Vespasian began building the Colosseum in AD 72 on the site of a newly drained lake in the grounds of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Properly called the Amphitheatrum Flavium (Flavian amphitheatre), the building was later known as the Colosseum not because it was big, but because of a gold- plated colossal statue, now lost, that stood alongside. The arena was about 500 metres (a third of a mile) in circumference, could seat over 50,000 people – some scholars estimate capacity crowds numbered as many as 87,000 – and could be filled or emptied in ten minutes through a network of vomitoria (exits) that remains the basic model for stadium design today.
Nowhere in the world was there a larger or more glorious setting for mass slaughter. If costly, highly trained professional gladiators were often spared at the end of their bloody bouts, not so the slaves, criminals and assorted unfortunates roped in to do battle against them. And just to make sure there was no cheating, when the combat was over, corpses were prodded with red- hot pokers to ensure no one tried to elude fate by playing dead.
It was not only human life that was sacrificed to Roman blood-lust: wildlife, too, was legitimate fodder. Animals fought animals; people fought animals. In the 100 days of carnage held to inaugurate the amphitheatre in AD 80, Martial tells that 5,000 beasts perished. By the time wild animal shows were finally banned in AD 523, the animal population of North Africa and Arabia was severely depleted. On occasion, however, the tables turned and the animals got to kill the people: a common sentence in the Roman criminal justice system was damnatio ad bestias, when thieves and other miscreants were turned loose, unarmed, into the arena, where hungry beasts would be waiting for them.