Architecture Around the World

Colosseum - Exterior
Rome, Italy
Companion Page: Colosseum Interior Photos

The Flavian Amphitheater is usually known as the Colosseum either because of its huge size or because a colossal statue in gilded bronze of Nero in the guise of the Sun god originally stood nearby.

The Coliseum was begun by Vespasian in 72 A.D. and inaugurated in 80 A.D. by Titus with a hundred days of celebrations, during which several thousand wild beasts and gladiators were reputedly killed. The amphitheater was completed, however, by the emperor Domitian.


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Four stories in travertine stone

The first three stories, in the form of arcades, have arches with engaged columns

The Romans used Greek orders to embellish

First story: engaged Tuscan columns

First story: engaged Tuscan columns

Second story: engaged Ionic columns

Second story: engaged Ionic columns

Second story: engaged Ionic columns

Third story: engaged Corinthian columns

Third story: engaged Corinthian columns

Corinthian capital

The top story has rectangular windows instead of arches

Third story: engaged Corinthian columns

Fourth story: Corinthian pilasters


Numbered arched entrance

Numbered arched entrance

The Coliseum, like the much earlier amphitheater at Pompeii, could not have been built without concrete technology. The enormous oval seating area is sustained by a complex system of radial and concentric corridors covered by concrete barrel (or tunnel) vaults. This concrete "skeleton" reveals itself today to anyone who enters the amphitheater; in the centuries following the fall of Rome the Coliseum served as a convenient for ready-made building materials, and almost all its marble seats were hauled away, exposing the network of vaults below.

The Exterior
Elliptical in shape, the exterior consists of four stories in travertine stone. The blocks were not held together with mortar but with pins of iron and other metal.

The Romans used Greek orders to embellish an architectural form that is foreign to Greek post-and-lintel architecture, namely the arch. Revived during the Italian Renaissance, the motif has a long, illustrious history in Classical architecture. The Roman practice of framing an arch with an applied Greek order has no structural purpose but fulfills the aesthetic function of introducing variety into a monotonous surface, while unifying a multistoried facade by casting a net of verticals and horizontals over it that ties everything together.


There are four main entrances, each with a triple opening those at the ends were reserved for the emperor, while those on the sides were used for the processional entry of the gladiators and other participants.

The spectators (some 40,000-50,000) entered through the lower arcades, which were numbered, and found their way to their seats by the appropriate staircases.


In contrast with Greek practice, the Romans employed a kind of "artificial stone" of recent invention: concrete. Roman concrete was made from a changing recipe of lime mortar, volcanic sand, water, and small stones ("caementa," from which the English word cement is derived).

The mixture was placed in wooden frames and left to dry and bond with a facing of brick or stone in a procedure somewhat like the casting of statues in bronze or other metals. When the concrete was completely dry, the wooden molds were removed, leaving behind a solid mass of great strength, though rough in appearance, which was often covered afterward with stucco or even sheathed with marble revetment.

Despite this, concrete walls were much less costly to construct than walls built of imported Greek marble or even local Italian tufa and travertine. The advantages of concrete, however, go well beyond economy of construction, for it is possible to fashion shapes out of concrete that cannot be achieved by masonry construction, especially the huge vaulted and domed ceilings (without internal supports) that the Romans came to prefer over the post-and-lintel structures of the Greeks and Etruscans.

The use of concrete enabled the Roman architect to think of architecture in terms radically different from those used by earlier builders. Roman architecture became an architecture of space rather than of sheer mass.


Photos and their arrangement 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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