Why was the Colosseum built where it is? Every building, fountain, square, and church in Rome was built in a specific place for a specific reason—the Colosseum is no exception. At the beginning of every tour of the Colosseum, I ask my guests that question and sometimes I get quite creative answers! The best was, “Because it’s close to the Subway…?” In this guide, get an answer to the question “where is the Colosseum” and learn the history behind its location.
In this blog, we’ll cover:
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History of the Colosseum
Modern Rome is a result of 2,800 years of changes throughout history. It takes some effort to put ourselves back in the mindset of long ago, but it’s worth it! Reward does not usually come without effort.
Let’s go back to the Colosseum. What was the Colosseum used for? Well, this large stadium, the largest amphitheater in the world in fact, is known for hosting infamous entertainment for the public, built in 72 AD. However, Rome was founded as a city more than 800 years before. So what was standing before the Colosseum?
What was there before the Colosseum?
The present-day square, known to everyone as the “Piazza del Colosseo,” was just a valley enclosed by Oppian, Caelian, Palatine and Velian Hills, through which a creek flowed into the Tiber River. Right from the founding of the city, the Valley of the Colosseum was inhabited.
As early as the end of the sixth century B.C., the primeval network of roads was regularized, and the valley coincided with what would become five of the Augustan regions. The Valley was converted into a residential area, with the first imperial houses and the aristocratic houses built on the hill.
Great Fire of Rome
Try to imagine what Ancient Rome was like: narrow roads, tall buildings, houses without kitchens, no running water. There was no electricity, so fires were used to cook, to see at night and to heat homes. Thus, rampant fires were quite prevalent, due to the wooden infrastructure that could easily ignite. For this reason, Emperor Augustus founded the “Vigiles” in 6 A.D., whose main task was to supervise roads during the night hours so as to protect the town from fire. At the beginning, the number of Vigiles reached around 600, but later increased to 7,000. Consider that the area to be monitored was the entire city, which at that time included 423 neighborhoods with over 147,000 buildings and more than 1 million inhabitants.
On July 18 of 64 A.D., a catastrophic fire caused widespread devastation in the city. How long did the Great Fire of Rome last? It was out of control for several days. and destroyed half the city. The fire was finally extinguished 9-10 days later. This Great Fire of Rome caused thousands of deaths, 200,000 homeless, destroyed numerous public buildings and monuments, and annihilated more than 4000 “insulae” (buildings) and 130 “domus” (private houses). The entire Valley was buried beneath the ashes.
Who caused the Great Fire of Rome?
Differing accounts blame different culprits for the cause of the fire. Some say Emperor Nero was to blame, others claim he was in Anzio (his hometown, south of Rome) when the fire started, so he actually took great measures to contain it and provide relief for refugees.
According to Tacitus (a senator and historian of the Roman Empire) and the Christian community in the city, the Great fire was caused by Nero. They claim that the Great Fire was the emperor’s first persecution against the Christians.
Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea
Today, even archaeologists have differing opinions about Nero. So—guilty or not guilty? All we know is that post-fire Nero reused the entire area to build his private palace, so big that it covered the entire expanse of the valley. This was his Domus Aurea (Latin for “golden home”) because was extremely elaborate and decorated with the most precious metal.
Ancient authors describe in great detail how large his residence was, containing a big artificial lake, and even a wild animal park! It was truly a city within a city: a testimony of the sovereign’s megalomania.
How does this explain our question: why was the Colosseum built there?
The Colosseum’s beginning starts with Nero’s end. First, the Senate deposed. How did Nero die? Emperor Nero subsequently committed suicide in 68 A.D. After his death, the Senate proclaimed the “damnatio memoriae” (Latin for “condemnation of memory”). This was a Roman penalty by law that required completely destroying any trace of a person, as if the individual never existed.
After the “damnatio memorie,” all that belonged personally to Nero was destroyed or buried. So, what was the Colosseum built on top of? The valley, no longer his, was returned back to the Romans in the city, and crowned with a great amphitheater “Flavio,” which became known centuries later as the Colosseum. The Colosseum was built on top of an area of the Domus Aurea, but there are still remains of the Domus Aurea that you can visit today.
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