Traces of red painted numbers have been found on the arches of Rome’s Colosseum during the ongoing $33 million restoration work aimed at repairing damage suffered by the 2,000-year-old monument since the Middle Ages.
Similar to today’s stadium seating systems, the numbers — written according to the system used in ancient Rome, using letters of the Latin alphabet such as X, L, V, I — stood on the entrance gate arches, allowing an easier access to the seats.
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First carved in the travertine stones, the numbers were then painted in red, so that people could easily see them from a distance.
There were 76 public numbered entrances, plus four special un-numbered gates. Two were reserved to the emperor, senators, magistrates, wealthy patricians, and the Vestal Virgins, priestesses responsible for maintaining the sacred fire within the Temple of Vesta. A gate was used for the dead — gladiators and wild beasts — while another was used by gladiators parading prior to the beginning of the combats.
The numbered entrance gates were the first step of a complex crowd control system which allowed tens of thousands of spectators to smoothly enter the amphitheater and quickly find their seat.
“The 50,000 spectators had a ticket that said which numbered gate arch they were supposed to enter. Inside the arena, there were other numbers to help people access their seats, which were assigned according to social class,” the monument director Rossella Rea said.
Although entrance was free for all, a strict plan regulated where one could seat on the amphitheater’s four levels of seating.
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The best seat belonged to the emperor who sat in the first tier in the Emperor’s Box; the first level was also reserved to senator, magistrates and Vestal Virgins. On the second tier sat the upper class, on the third the ordinary Roman citizens, while women and the poor stood or sat on wooden benches in the fourth, top tier.
The traces of red painted numbers represent an “exceptional finding,” according to Rea.
“It was believed the paint would not have survived at all,” Rea said.
Deriving from iron oxide and clay minerals, the red color could be used without any binding material.
“As the color could withstand two-three years, it had to be periodically applied on the carved numbers,” restorer Cinzia Conti, said.
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Commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian in A.D. 72, the Colosseum was opened by his son Titus in A.D. 80 with 100 days of gladiatorial bouts, beast battles and public executions.
It was the largest building in Rome, covering a little over half an acre and standing 164 feet high against the Roman skyline.
It continued to provide the ancient Romans “panem et circenses” — bread and circuses — until shows were banned in the fifth century, about 40 years before the fall of the Roman Empire.
Rea’s team expects to find other traces of colored numbers inside the monument as the restoration proceeds.
Image: Traces of red color in the Roman number X (10). Credit: Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma.