“…an unbearable experience…”

Image: the Colosseum, Rome, Italy.

From the website of Through Eternity Tours:

“If you’ve ever found yourself struggling through the Colosseum’s ancient ruins under a blazing summer sun, you’ll know that it can feel like one of the hottest places on earth. It’s easy to imagine that things were a lot worse for the 50,000 spectators who thronged the ancient arena’s marble bleachers hoping to sate their bloodlust with the brutal sight of wild beasts, prisoners and gladiators butchered for their entertainment in antiquity. As the sun beat down and was reflected off the blinding sand and stone into the massive crowds, without some kind of shade it must have been an unbearable experience…

By the time the Flavian Amphitheatre was completed under the reign of the emperor Titus in 80 AD, elaborate moveable fabric roofs were commonplace in theatres and amphitheaters all across the empire – a fragment of marketing graffiti recovered from Pompeii even boasts that ‘there will be awnings’ (vela erunt) at the next games there in an attempt to drum up business…

But as the largest amphitheater in the ancient world, successfully providing cover for the nearly 200 feet tall Colosseum was…a mind-boggling feat of engineering, Roman experts came up with an enormous retractable awning…

The awning was known as the velarium, and was made up of several separate tapered pieces of fabric carried high above the amphitheater by a complex web of ropes. This rigging was supported by 240 evenly spaced wooden masts that sprang from the top tier of the entire structure, and if you get the chance to tour the upper levels of the Colosseum you can still see the remains of the projecting corbels (brackets) and sockets that buttressed them. The awning didn’t extend over the entire footprint of the Colosseum, but instead sloped downwards towards a large central opening that made the whole canopy more flexible – the spoke-like rigging extending from the masts terminated in an elliptical rope that defined the shape of the opening. And so even whilst the spectators in the seating area (cavea) were bathed in shadow, the action taking place on the sand of the arena was open to the sky and dramatically spot-lit by the sun – think of it as a massive ephemeral version of the oculus that spectacularly pierces the roof of the Pantheon in central Rome.

The awning was made out of the same linen or canvas fabric that was used by ancient shipbuilders to fashion sails for their galleys, and the word velarium actually derives from the Latin word for sail. It was for good reason that experienced sailors were entrusted with operating the awning, qualified by dint of their experience with sails and rigging on the high seas. A special detachment from the naval fleet at Misenum near Naples was stationed in barracks around the corner from the Colosseum for this very purpose, the Castra Misenatium.

From their panoramic perches high up on the amphitheater’s top tier, the sailors manipulated the infinity of ropes that extended and retracted the unwieldy awning with admirable dexterity – to avoid damaging the velarium, it wasn’t raised at all when high winds or rain was in the offing, leaving the spectators at the mercy of the elements. Working the velarium was a highly prestigious assignment for any slave who was conscripted into the Roman navy, but many of their bedfellows at the Castra Misenatium weren’t so lucky – the barracks were also home to sailors awaiting their turn in the bloody and fatal mock sea-battles (naumachiae) that formed a dramatic part of the earliest stagings of the Roman games at the Colosseum after its inauguration in 80 A.D…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s