Bread and Circuses: The Colosseum and Rome

In last week’s lessons, we started exploring one of the most well-known Roman buildings, which for many people represents the Roman civilisation: the Colosseum. Built around 70/80 AD by the emperors Vespasian and Titus from war treasures from conquests, its architecture and engineering are very impressive. We explored what a day at the amphitheatre (amphitheatre literally means a ‘double theatre’ since the Greek and Roman theatres were semi-circles, where as the amphitheatre stretched all the way round).


The day may have started with a “venatio” (beast hunt), where wild animals of all kinds were released into the arena and fought with “bestiarii” (beast-fighters). We looked at mosaics which indicate how gruesome some of these fights must have been. At midday were the “ludi meridiani”, “midday games”, where criminals were excuted. This was followed by the “munera”, which were the gladiator pairings, the highlight of the day. We looked at an advert for a show from Pompeii, where 20 pairs were advertised as fighting. We discussed how some adverts included the words “sine missione” which means “without remission from death”, suggesting gladiators surrendering and being spared death was becoming increasingly commonplace.


The Roman author Martial states that “naumachia”, “sea battles”, took place, where the colosseum was filled with water and ships. We watched a documentary which explored both the possibility of this and also the idea that the colosseum had a complex system of lift shafts and trapdoors which released animals into the arena. You can watch the documentary again here.

We also explored the many similarities between the Hunger Games and the colosseum – there is a master of ceremonies in both, in both the fighters lose their lives and are considered the lowest order of society. The name of the capital, “panem”, recalls the famous saying of Roman writer Juvenal, who observed bitterly that all the Roman populace cared for was “panem et circenses” (“bread and circuses”).

tributes avenue


Your homework was to write an answer to the question: does the Colosseum represent the brilliant engineering and power or the appalling debauchery of the Roman civilisation?

We will have a debate next lesson!

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