Dedicated in 80 AD, the amphitheater could hold between 40,000 and 70,000 spectators, depending on how friendly everyone in the audience got with one another. The History Channel has a neat and short video illustrating the size. As a place of public entertainment, the Colossuem is a study in the paradoxical nature of Roman social hierarchy, at once inclusive and stratified. Entrance was free, but examining the structure of the amphitheater, it is obvious that one did not get to sit wherever one wanted.
Audiences entered the Colosseum through one of 76 public entrances, which were marked to help find the seat they were allotted. The five seating sections, called maeniana, were separated by corridors. The first level, the Podium, was built on a floor of travertine stone bonded with melted bronze. The ascending layers are the ima cavea, the media cavea, summa cavea and the summum maeniaum on ligneis. It is generally assumed that the seating was dictated by social rank, from prominent government officials such as the emperor, senators and foreign dignitaries having the Podium, followed by officers and government official, then soldiers and citizens, followed by foreigners, the poor and slaves and lastly women. However, the division of seating is highly inequitable to the number of persons in each class, and many historians have noted that assumptions about the rigid social division of the audience may be incorrect.
In its original grandeur, the interior walls were clad in polished marble, the floors made of marble and travertine and the ceilings covered in painted plaster. Decorations, including great painted statues, gilded bronze shields and horse drawn chariots, would have only become slightly less impressive as you moved upwards in the Colosseum. About one third of the audience could be covered by an impressive mobile sun shade system controlled with sail like rigging (actually, this is the forerunner of the fly systems found in theatres and were handled by sailors, which accounts for why those systems still retain nautical terminology). The system of corridors around the supporting piers of the Colosseum would have allowed for evacuation of an entire audience in 10 minutes. Jacque Plassard created some great drawings of the Colosseum interior when it was built, and there is an interactive model as the Colosseum appears today.
The arena itself was a wooden deck built over a network of cellars called the hypogeum, which housed elaborate sets, weapons and armor, and the actors both human and animals which created the grand re-enactments hosted in the Colosseum. An impressive system of winches, hoists, traps doors and inclined planes allowed for movement of goods and performers to the arena floor. According to studies done by Heinz-Jürgen Beste, the hypogeum at one time had 40 capstans (vertical wenches powered by men) capable of lifting caged animals as large as tigers, and 48 designed for scenery- 20 for large pieces measuring 12 by 15 feet and 28 for small pieces measuring 3 by 3 feet.
Even stripped of it’s decor, it is easy to imagine the excitement of a day in the Colosseum because the design is so familiar. Modern theatres as well as sports arena found their inspiration from the design of Roman amphitheaters.
I didn’t have time for a tour of the hypogeum this trip, but I plan to take one next time I am in Roma, and get some better pictures. Of course, I will be happy to share.