Five False Facts About the Roman Colosseum

Editor’s Note: We think our guides know Rome better than anyone. So when we learned that Mauro Poma, a teacher and author and Walks Colosseum guide had published a new book about the history and lore of the Colosseum, we asked him to guest post. He has written a book called Discovering the Colosseum that is essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about this iconic building. It includes the history, the gladiators and the animals used. There are also many curiosities. You can find Discovering the Colosseum at if you enjoyed what you have read. Our advanced copy is now complete and is the perfect reading for anyone planning to visit the Colosseum on their next trip to Rome.

The Roman Colosseum is known as the Flavian Amphitheatre and is one of the most popular ancient monuments in the globe. It attracts approximately 6 million people each year. Many misconceptions surround the Colosseum despite its popularity. When researching Discovering The Colosseum, I looked into many facts regarding the Roman Colosseum. In some cases, hundreds of years of myths, hearsay, and rumors had obscured the truth. These are the five biggest myths I found while researching my book, and the truths behind them.

1. If the Emperor was unable to show mercy to a gladiator who has been wounded in a fight, he would signal “thumbs down”.

Jean-Leon Gerome’s famous painting of the “turned thumb” (Police Verso) of the ancient Romans is beautiful, though it’s probably not historically accurate.

This fact about the Roman colosseum has probably been in every film about the historic building’s spectacles. Jean-Leon Gerome’s 19th-century painting Pollice Verso immortalized the gesture. This gesture is also known as the “with a thumb turned” gesture by the ancient Romans. It’s not clear how the thumb was turned. Romans may have meant the denial of mercy when they placed their thumbs horizontally to signify a sword cutting through the throat of the victorious gladiator. They shouted “Iugula!” They shouted “Iugula!” which means “Throat!” Throat!”. The gladiator bows and waits for the blow to his neck or throat in this instance. The helmets were kept on by those who needed to die so that they could not be forced to look at their opponent. This was due to the fact that gladiators often trained together, and some were even friends. Imagine if you were forced to fight or kill a friend one day.

2. All gladiator matches were ended when the Emperor ordered someone to die.

Contrary to what is said about the Colosseum’s “fact”, the chance of leaving the arena alive was very high – at least during the Republican era, and the first imperial age. The risk of dying from cowardice or deep wounds (which could anger the audience and prompt them to ask for the gladiator’s death) was greater than the possibility of being denied mercy. Late imperial times saw forgiveness become a common practice.

3. Christians were regularly killed in the Colosseum.

The Roman Colosseum fact that Christians were executed in Rome’s Colosseum is a tricky one. While there is no doubt that some Christians were executed in the Colosseum for their faith, we know that they were just part of the regular spectacles. Roman history is notorious for changing as new discoveries are made. However, the evidence does not support mass Christian martyrs like popular culture has made them commonplace. However, we do know that Christians were also killed at other locations, such as the private circus of Nero, which is located near the Basilica of St. Peter. It is also known what Christians thought about blood sports. Interestingly, they didn’t feel compassion for gladiators who were killing each other. Instead, they believed that the public suffered the greatest moral and spiritual harm from watching such violence; a belief that was surprisingly similar to the beliefs of pagan writers. Christians only later began to show compassion for the people who were actually fighting in that arena.

4. Only gladiator duels were held at the Colosseum.

This Colosseum fact has been proven false. As far as blood sports are concerned, the Colosseum’s program was quite multifaceted. The program included several performances and shows that lasted for hours. The morning began with a brief presentation of all “stars” for the day. The morning program continued with animal fights, circus performances, and finally, hunting games. During the lunch break, executions or death sentences of criminals were performed. Public executions served two purposes: they were intended to inform the public about the consequences of breaking Roman law, and also to “fill” the lunch hour by using these men as human commodities to be sold to the audience. The long-awaited gladiator confrontations would follow.

5. The main animals used in the Colosseum’s hunting games were Lions and Tigers.

While you may think that lions and Tigers are what you see in movies, the truth is that ancient Romans also killed whole swathes of other animals. Historical records show that there were rhinos and hippos as well as elephants and giraffes and crocodiles and crocodiles and giraffes and crocodiles and crocodiles and antelopes and gazelles as well as cheetahs and panthers, bears and leopards. These animals were found by the Romans in a variety of places. South Egypt is where crocodiles and rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and hippos came from. Gazelles, antelopes and jackals, as well as ostriches, ostriches and lions all, came from North Africa. Most of the bears came from Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Italy and other European countries supplied all herbivores such as hares and roe deer and wild pigs and donkeys as well as bears and bison as well as bulls and wolves.

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