Exhibition reveals hidden history of Colosseum after the fall of Rome, from medieval fortresses to slaughterhouses

Nick Squires
An artist's impression of the timber walkway used by soldiers guarding the medieval fortress that was built into the side of the Colosseum - Colosseum exhibition

Archaeologists in Rome have discovered the remains of a timber walkway used by soldiers guarding a fortress built into the remains of the Colosseum during the Middle Ages.

Gladiatorial contests and other spectacles held in the massive amphitheatre ground to a halt by the sixth century AD with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the arena was gradually appropriated for other uses in succeeding centuries. 

By the 12th century a powerful baronial family, the Frangipane, had commandeered the Colosseum and built a formidable fortress into its southern flank. The walkway was built on the top tier of the amphitheatre, enabling the clan’s soldiers to watch out for enemy forces.  The Frangipane were at war with another family of Roman nobles, the Annibaldi.

During the two-year cleaning and restoration of the Colosseum, experts found holes carved into the travertine stone of the monument which supported beams on which the wooden walkway was built.

Few tourists who visit the Colosseum know of its long centuries of occupation after the fall of the Roman Empire. - Credit: Alamy

The discovery was revealed on Monday as archaeologists unveiled a new exhibition which sheds light on the hidden history of the Colosseum in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire.

“Millions of tourists come here each year to learn about the Roman period but they have little idea of how the Colosseum was used during the medieval era,” said Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, one of the curators of the new exhibition, The Colosseum – An Icon.

The fortress was built from stone blocks that were “indiscriminately” looted from the Roman amphitheatre by the Frangipane family, said Rossella Rea, the Colosseum’s director. 

“The fortress did not have a very long life because it largely collapsed in an earthquake that struck Rome in 1349,” she said.

While the Colosseum is most commonly associated with the bloody gladiatorial battles and wild animal hunts of the Roman era, it continued to be inhabited long after the death of the last emperor. 

The exhibition, which opens on Wednesday and runs until next January, “goes beyond recounting its history under the Caesars to retrace the site’s long and intense life over the centuries,” the curators said.

Although badly-damaged by earthquakes and pillaging for its stone, the Colosseum was densely inhabited in the Middle Ages, with workshops, dwellings, storehouses and stables built into its crumbling remains.  There were butchers’ stalls and slaughterhouses, as shown by the animal remains found by archaeologists at the site, including a ram’s skull and an ox rib. 

The new exhibition, Colosseum - An Icon, opens on March 8 and runs until January 2018. - Credit: Andrew Medichini/AP

“It was a microcosm of Rome in the medieval period,” said Mr Santangeli Valenzani. “For the first time we are shining light on this little-known part of its history.”

Spinners spun wool and animal bone was fashioned into ornaments and jewellery, including a bear’s tooth worn as a pendant that is on display in the exhibition.

Churches were built in and around the giant arena in the early medieval period, while the exterior of the monument was colonised by 400 species of plants, shrubs, mosses and vines.

The picturesquely overgrown arena enchanted generations of Grand Tour travelers from Britain and northern Europe.  The exhibition is located on the first of the Colosseum’s three levels.

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