Here’s a riotous Roman riddle: What do actors, gravediggers and retired gladiators all have in common? Answer: at some point in history those specific groups were banned from history’s most famous—and long-standing—amphitheater, the Roman Colosseum, named in 2007 as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
Commissioned around AD 70–72 by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty as a gift to the Roman people (purportedly from booty seized after the Roman victory in the First Jewish-Roman War in AD 70), the Flavian Amphitheatre as it was first named, was dedicated to the “gory” of Rome—evidenced by the conscripting of male and female gladiators (some proud professionals, some reluctant slaves) to fight to the death. These not-so-glad gladiators held equal billing with lions, tigers, bears, and other exotic animals that were used mercilessly to tear each other apart—all for the entertainment of some 60,000 bloodthirsty Roman citizens.
Thankfully, by the 6th century, gory gladiator sports had fallen out of favor. And after a combination of natural disasters, neglect and vandalism destroyed parts of the amphitheater, the Colosseum was “repurposed” as salvage materials for other structures.
Beginning in the 18th century, various popes sought to conserve the arena as a sacred Christian site, though whether early Christian martyrs met their fate specifically in the Colosseum has never been proven conclusively (only the Christian writer/historian Tertullian wrote about such events even happening at all). Theologians vary on whether the apostle Paul was literally referring to “fighting with lions” in 1 Corinthians 15:32 since man vs. lion would typically produce tragic results.
In any event, the Colosseum, the world’s oldest and most imposing amphitheater is an architectural wonder that has inspired awe in modern-day pilgrims. Throughout history, this magnificent spectacle, as dilapidated as it may be, has been used as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, a popular tourist spot and, to many still, as a Christian shrine.
Today, the Stations of the Cross—also known as the Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross—a 14-part devotion which features a series of images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion as well as accompanying prayers, reflection, and meditation is held at the Colosseum on Good Fridays.
Visit the Roman Colosseum, one of the new 7 architectural Wonders of the World, where the ancient world converged and is one of Rome’s most iconic and popular attractions.