Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.08

Ada Gabucci (ed.), The Colosseum. English translation by Mary Becker (Italian edition Milan, 2000).   Los Angeles:  The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.  Pp. 248.  ISBN 0-89236-648-6.  $75.00.  

Contributors: Filippo Coarelli, Gian Luca Gregori, Leonardo Lombardi, Silvia Orlandi, Rossella Rea, Cinzia Vismara

Reviewed by Donald G. Kyle, University of Texas at Arlington (
Word count: 1668 words

The special effects wizardry in the movie "Gladiator" (2000), especially Maximus' rotating perspective from the arena, stunned modern audiences with the monumental expanse and grandeur of the Flavian Amphitheater.1 Those who want to be further amazed, but also enlightened, historically and architecturally, can turn to this translation of a work by notable Italian scholars.2 Aiming "to take a varied and all-encompassing look -- as much as possible -- at this very complex monument, analyzing its features and functions within the historical panorama of the Roman Empire and the urban context of the city of Rome" (7), the book provides a thorough treatment of the origins, form, operation, and function of the Colosseum, and its related activities, from antiquity to the present. The archaeological discussions of the evidence, the underground chambers, the hydraulics, and the afterlife of the amphitheater from medieval ruins to modern monument are especially good, but those on spectacles sometimes read like updated handbook entries. Mostly in full color (166 color, 127 b/w) and usually large (half or full page or two pages), engrossing and arresting illustrations adorn most pages. Although I do have some quibbles on matters of detail and production, the overall achievement of this lavishishly illustrated volume is impressive.3

The book's layout and illustrations are well suited to a general audience. The work features some 34 "text boxes", rather like the inserts now routinely found in students' textbooks. These small essays (one page or less, in four columns and smaller font, on beige paper, illustrated, each with notes, bibliography, and the author's name) provide "in depth views" on pieces of evidence or topics.4 Although excellent, they are set off lest the technical information slow down the text. The superb parade of images in this large coffee-table book (ca. 11 x 10 inches) conveys an impression of monumentality. One enjoys spectacular panoramic and aerial views of Colosseum (e.g. 56-7, 106), numerous site drawings, plans, and later paintings and prints of the structure, and photos of amphitheaters from Tunisia to England, from Spain to Croatia. The book is unusually rich in eerily striking scenes of the Colosseum's underground corridors and chambers. Many photos are windows into the evidence: mosaics, scenes of combat, execution, and martyrdom on ceramic plates, consular diptychs, funerary reliefs, inscriptions, coins, and more. With a view to a broad audience, the plates are not numbered, and only limited reference information is given.5

Presumably to assist accessibility and readability, the scholarly apparatus is limited, which may frustrate less casual readers. Almost all the 165 notes (all on 242) are brief primary source references to authors or inscriptions.6 However, the text often mentions sources or incidents (e.g. Terence, 22, Nobilior, 63, Androcles, 71) without notes or intratextual references. Scholars are also mentioned vaguely: "Hülsen" (15, 18), a "French scholar" (27, 59, 80), "a Polish scholar" (34).7 The two-page Select Bibliography (243-4), with thematic subsections, lists mostly European archaeological works (in non-alphabetical order). The two-page Index is useful, but there is no Glossary or Chronology for general readers.

In the first of six unnumbered chapters or parts, "The Colosseum in the Urban and Demographic Context of Imperial Rome" (9 pp.), Coarelli offers a topographical survey of the Colosseum and other entertainment venues in Domitian's "grand urban plan" (14). His demographic calculations of Rome's population and the seating capacities of facilities conclude that the Colosseum's capacity (average 58,000, maximum 87,000) was appropriate for the city's size.

Chapters 2, "The World of the Gladiators" (36 pp.), and 3, "The Gladiators" (40 pp.), both with sections by Vismara and Gregori, belong together (their notes are combined and the start of chapter 3 (58) is formatted like a subsection). Chapter 2 gives a fairly standard survey of the history, elements, production and staging of gladiatorial (and other) shows, as well as sound information on the development, design, and construction of amphitheaters throughout the empire. It accepts the recent consensus on a Campanian origin, but it somehow claims (21) that "scholars completely agree that the genesis of the gladiatorial practice lies in the act of human sacrifice to appease the Manes" (21).8 Another curious statement (23) misrepresents the events of 105 B.C.: "The Senate sanctioned this secularization [of munera] in 105 B.C., promoting the contests while at the same time opposing the diffusion of games derived from Greek culture."9 Admitting that the "the exact proceedings are difficult to reconstruct" (51), a predicable section, "A Day of Spectacle" (49-52), narrates events from the parade to the removal of the dead. Traditional views on some items are presented as if uncontroversial (e.g. sine missione 52, 91, Charun 52).10 Similarly, chapter 3 starts with a rather generic survey of the recruitment, training, types, names, and legal status of gladiators, with little attention to recent interpretive work on the symbolism and deeper significance of Roman blood sports. Readable but unexceptional sections follow on beast fights, executions, intellectual criticisms, public enthusiasm, and martyrs. A subsection on "Legislation on the Arena Shows" dryly recites relevant laws and edicts (e.g. on seating, contracts, prices for gladiators). The chapter appropriately stresses the importance of the assembled populace witnessing games and punishments, and it suggests that gladiatorial shows gradually declined for economic reasons until they disappeared early in the fifth century.

