Why is the Colosseum broken?

It is hard to picture the Colosseum without its crumbled and fractured appearance. Hard to imagine that it once stood complete in its grandeur. Want to find out how it came to be this way? Keep reading.

Tourist woman looking at the Colosseum

Built as a way to keep the people of Rome entertained and distracted from any ideas of uprisings, the Colosseum stands as an iconic monument to imperial Rome and its cruelties. Within the Colosseum the social and the political came together in an arena of death. Gladiator battles and animal hunts were watched by thousands of spectators who laughed and cheered at the unfortunate victims of the Colosseum, usually criminals or those who had angered the Emperor.

To us now the Colosseum is hugely impressive, not only for its ambitious undertaking, that at the time (72 AD), would have been a momentous task, but also for its echo of a past civilisation that remains standing! Defying the test of time. Though the ruined Colosseum is missing some of its upper level arches and parapets, it is still one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world. Its broken structure is understandable when we consider how long ago it was made. The same foundations and materials used back then can be seen and touched 2,000 years on.

Unfortunately, the impressive stature of the Colosseum hasn’t always been appreciated, by man or nature, which goes someway to answer the question; why is the Colosseum broken? Well other than the obvious answer, that it’s old, this article will discuss exactly what the Colosseum has seen and gone through since its completed construction in 80 AD.

Roman Empire

Roman Empire

Some people may be surprised to hear that the Colosseum ran into its first bout of trouble in 217 AD, when a fire caused damage to many of the upper wooden levels of the amphitheatre’s interior. Although repairs were underway instantly, they weren’t fully completed until 320 AD. This shows the extent of damage caused by the fire, and despite its repairs, the flames most likely weakened the building’s interior structure. It’s assumed that further damage occurred following a major earthquake in 443, although this is only speculated as result of written accounts.

Medieval Period

Medieval Fresco

This is when the real change occurred. Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the Colosseum fell into the hands of the church. Believing that the amphitheatre’s arena was the spot where Christian martyrs had met their fate, they claimed the amphitheatre as their own. Anxious to use the once glistening stone for palaces and churches, Roman Popes and Aristocrats built a small chapel into the structure of the amphitheatre, converting the arena into a cemetery and the spaces under the seats as housing. These were used and rented out until as late as the 12th century, when the Frangipani family came and fortified the building, apparently using it as a castle. The Frangipani’s were an aristocratic ruling class family who had some notable importance during the middle ages. Not much is said about them or what happened to the family, but around 1200 they were in possession of the landmark.

Following this the Colosseum underwent further depredation, this time as a result of a major earthquake in 1349, causing the entire south side to collapse. The cascade of tumbled stone that fell to the ground was reused for many surrounding buildings which still stand in Rome today. The cathedrals of St Peter and St John Lateran for example are made from broken blocks of the Colosseum. The Palazzo Venezia and the Tiber’s river defences are also built using exploited remains of the Colosseum’s convenient quarry.

Sadly this was only the beginning of the buildings plundering. From the 14th to the 19th century, people continued to pillage the Colosseum of its bare materials. Stone was stripped from the amphitheatre’s interior and the bronze clamps which held bits of stone together were hacked off the walls, leaving scars which are still visible today. The stripped stone was again primarily used for churches, but also for making quicklime, a chemical compound known as calcium oxide, often used in mining.

Modern Period

Colosseum in the 1700s

During the 16th and 17th century the church stepped in again, keen to find a productive role for the Colosseum. After much brainstorming, and many ideas falling through, like turning the building into a wool factory or authorising it as a place for bullfights, it was settled by Pope Benedict XIV. He declared the site a sacred place where early Christians had been martyred and therefore forbade any pillaging of the building’s raw materials. Instead he encouraged the preservation and restoration of the Colosseum, which continued with later Popes, who initiated repairs and the clear up of overgrown weeds and vegetation, which threatened to damage the amphitheatre further. Luckily this view continued into the late 19th century which saw the installation of triangular brick wedges to support the more fragile parts of the façade.

Recent Years

Finally, we come to the present day, which sees the Colosseum more respected and looked after than ever. Its worth and prestige only grows more with time, being listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007.

In a world which is constantly changing and developing, the ancient amphitheatre is preciously preserved as a reminder of where we come from, what we’ve achieved and the importance of history on the everyday. It is because of this that a major restoration project was carried out from 1993 to 2000, costing 40 billion Italian lire. Whilst it was not enough to erase the years of general deterioration and pollution, it has succeeded as an ongoing preservation project, in which the world stands behind it, in full support of the landmark’s crucial conservation.

Despite two thirds of the original structure gone, the Colosseum remains one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions.

Related article: The History of Rome’s Colosseum

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