Tag Archives: Colosseum

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What’s in a name? The true story of the Colosseum’s Name

The Colosseum is the most famous monument of the city, if you think about Rome you think about the Colosseum and everywhere it is known as the Colosseum … but actually this is not the right name!

Pretend to be an ancient Roman, walking in the crowded noisy streets of  Rome and asking someone “Sorry, where is the Colosseum?” … No one could respond you. People would look at you like: WHAT? Because in Romans time this monument was known as the Flavian Amphitheater, or simply … THE amphitheater. Flavian because it was built in the 1st century A.D. by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian (69-79), the father, and the two sons Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96). Amphitheatre comes from the Greek preposition “amphi”, that means double (like amphibious or amphora), because is like two theatres back to back.

The True Story

So why we call it “Colosseum”? It’s really a nice story…
All starts in 64 A.D.: the Colosseum had yet to be built, Nero was the emperor and a huge fire destroyed the most part of the city, specially the area around the amphitheater itself (fires were quite frequent in ancient Rome).

After the fire, on the ruins of burned houses, Nero decided to build his own giant brand new villa in the centre of Rome: the Domus Aurea, or Golden House… a little bit megalomaniac project, but that’s Nero!

Domus Aurea

This villa was spread in a huge area and where now is the Colesseum valley was a beautiful garden with trees, plants, pavilions and finally…where now stands the Colosseum … a lake, the Stagnum Neronis or Nero’s lake.

The entrance of this villa was opened on the Roman Forum and it was decorated with a huge golden bronze statue of Nero: it was 35 meters high (or 100 feet for Americans), the largest bronze statue in the ancient world. To have an idea is more or less like the third floor of the Colosseum! So, really, really tall.

You can understand that people were not so happy about this villa so, after Nero’s death, the new emperor, Vespasian to please them decided to give back that part of the city to the people, building something for them…and what better than a Colosseum?!

So he just dried the lake and used the basin for the foundations of the amphitheater. The most part of the Domus Aurea was abandoned but the giant statue was left in the same place, simply erasing Nero’s face and putting the God Sun’s one… I guess also because of the weight!

In fact when more or less fifty years later another emperor, Hadrian, decided to built the biggest temple in Rome, the Temple of Venus and Rome, in the same place of the statue, he had to move it and needed a cart pulled by 25 elephants!

The statue was actually only moved few meters, nearest to the Colosseum: on the north-west side of the Colosseum is now a flowerbed made in tufa blocks that is a reconstruction of the original base of the statue; the original one was destroyed by Mussolini in 1936. It’s not a big distance, but the statue was so heavy and big that elephants were needed. This statue began to be called “Colossus”, because it was colossal, obviously.

Nero colossus
During the Middle Ages (since the 11th century), when the amphitheater was abandoned and no one could remember its true name and what it was for, the people began to call it Colosseum, simply because it was close to the Colossus. Unfortunately the statue is now lost because, later on in the Middle Ages, it was melted down to reuse the bronze. But we still use the name, Colosseum … And that’s why we call it so.


Love at first sight

The best “first sight” of the Colosseum is from the Fagutal: when you exit the subway try to resist and not to look outside; don’t exit from the main door but take the staircase on the right. You’ll reach the top of the Fagutal  hill and you’ll have the best first sight ever!

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Pictures Credits:

  • Colosseum – All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • Nero’s Domus Aurea – CC BY 2.0 – Jennifer May