A collaborative effort, like chapter 5, by Rea and Orlandi, chapter 4, "The Architecture and Function of the Colosseum" (61 pp.), details the parts, design, decoration, and operation of the Colosseum. The "functionality of the whole" was the key to the success of this, "the most accomplished expression of Roman amphitheatral architecture" (99-100). Noting that the supporting structure is almost all that is left of the original building, the scholars offer careful studies and persuasive speculations from remains, representations, and scattered clues. There are excellent treatments of the construction, flooring, decorative plaster and stucco, and original vestibules (at entrances on the minor axis). Showing that the travertine boundary stones (117-8) at the edge of area around the Colosseum held chains and metal bars to cordon off a pedestrian area, they disprove the popular theory associating them with raising the velarium. "The Underground Chambers" (148-59) demonstrates that the chambers and passages under the arena floor and cavea were indeed "a monument within a monument" (103). Not surprisingly, oil lamps have been the objects most frequently found by archaeology (150).

Chapter 5, "The Colosseum through the Centuries", the longest at 67 pages, presents the physical and archaeological history of the Colosseum. It is a moving story of Rome in ruins, Medieval depredations, early explorations, humanists, Mussolini, and recent archaeological projects. General readers, however, may struggle with the long series of proposed, incomplete, admirable or misguided projects, the demolitions (catastrophes, unofficial robbing, official quarrying and sale of materials), and reinforcements and reconstructions (of varying quality and accuracy). Sections cover periods from the inauguration to the disastrous fire of A.D. 217, from the (re)dedication in 222 to the sack of 410, and from Late Antiquity to the High Middle Ages. A lengthy review (169-80) of emperors' lives and games includes uncritical use of sensationalistic material from Dio and the Augustan History (with notes) and from martyrologies (uncited). The fifth century brought earthquakes and restoration work by emperors Honorius and Theodosius II, but the Colosseum's ancient glory was lost.

The Medieval Colosseum at times housed shelters for animals, shacks for peasants and artisans, a manure dump, and a fortress. In 1328 the Senate staged a bullfight in the arena for the visit of Ludwig the Barbarian, unaware that this recalled ancient games. Outrageous legends held that Vergil, as its architect, planned the Colosseum as a site for necromancy and that it became a place of demons and pagan worship. It was humanists such as Carlo Fontana who later studied and drew the monument, understood its original function, and lamented its destruction by Romans, including the reuse of materials in St. Peters.

From the seventeen century on, popes such as Benedict XIV sacralized the Colosseum as a site of martyrdom, establishing crosses and tabernacles. The nineteenth century saw well intentioned but uneven efforts at reinforcement and restoration, and the first half of the twentieth century brought the Fascists' propagandistic exploitation as a meeting place and even a weapons depository in WWII. Scientific studies and careful restoration efforts since the 1970s have now turned the facility and the surrounding area into a truly magnificent region.

Chapter 6, "The Water System of the Colosseum" (12 pp.), is Lombardi's self-contained essay (without notes or text boxes). This instructive overview of Roman hydraulics and the water systems of amphitheaters introduces Rome as a "culture of water" in which water, for practical, decorative and recreational functions, became "one of the principal instruments for keeping power" (229). Lombardi outlines the technology (e.g. aqueducts, dams, inverted siphons) that brought water to the Colosseum and then distributed and collected it through a ca. 3000-meter system of tunnels and channels, serving numerous fountains and public lavatories. Water was collected in a channel at the lower levels, which drained to a sewer around the Colosseum and ultimately into the Tiber. Interestingly, archaeology has found no signs supporting the staging of naumachiae in the Colosseum. The field of hydraulics may be "only a poor relation to archaeology" (240), but the excellent diagrams and photos of water distribution and drainage systems explain essential functions within the amphitheater.

Once a compelling symbol of power, empire and order, the Colosseum suffered neglect and ravages for centuries before emerging in the modern age as a Christianized symbol of Roman civilization. This magnificently illustrated book brings the amphitheater back to life, but a $75 book should have fewer slips and oversights. These, however, are matters of production and proofreading, not indictments of the scholarship or the educative value of the work.11 This is a welcome volume for anyone interested in ancient architecture and building techniques, spectacles, technology and engineering, or the design of facilities for mass entertainment. It should be included in any library dealing with antiquity or art and architecture, and it undoubtedly will grace many a home library.


