­o­gy nor his­to­ry. Thanks for pub­lish­ing a pri­ma­ry (ele­men­tary) school report. Cour­tesy of Google maps & search.

  • Safi says:

    After read­ing this arti­cle, i am like ‘What was the ques­tion?’

  • Tea Bag says:

    I always assumed the high end of the wall was on the south side, thus cre­at­ing a sun­shade.

  • Bill says:

    Mus­soli­ni saved the build­ing in the 20th Cen­tu­ry and what you see today is what he pro­tect­ed.

  • Plantagenet says:

    I was told by an inter­est­ed inhab­i­tant of Rome that the attrac­tive mar­ble cladding of this and oth­er Roman build­ings had been tak­en away to adorn the palaces of car­di­nals and oth­er Renais­sance dig­ni­taries. The arti­cle men­tions anoth­er are­na in Africa, but there are very well pre­served ones in France (Nimes and Avi­gnon) and also Verona. There is no ques­tion of the French ones hav­ing huge pieces miss­ing like in Rome. They are used for bull fights (in the kinder French fash­ion, not like in Spain)

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.