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The Ancient Colosseum in Rome

Rome, Italy

The massive Colosseum is a textbook example of Roman engineering, setting the standard for stadiums today. Constructed with concrete, brick, and round arches, it seated 50,000, who came to see battles between gladiators, criminals, and wild animals.

Complete Video Script

The Colosseum was — and still is — colossal. It's the great example of ancient Roman engineering. It was begun in AD 72 during the reign of Emperor Vespasian when the Empire was nearing its peak.

Using Roman-pioneered concrete, brick, and their trademark round arches, Romans constructed much larger buildings than the Greeks.

But, it seems, they still respected the fine points of Greek culture. They decorated their no nonsense mega structure with all three Greek orders of columns — Doric…Ionic…and Corinthian.

Stepping inside, you can almost hear the roar of ancient Rome. Take a moment to imagine the place in action. Romans filled and emptied the Colosseum's 50,000 seats as quickly and efficiently as we do our super stadiums today.

It's built with two theaters facing each other — that's what an amphitheater is — so twice as many people could enjoy the entertainment.

Canvas awnings were hoisted over the stadium to give protection from the sun.

These passageways underneath the arena were covered by a wooden floor. Between acts, animals and gladiators were shuffled around out of sight.

Ancient Romans, whose taste for violence exceeded even modern America’s, came to the Colosseum to unwind. Gladiators, criminals, and wild animals fought to the death, providing the public with a festival of gore. To celebrate the Colosseum's grand opening, Romans were treated to the slaughter of 5000 animals.

Nearby, Trajan's Column trumpets the glories of Emperor Trajan who ruled Rome in its heyday. This is a textbook example of continuous narration. Like a 200 yard long scroll, it winds all the way to the top. The purpose: more PR…telling the story of yet another military victory.

Trajan extended the boundaries of the empire to its greatest size ever…from the Nile to the north of Britain. Controlling its entire coastline, Romans called the Mediterranean simply “Mare Nostrum”…“Our Sea.”

Downtown Rome is a kind of architectural time warp. You'll see almost nothing built post-WWII. A striking exception is this contemporary building showcasing the Ara Pacis. This Altar of Peace offers a stirring glimpse at the pride and power of the Roman Empire at its peak.

Nine years before Christ, Emperor Augustus led a procession of priests up these steps of this newly built “Altar of Peace.” Sacrificing an animal on this altar, they thanked the gods. The last serious Barbarian resistance had been quelled and now there could be peace. The empire was established and this marked the start of the Pax Romana.

The Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace," was a Golden Age of good living, relative stability, and military dominance lasting from the time of Christ for about two centuries. The altar's exquisite reliefs celebrate Rome’s success and prosperity. This goddess of fertility is surrounded by symbols of abundance. And this procession shows a populace thankful for its emperor.

The stability and relative prosperity that characterized the two centuries of the Roman Peace was due in part to a steady succession of capable rulers.

As visitors, it's our challenge to appreciate the grandeur of this incredible city built on the scale of giants. For instance, when Rome went to the races, it came here — the Circus Maximus.

Imagine, a quarter of a million Romans cheering on careening chariots and above it all, the Palatine Hill, filled with towering palaces.

And, a visit to the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo helps humanize the empire. While ancient Rome's architecture was monumental, its citizens were just people…like you and me…without electricity.

These frescoes — a rare surviving example of Roman painting — bring color to our image of daily life back then. Romans liked to think of themselves as somehow living parallel with the gods. These domestic scenes come with a twist of mythology.

And this painted garden — wallpapering a Roman villa — showed an appreciation for nature while creating an atmosphere of serenity.

Admiring the artifacts of Rome's elite, from exquisite jewelry to this delicate golden hairnet, we can only marvel at lifestyles of the rich and Roman.

Many aspects of Roman life are represented. Roman artists excelled in realism. This boxer is a picture of exhaustion with a roughed-up face and tired hands complete with brass knuckles.

The museum's collection tells the empire's story through art: Caesar Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar and the first great emperor of the Pax Romana. Looking into the eyes of the man who called himself "the first among equals," you get the feeling that the ship of state was in good hands.

But by the time this statue was carved, it's clear…the Pax Romana was finished…and Rome was falling. This boy is about to become head of state. It was a chaotic and unstable time. In fact, in the 3rd century, sixteen emperors were assassinated in a 50-year period. Surrounded by nervous senators, this child emperor is no picture of confidence.

After seeing its museums, it’s easier to envision Rome at its peak — once a metropolis of marble embellished with countless statues.