1.   Well before "Gladiator", scholarly attention to Rome's spectacles and venues was growing. See Katherine Welch's review essay, "Recent Work on Amphitheatre Architecture and Arena Spectacles," JRA 14 (2001) 492-8, on works by D.L. Bomgardner, A. Futrell, D. Potter, and E. Köhne and C. Ewigleben. On recent developments, "Three Papers on the Colosseum and the Arena," JRA 13 (2000), includes G. Schingo, "A History of Earlier Excavations in the Arena," 69-78; H.-J. Beste, "The Construction and Phases of Development of the Wooden Arena Flooring of the Colosseum," 79-92; and R. Rea, "Studying the Valley of the Colosseum (1970-2000): Achievements and Prospects," 93-103.
2.   The Getty also published Gabucci's Ancient Rome: Art, Architecture, and History, S. Peccatori and S. Zuffi, eds., trans. T.M. Hartmann (2002). Coarelli is well respected for work on the Roman Forum and guides to Rome and Pompeii, Gregori is an epigraphical expert on amphitheaters, and Rea is well published on the Colosseum's substructures and later history. Vismara, on spectacular punishments, and Lombardi, on hydraulics, are also fine scholars.
3.   Understandable in multi-authored works, redundancies include: Spartacus 54, 58; Nero's collection of art 10, 174; games of Aulus Claudius Flaccus 30, 49-50; Aemilius Paullus' use of beasts 63, 75; Nuceria-Pompeii riot 81, 91; Symmachus' Saxon prisoners 49, 67; seating arrangements 34-5, 89-91, 128-9, 168, 174; water drainage 32, 127, 150 (and chapter 6).
4.   E.g. Titus' coin, inscriptions (e.g. Tabula Hercleensis), mosaics (e.g. Zliten), dedication of Pompeii's amphitheater, Severan Marble Plan, Trimalchio, martyrdoms, the Anemoscope (an indicator of wind direction) and its possible value for the sailors raising the awning. The format involves minor redundancies with the text. E.g. the Telegenii 66, 70, Perpetua 77, 84, Berbers in mosaics 48, 75-6, Constantine's reply to the Umbrians 90, 95 (with a rare cross-reference).
5.   The captions do not include identification numbers or references. "Photo References" (245) is a blanket acknowledgement, not a List of Illustrations. The text often describes pieces of art without illustration (or citation) and there are few cross-references to pieces that are illustrated (i.e. 89 to 88, 168 to the title page, 177 to 21).
6.   Notes are unevenly dispersed in the text: 6 in ch. 1, 100 in ch. 2 and 3 combined, 4 in ch. 4, 55 in ch. 5, none in ch. 6. Note 1 on 122 cites Gori's 1874 work, but the text also includes the full title.
7.   We are told, without citation or elaboration, that "Commodus himself was a hunter" (67), and that Hadrian "participated personally in some gladiatorial contests" (170)- without a reference to SHA Hadrian 14.10 on his practicing, not participating, as a gladiator to prepare for war.
8.   Alison Futrell, Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power (Austin: University of Texas, 1997) tries to revive the sacrificial interpretation; but see my Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 1998), 36-40. D.S. Potter, in D.S. Potter and J.D. Mattingly, eds., Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999), 305-6, and K. Welch, reviewing Futrell, JRA 14 (2001) 497-8, both reject the idea.
9.   See Kyle (1998) 50. Also, Festus 134b:22 on balconies in the Forum in 348 B.C. is cited (23) as evidence that there were gladiatorial shows in the Forum before 264.
10.   Potter, in Potter and Mattingly (1999), 307, rejects the idea that sine missione meant that one combatant must die. Against Charun and the removal of gladiators, see Kyle (1998) 155-8. Contrary to most opinions and references to the Porta Sanivivaria (Pass. Perp. et Fel. 10.13), gladiators are said (134) to have exited through the Porta Libitinensis "dead or alive".
11.   Slips in the text: 75 should be 71 in the Contents; XXX equals 30,088 on 15; "Galvin" on 25; "A.D. 204" but "2 A.D." on 26; ex-slaves as "freemen" 60, 126; "urban praetors" should be urban cohorts on 65; no line break before new subsection on 71; "Tantit" on 75; the victim on the terracotta on 77 is usually taken as female; gaps between words in sentences on 126 and 189; paragraph break in the midst of a sentence on 177; "ofVia" on 187; "urban prefect" on 180 but "city prefect" on 181; Honoris for Honorius on 183. Slips in translation: Dionigi d'Alicarnasso 161 (and n. 1) (with Dionigi of Halicarnassus on 162); Flavio Giuseppe 164 (and n. 4), 165; Giulius 171, Guilianus 175, Erodianus and Elius 175 (and n. 12); ipogeo 103.

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