THE FIRST CENTURY of the Christian era probably marked the high point of the games. The spectacles had grown to such an extent that it seemed incredible that they could ever be surpassed.
The dictator Sulla (93 B.C.) had exhibited one hundred lions in the arena. Julius Caesar had four hundred. Pompey had six hundred lions, twenty elephants and 410 leopards which fought Gaetulians armed with darts.
Augustus in 10 A.D. exhibited the first tiger ever to be seen in Rome and had 3,500 elephants. He boasted that he had ten thousand men killed in eight shows. After Trajan's victory over the Dacians, he had eleven thousand animals killed in the arena.
The cost of the games also steadily increased. In 364 B.C., the total cost of the games was $10,725. In 51 A.D., they cost $92,530.* This was the sum paid by the emperor; no record has been kept of the games put on by private individuals or politicians, but Petronius speaks of a magistrate who was going to spend $20,000 on a three-day show to keep him in office.
* I am computing the Roman sesterce as having the purchasing power of about 25¢ now (1958).
The buildings designed to hold these shows have never been surpassed either for size or for perfection of functional design. The oldest and largest of these vast structures was the Circus Maximus.
Although I've described what the arena looked like, I haven't said much about the building itself. It was built in the Vallis Murcia, a long valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills which had been used for chariot races from remote antiquity.
Eventually wooden stands, which could be removed after the races, were put up on the slopes of the hills for the audience.
The first permanent stands were put up in 329 B.C. together with stalls for the chariots. Only the first tier of seats was of stone; the rest continued to be wood. As a result, the stadium was burned down several times, one of the times being when Nero [supposedly] burned Rome.
After each burning, it was rebuilt with fresh splendor. Julius Caesar enlarged it to such an extent that some historians date the true Circus Maximus from his time.
Caesar put in a ten-foot moat which protected the people from the wild beasts in the arena. A stream was diverted from the hills to feed this moat and still runs near the Via di Cerchi.
Augustus is generally given credit for having completed the circus although later emperors continued to enlarge the building.
Claudius had the wooden chariot stalls replaced by marble and the cones made of gilt bronze. During the time of Antonius Pius, the stands were so crowded that the upper wooden tiers collapsed, killing 1,112 people. As a result, the stadium was rebuilt completely of stone.
Trajan covered the whole building with white marble inside and out, relieved with gold trim work and paintings. He also added columns of colored Oriental marble and statues of marble and gilt bronze.
Eventually the Circus Maximus came to measure 2,000 feet long by 650 feet wide and held 385,000 people—a quarter of the population of Rome.
Constantine gave the circus three additional tiers of marble seats supported on concrete arches. These arches still remain and form part of the foundation for the church of Saint Anastasia.
They were made seven feet thick to support the great weight of the stands. The circus continued to exist through the Middle Ages but was used as a vast quarry, and many of the early churches in Rome were built with stone taken from it.
As late as the sixteenth century part of the structure still stood, but now only the site and a few of the seats can be seen.
The Colosseum, started by the Emperor Vespasian in 70 A.D. and completed by his son, Titus, ten years later, was the most perfectly equipped amphitheater that the Romans or anyone else ever built.
As Vespasian and Titus were members of the Flavian family, it was known to the Romans as the "Flavian amphitheater" and it wasn't until the Middle Ages that it was called the Colosseum because of its size.
Unlike the, Circus Maximus (which was open at one end), the Colosseum formed a complete oval. It measures 615 by 510 feet and the arena alone is 281 by 177 feet. It covers six acres.
Archeologists think it could hold about 50,000 spectators although the Romans claimed that 100,000 people saw the shows, packed into the aisles. (Madison Square Garden in New York holds 18,903).
Its walls originally rose 160 feet high and may have been topped by wooden scats as bleachers. The arena could be flooded for sea fights.
It was equipped with a system of elevators, raised and lowered by counter-weights and pulleys, which brought up the wild beasts from their underground cages to the arena at the right moment. Even today, when two-thirds of the building are gone, it remains one of the, most impressive structures in the world.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Four, Part 2 is next.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents