The Aging Roman Colosseum

Modern Exterior View

Modern Exterior View

Assailed by extreme weather conditions, pollution from a never-ending stream of vehicles, and fractures to its underlying structure, the Roman Colosseum is beginning to feel its age. The ancient monument, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980, has stood its ground for nearly 2,000 years, defying earthquakes, fires, natural elements, and traffic fumes. But there are increasing signs that unless something drastic is done to rescue the amphitheater from the ravages of time, it will eventually crumble into oblivion, along with so many other neglected landmarks from the Roman Empire. 

“Rome will exist as long as the Colosseum does; when the Colosseum falls so will Rome; when Rome falls so will the world.”

– Venerable Bede

Today, the ruins of the Colosseum stand defiantly in the heart of Ancient Rome, an evocative reminder of a bygone age. The structure will not be denied – unlike so many other ancient monuments, its hulking exterior remains steadfastly upright, an architectural thumbing of the nose to those who dismiss it as a relic of the past. But the mighty Colosseum isn’t invulnerable; studies show that climate change in the form of fluctuating temperatures will cause the marble and limestone of which the monument is made to expand and contract.

To make matters worse, the Colosseum is beginning to tilt as one side sinks into the ground. Traffic has been banned in parts of central Rome to protect the Colosseum from exhaust fumes and vibrations from vehicles, but will this make a difference? This article examines the many structural issues facing an aging icon.

Modern Interior View

Modern Interior View

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Emperor Vespasian, the first ruler of the Flavian dynasty, initiated the construction of a vast amphitheater along the lines of a Greek theatre but with a double circumference. The money for this grand project came from treasure looted from temples in Jerusalem where the Romans had crushed a Jewish rebellion, while the labour needed to build the structure was derived from slaves.

Work on the Flavian amphitheater, as it was to be known, was started between AD 70 and 72, but when Vespasian died in AD 79, it was still not complete. His son and successor, Titus, officially opened the amphitheater with 100 days of games and spectacles in AD 80; only later did it become known as the Colosseum owing to a nearby statue of Nero called the Colossus of Nero.

Several natural disasters have chipped away at the Colosseum’s structure, the worst of which include earthquakes that struck in AD 442, AD 847 (in which the southern side of the amphitheater was destroyed) and 1231. But man has been to blame as well; after the Colosseum ceased to be used as an amphitheater, the marble with which it was adorned was looted by the nobility in order to build palaces on the outskirts of Ancient Rome.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, travertine blocks in the structure were recycled by successive popes. If this wholesale destruction had continued, there would have been nothing left of the ruin that is visible today. Nonetheless, the Colosseum still faces several dangers to its structure, some of which – such as traffic fumes – would have been non-existent in Ancient Rome.

Fortunately, authorities in Rome may now realize that a city without the Colosseum and its associated monuments in the Forum could mean far less tourist cash being pumped into Rome’s coffers. This realization is symbolized by the banning of traffic in some parts of central Rome by the city’s mayor in order to protect the Colosseum from the effects of exhaust fumes and vibrations from vehicles. However, even such a seemingly straightforward decision has its detractors; many commuters are up-in-arms because they fear traffic will become further congested in the parts of Rome not affected by the ban.


Yet, effective protection of the Colosseum’s structure is going to take much more than a traffic ban. In December 2011, authorities were forced to deny that the Colosseum was unsafe for visitors after chunks fell off the monument on Christmas Day. The cultural ministry insisted that ‘nothing had collapsed since the 18th century’.

In July 2012 it was reported that the building was 40 centimeters (16 inches) lower on the south side than on the north – some experts suggest the culprit may be a crack at the amphitheater’s base, which resembles a doughnut-shaped slab of concrete. Salvation appears to have come in the form of Italian billionaire Diego Della Valle, owner of the Tod’s shoe empire; he has urged other businessmen and women to join him in doing more to save Rome’s heritage.

Then there is the corrosive effect on the Colosseum caused by extreme weather, something that was made apparent in February 2012 when Rome received an exceptional amount of snowfall. Plaster masonry and stone began to fall from the structure because ice had formed on the walls; the reason for this crumbling was because of a so-called freeze-thaw cycle. The Colosseum was closed for business, but reopened after the snow subsided. Next time, the damage to the Colosseum may far more pronounced.

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