The Colosseum in Rome

There are perhaps few places where violence has been celebrated by so many and in such a decadent manner as in The Colosseum in ancient Rome (opened in AD 80). Of course, to the Romans, it was simply rousing entertainment. The Colosseum not only entertained, but it emphasized to Rome's citizens the brutal punishment for criminals, rebels, and prisoners of war. Watching a lion eat somebody to pieces is a pretty good incentive not to steal.

So, who fought in the Colosseum?

Gladiators for one. Staging fights to the death was a perfectly common thing in Rome--few people of the time protested it. Most gladiators were slaves, but because they were well-trained and well-fed, they were a valuable commodity.

There were occasionally free-born gladiators. They received a down-payment for taking the gladiatorial oath, but for that price they handed over their lives to their owners, becoming little more than slaves themselves.

In the Colosseum, the gladiators wore varying kinds of armor and used various fighting styles of the time (often adapted from conquered peoples). Fights usually pitted gladiators of different styles against each other. When one gladiator was wounded and wished to give in, he would hold up his index finger, and the sponsor (usually the Emperor at the Colosseum) decided whether the fallen should live or die. If it was deemed the defeated gladiator should die, he was expected to kneel and take the death blow without whimpering or flinching. His helmet was left on to keep his opponent from recognizing him and losing the desire to kill them.

There were also animal events at the Colosseum. Animals were trained to do tricks, but more often exotic animals were used in "hunts" where they were pitted against each other or fought by the bestiarii (gladiators specializing in animal fighting).

Executions also took place at the Colosseum. These events were particularly violent and humiliating due to the public spectators, and usually reserved for criminals who had committed the worst kinds of crimes: murder, arson, blasphemy (committed by Christians who refused to celebrate the state religion).

Read a review on The History Channel's The Colosseum.

More resources on gladiators and The Colosseum: