Construction was started by the emperor Vespasian in 72 AD. He built the Colosseum as a gift to the people of Rome and paid for it himself with his share of the booty won in the Roman victory at the seige of Jerusalem. To further increase his popularity, he built the Colosseum on land which had previously been seized from the people of Rome by the emperor Nero to create his own, personal estate. However, Vespasian died before the Colosseum was completed, leaving his son, Titus, to finish the job in 80 AD.
The Colosseum must have been truly spectacular. At the time, it was the largest building in Rome and was 188 metres long by 156 metres wide and 48 metres high. Up to 80,000 spectators could be accommodated entering through 80 arched entrances. The whole structure was clad in marble and there were 160 huge statues decorating the upper levels.
1,000 men were employed to manage a giant awning that was suspended by ropes over the Colosseum to protect the audience from the heat of the sun.
The Colosseum was an enormous entertainment centre where the people of Rome would go to enjoy spectacular shows which would last all day, or sometimes days on end. The entertainment included comedy acts, parades of exotic animals, elaborate dramas and re-enactments based on mythology, history or famous battles. Public executions were held there and of course the famous gladiatorial combats where local heroes would fight to the death. The whole Colosseum could be flooded and ships floated to re-enact famous sea battles.
The inaugural games were held by the emperor Titus in 80 AD. His reign had started badly with Romans having to deal with the eruption of Vesuvius, a large fire in Rome and a plague. Perhaps he hoped to appease the Gods, as well as the Roman people, by staging 100 days of games at the Colosseum, during which time apparently 9,000 animals were killed!
Over the centuries, the Colosseum has been damaged by fires and earthquakes but remains a truly unique and beautiful monument. It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980.