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15 Gladiatorial Facts About the Colosseum

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Forgotten and ignored for centuries, the 2000-year old Colosseum in Rome is packed with amazing facts and info. Once a hotbed for blood-thirsty entertainment, this tourist draw has quite a story to tell.

1. ITS ORIGINAL NAME WAS THE FLAVIAN AMPHITHEATER.

The Colosseum was commissioned around 70 CE by the Emperor Vespasian and opened by his son Titus in 80 CE. Along with Vespasian’s son, Domitian, who ruled from 81-96, the three were known as the Flavian Emperors, and the Colosseum was known in Latin as the Ampitheatrum Flavium.

2. A GIANT STATUE OF NERO ONCE STOOD NEARBY.

The infamous Nero, best known for killing family members and fiddling, had a giant bronze statue bearing his likeness built in honor of the sun god not far from where the Colosseum would be erected. Modeled on the Colossus of Rhodes, it stood more than 100 feet tall and likely inspired the adoption of the name Colosseum for the amphitheater.

3. IT WAS BUILT ON A FORMER LAKE.

Nero’s pleasure palace, the Golden House (Domus Aurea), was constructed after the Great Fire of 64, and it included an artificial lake. After Nero's suicide in 68 CE and a short period of civil wars, Vespasian became Emperor in 69 CE and dedicated a new pleasure palace for the people of Rome. Nero's Golden House had its ornaments (ivory, marble, and jewels) stripped, was buried in dirt, and the Baths of Trajan were built atop the site. The lake was filled in and became the site of the Colosseum.

4. IT WAS CONSTRUCTED IN A RELATIVELY TIDY 10 YEARS.

Following the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Vespasian used the spoils from the Jewish Temple to start work on an amphitheater for Roman citizens. Although he died before its completion, his son Titus was there to open the Colosseum with 100 days of games in 80 CE.

5. IT WAS THE LARGEST AMPHITHEATER EVER BUILT.

The Colosseum is a freestanding structure composed of concrete and stone, unlike the majority of amphitheaters at the time, which were commonly dug into hillsides for support. Its shape is roughly elliptical and measures 615 feet long, 510 feet wide, and 157 feet high, making it the largest amphitheater in the Roman world and the biggest ever constructed.

6. THE AMPHITHEATER INCLUDED A SEATING CHART.

Designed for all Roman citizens, rich and poor alike, Colosseum spectators were nonetheless separated into different sections based on their social status and wealth. Senators and the like sat close to the action, while women and the poor were relegated to the nosebleed seats. In addition, numbered arches (I-LXXVI, or 1-76) guided people to one of five sections, and entrances, staircases, and walls were used to keep different classes of citizen separate.

7. THE COLOSSEUM COULD SEAT 50,000.

With seating width at only about 14 inches per person, massive crowds rivaling modern football and soccer games in attendance squeezed into the Colosseum to watch the spectacle of gladiatorial combat.

8. COMBAT BETWEEN GLADIATORS WAS HIGHLY ORGANIZED.

For more than four centuries, a succession of slaves, prisoners of war, criminals, ex-soldiers, and even volunteers did battle in the Colosseum for the entertainment and amusement of Romans. Instead of bloody free-for-alls, by the time of the amphitheater’s opening the sport was more like boxing, with one-on-one fights between gladiators arranged according to size, record, experience, skill level, and fighting style.

9. THE COLOSSEUM WAS A GRAVEYARD FOR THOUSANDS OF ANIMALS.

Along with hand-to-hand combat, the Romans staged hunts and wild animal fights that left scores of elephants, tigers, lions, bears, hippos, and other exotic creatures wounded and dead. Nine thousand animals were killed during the Colosseum’s opening ceremonies alone, and 11,000 were killed during a 123-day festival held by the Emperor Trajan.

10. THE COLOSSEUM WAS FLOODED TO HOST MOCK NAVAL BATTLES.

Before Domitian had a permanent basement (the hypogeum, Latin for underground) built to house the passageways, rooms, trapdoors, animals, fighters, and workers, the arena floor could be filled with about 3 feet of water and used to stage sea battles. A nearby aqueduct supplied the water, and runoff canals have been identified as the ones that drained the artificial sea out of the Colosseum.

11. IT WAS ABANDONED FOR CENTURIES.

Once the carnage of gladiatorial battles lost its appeal and the Roman Empire began its collapse in the 5th century, the Colosseum stopped hosting large public events, and natural disasters like earthquakes and lightning strikes took a toll on the structure. It was abandoned and ignored until the 18th century, when the Catholic Church and numerous popes decided the site should be protected.

12. IT WAS PLUNDERED FOR BUILDING MATERIALS.

The beautiful stone and marble that festooned the Colosseum drew the eye of scavengers and builders, who transformed the former amphitheater into a quarry for the cathedrals of St. John and St. Peter Lateran, the Palazzo Venezia, and a multitude of other projects.

13. ONE POPE TRIED TO TURN IT INTO A WOOL FACTORY.

The hypogeum was eventually filled in with dirt, and through the centuries Romans planted vegetable gardens there and used the space for storage, while blacksmiths and merchants occupied the vaulted passageways above. Pope Sixtus V, who helped rebuild Rome in the late 16th century, attempted to overhaul the Colosseum as a factory for making wool, with living quarters in the upper reaches and a workspace on the arena floor, but Sixtus passed away in 1590 and the project never came to fruition.

14. IT'S THE BIGGEST TOURIST DRAW IN ROME.

Next to Vatican City and its holy sites, the Colosseum is the second-most visited spot in Italy and the most-visited monument in Rome, drawing up to six million tourists a year. Two-day tickets to the Colosseum and the surrounding Palatine Hill cost 12 euros (about $13).

15. THE COLOSSEUM IS FINALLY GETTING A MAKEOVER.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini announced a $20 million renovation that will include rebuilding the arena floor. This comes on the heels of billionaire Diego Della Valle promising $33 million toward refurbishing the Colosseum, which started in 2013 and includes repairing the arches, cleaning marble, restoring brick walls, replacing metal railings, and building a new tourist center and café.

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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