The Colosseum in Rome was the predecessor to modern stadia around the world. Did Roman citizens have to pay to enter the Colosseum?
Romans did not have to pay to enter the Colosseum. Tickets, called Tessera, were given to a number of institutions, who then distributed them to whoever they deemed appropriate. The Colosseum could hold about 50,000 people, compared to Rome’s population of half a million, and many tickets were likely sold on the black market.
For more on the Roman Colosseum and how spectators attended, read on.
The Colosseum, or the Flavian Amphitheater, began construction between 70 CE and 72 CE, at the behest of Emperor Vespasian. Vespasian had recently become Emperor and wanted a public symbol of his new power.
The enormous project took a decade to complete, by which time Vespasian had died of natural causes and been succeeded by his son, Titus. The amphitheater is synonymous with gladiatorial games but also hosted theatre, public executions, and other events.
The Colosseum was designed to hold as many as 50,000 spectators at maximum capacity, a similar size to a large modern sports stadium. Unlike those modern stadia, however, attending the Colosseum was free.
Games at the Colosseum were paid for by the Emperor, serving as both a display of grandeur and a celebration of Roman culture. They were half entertainment, half propaganda and so it benefitted the leaders of Rome to have as many people as possible in attendance.
Although the Colosseum was very large, Ancient Rome had an estimated population of approximately half a million. The games were immensely popular and not having a strict system to control attendance could have had potentially disastrous consequences.
To avoid this, the Romans created a ticketing system that was very similar to modern-day equivalents. The Colosseum was divided into sections and each ticket granted somebody access to a particular area.
This seating plan was designed to reflect social status in Rome. The Roman elite, the Emperor and his family, senators, foreign dignitaries, and other Patricians, would sit the closest to the action. Commoners, such as “Plebs”, would be positioned in the upper tiers.
Proximity to the action wasn’t the only benefit to sitting in the lower tiers. The seats in the Colosseum were made of marble and inscribed with numbers that indicated where a person should sit.
Wooden planks were placed on top of these to serve as seats. For the upper classes, cushions were provided. This included the Equites, a group similar to Medieval knights, who originally provided the bulk of the Roman cavalry.
In the early years of the Colosseum, senators were provided with cushions but they were later given a type of folding stool called curules.
Events at the Colosseum resulted in a gathering of humanity that was extremely rare two millennia ago. To maintain order, the Vigiles Urbani were used; the Vigiles were watchmen who served as both firefighters and police in Ancient Rome.
In addition, the elite soldiers of the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s personal troops, were used. Given that the Emperor was usually present for the games held in his honor (and funded from his treasury), it was logical that his men should be present.
Tickets were usually acquired in advance in order to ensure entry, but there were sometimes tickets available to buy on the day, restricted to the less prestigious tiers.
The Roman equivalent to a modern ticket was called a Tessera and noted which entrance a person should use to reach their seat. The Colosseum had 80 entrances to enable people to enter and exit quickly, another way that the Romans innovated with their oval amphitheater.
Distribution of tickets was not dissimilar to major sporting events in the modern-day, such as the Super Bowl. There were too few tickets to hand out freely to individuals, so they were instead distributed to companies, the collegia (essentially Roman guilds), and other institutions. These groups then awarded the tickets to whomever they wished, a definite benefit of being respected in an occupation.
Although tickets to the Colosseum were issued for free, it is also highly unlikely that everybody in attendance for the games was there without paying. In the early years of the games, tickets were highly coveted and so there was a strong black market trade for them. Those fortunate enough to be issued with tickets could make some extra money.