Ancient Rome Lesson Plans: the Colosseum

Colosseum lesson plans

The Colosseum, built between 70 and 78 AD by the Emperor Flavian, was an astonishing triumph of engineering and architecture, and continues to amaze visitors today. See our favorite Colosseum lesson plans below.

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Architecture and engineering

Two things made the Colosseum possible, and both of them continue to be important to building construction today. First, the materials used were concrete and bricks. Unlike stone or wood, these materials provided the great strength required for a building of this size.

Roman bricks

A scaffolding of wood was built. Then the Roman bricks were used to build the walls. Roman bricks were triangular, for maximum strength and optimal interaction with the concrete. They were made on the building site, a savings of time compared with quarrying stone, and broken bricks were added to the concrete inside the walls for extra strength. Once the walls were completed, the wood was removed, leaving the holes you see in the picture. The walls were then faced with limestone in the luxurious lower floors, or painted on the upper floors.

The second Roman innovation that made the building of such a grand structure practical was the Roman arch. The shape allowed wide doorways and openings, and the filled arches gave strength and flexibility to the walls — an essential in Italy’s earthquake-prone location.

Roman arch

Another cool thing about the Colosseum was that it had a canvas cover, managed by a special branch of the Navy, which kept the sun off the spectators.

Having admired the Colosseum’s building methods, you have to try them out. Here are some projects to make your students’ learning concrete:

  • Make something with concrete. A Kid’s Step Stone Kit makes this easy, but you can do it with Quikrete from the hardware store and some foil pie plates rescued from the trash. Note that Quikcrete is cement: it doesn’t become concrete till you mix it with water and aggregate, such as the stones and broken bricks the Romans used. You can have each student create a stepping stone — they make wonderful parent gifts or a cool walkway for the playground — but you can also make a cement stepping stone and a concrete one and compare them.
  • Play with bricks. Modern bricks are rectangular rather than triangular like the Romans’ bricks, but they’re still interesting. Let younger students touch and lift bricks (with an adult helper nearby to avoid squished fingers). Older students might like to build a classroom bookshelf with bricks and boards. For the full experience, try the Teifoc School Brick Construction Assortment Set. This building set uses baked clay bricks and mortar. After building, soak the mortar to dissolve it, replace the mortar, and use the bricks again.
  • Create arches. Divide students into teams. Have one group build a wall with a doorway using only straight lines. Have the other copy the Roman arch shown in the picture. Use blocks or dry sponges, or have students cut bricks from foam core — any material will do, but you will need a lot of bricks. Have students keep track of any challenges they face in the course of building. Once the structures are complete, use weights to measure the strength of the structures. Are arches better? Create a class display that shows your conclusion.

The Games

The games played at the Colosseum included fights between gladiators, fights between people and animals, and animal circus acts. All Roman citizens had a card that showed which gate they could enter through and where they were to sit. The most important men sat lower in the bleachers, the poor men sat higher, and women sat at the very top, with separate spaces for the rich women and the poor women.The photo below shows how the seats were arranged.

Colosseum seats

The openings below the seats show where the gladiators and the beasts came out of their rooms at the bottom of the Colosseum.The Colosseum had lots of space for the lions and other wild animals, as well as for gladiators. The gladiators lived in buildings around the Colosseum, not in the Colosseum itself, but they were taken to the spaces below the arena in preparation for the games.

gladiators' and animals' rooms

Lions, hippos, crocodiles, and other wild animals were shown in parades and also in battles. The shows were free for all citizens of Rome. They were paid for by the government, or by private individuals. Many historians believe that the point of the games was to distract Roman citizens from more serious political matters.

Here are some ways to learn more about the games and the use of the Colosseum as a stadium:

  • Use Google Earth to compare the Colosseum to modern football stadiums (or stadia). A music teacher we know thought the Colosseum was small, since she’s used to modern football stadiums. We thought it was huge, compared with what we thought people in 70 AD would have been able to build.  If you have a stadium in your town, as we do (that’s Razorback stadium below), find the size of your local stadium and compare it with the Colosseum. Razorback Stadium is 110 × 49 meters and holds 72,000 people. The Colosseum was 189 x 156 meters, and held somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people; experts disagree.

Razorback stadium

  • Colosseum Board Game is a game from the point of view of the event planner. We like that idea — imagine what was involved in getting the spectacles at the Colosseum arranged, down to the flower petals dropped onto the crowd! Have students research the games and plan all the details. Have them create a poster board showing their plans.
  • The games at the Colosseum were violent and cruel by modern standards. Boxing and modern video games are also violent. Organize a debate on the subject of violent games, or have students write papers expressing their opinions of these games.
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