Colosseum’s Lesser-Known Past as Worship Site Revealed

painting in interior arch shows idealized jerusalem in christian tribute

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Rome’s Colosseum wasn’t just for lethal combat—It was a place of Christian worship. A restored painting of Jerusalem on one of its interior arches shows the Colosseum’s inclination toward the divine. It was a public works project like no other.

Colosseum Rome Italy
Capable of seating an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 spectators, the Colosseum in Rome is the largest amphitheater that was ever built. Photo by ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Gladiator fights filled the seats at Rome’s famous Colosseum for 400 years before dying off. After that, the arena was repurposed as a place of worship for local Christians. A long line of popes adopted the Colosseum for divine purposes, eventually consecrating the structure as a church. It was even heralded as a pilgrimage site for Christians to honor their martyrs.

This oft-forgotten side of the Colosseum was brought to the forefront recently when a 17th-century painting above one of the Colosseum’s arches was restored. The painting depicts an idealized version of Jerusalem from a distance, with a crucified Jesus shown in one corner.

So, why was the Colosseum built? In his video series Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From the Catapult to the Pantheon, Dr. Stephen Ressler, Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, explains the Roman “building boom” that began in the first century CE.

When in Rome…

“From the very beginning of the Roman Imperial Era, when the Senate granted the title Augustus to Octavian in 27 BCE, Roman emperors saw the need to sponsor grand public works, to win the favor of the masses, to demonstrate imperial power, and to glorify themselves,” Dr. Ressler said. “Over the next three centuries, the emperors’ patronage and the resources acquired through imperial conquest stimulated the most remarkable period of construction engineering in history.”

The Colosseum, he added, was unquestionably the grandest manifestation of the Roman building boom. It was started by Vespasian, the first of the Flavians, in 72 CE; construction began three years later and Vespasian’s son Titus began hosting games there in the year 80 CE.

Titus’s brother Domitian continued to add to the Colosseum after Titus’s death; this included the hypogeum, which was a two-story underground network of corridors, rooms, and more that served as temporary holding areas for animals and gladiators.

Go Big or Go Home

“The Colosseum was unprecedented in scale,” Dr. Ressler said. “The oval-shaped structure was 620 feet long by 510 feet wide, and as tall as a modern 16-story building. The seating area, called the cavea, could accommodate 55,000 people.”

According to Dr. Ressler, the arena floor was just slightly smaller than a modern American football field; the outer wall of the Colosseum was made of 130,000 cubic yards of stone held together by 300 tons of iron clamps. However, the Colosseum also held cultural significance.

“Just as the colonnaded temple is the iconic symbol of Classical Greece, so the Colosseum has become the iconic symbol of Imperial Rome,” he said. “Its immense size reflects the vast encircling reach of the empire itself; its purpose reminds us of the brutality and love of spectacle that were so much a part of Roman life.”

Finally, Rome’s rigid social structure was stratified in the Colosseum. The cavea was strictly segregated. The emperor’s viewing box and seats reserved for the senatorial class could be found at the bottom of the seating area, closest to the action, providing the best view. From that point upward, there was seating for the equestrian class, wealthy citizens, and common citizens, respectively. Finally, the highest seats—known in modern sports as “the nosebleeds”—were simple wooden bleachers for women and slaves.

The Colosseum still stands, though not fully intact, at the heart of Rome.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily