Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 04, Part 3 of 4

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

These precautions might seem enough but most authorities believe that there was also an inner wall of heavy wooden planks running around the arena about ten feet from the podium wall and that the moat lay between this inner barrier and the central part of the arena.

There are several reasons for believing this inner wall existed. The Colosseum was so vast that there must have been some way of keeping the animals out in the middle of the arena and away from the podium wall—otherwise the people in the two upper tiers of seats couldn't have seen them because the edge of the podium would have cut off the view.

The natural instinct of a wild animal turned loose in a brightly lighted arena full of shouting, yelling people is to hug the wall, and scattered references by Roman writers show that the animals in the Colosseum often did just that.

They were driven away from the wall by arena slaves using hot irons or burning straw but there are no openings in the podium wall through which the slaves could have reached the animals. Also, there are many references to the elaborate scenic effects which acted as backdrops for the shows; the animals issuing from artificial caves, gladiators fighting before a painting representing ancient Carthage, and so on.

It is hard to see how this scenery could have been erected and taken down if it were hung on the podium wall, especially as the changes often had to be made while the arena was full of wild animals and certainly the slaves were not allowed on the podium itself among the noble onlookers.

All these facts suggest that there must have been an inner wall, probably made of heavy planks fastened to poles set into the floor of the arena.

The elephant tusks carrying the overhanging nets may have been fastened to these poles rather than to the podium wall itself. This inner wall could be painted, or have painted canvases hung on it, representing any scene desired.

It may not always have been a board fence but composed of artificial rocks made of lathes and plaster, tree trunks to represent a forest or any other material that the stage designers of the Colosseum decided to use. The slaves who changed the scenery could operate between the podium wall and this inner barrier.

The barrier must have joined the podium wall at the "Gate of Life" and the "Gate of Death". The overhanging nets couldn't be used at these two places but Calpumius says that revolving ivory wheels were set into the podium wall at these points to keep the animals from climbing it.

There must have been at least a circle of tall masts in the arena itself, for the great awning which covered the top of the Colosseum to protect the audience from sun and rain had to be supported in the center by some means.

We know that around the top of the Colosseum ran a circle of 240 masts (the sockets where they stood can still be seen) and these masts held the edge of the awning. However, unless the Romans had some very ingenious method for keeping the awning taut, there must have been masts coming up from the arena to take the weight of the great mass in the center.

There may even have been wooden catwalks running across the top of the Colosseum under this awning, as on a modern Hollywood sound stage, for the ancient writers talk of naked little boys with wings tied to them to represent cupids being swung back and forth across the arena by invisible wires as though they were flying.

Often large animals, in one case a bull, were carried up to the awning (which was painted to represent the sky) by invisible wires to illustrate some mythological incident.

To make such stunts as this possible, there must have been platforms at the top of the building equipped with blocks and tackles as well as space for crews of highly trained stagehands.

Yet, no matter how complicated were the mechanical miracles that these men had to produce, there was seldom a hitch in the performance. If there was, the stagehands were thrown into the arena to be eaten by wild beasts or killed by gladiators.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Four, Part 4 is next.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents