Crowd Flow at the Colosseum

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

When I was in Rome at the beginning of the month, and I almost didn’t go into the colosseum.  I know, I know, it’s a wonder of the ancient world… But, I had been in before, during my first trip to Rome in 2007, and I didn’t really want to pay 12Euro to go in again.

On the last day, we did decide to go back in, and am I ever glad we did!

Reconstructed arena floor and crowds in the Colosseum, Rome

Reconstructed arena floor and crowds in the Colosseum, Rome

So much more of the interior of the Colosseum was open to tourists than our previous visit!  You could walk around 3/4 of the ground floor, and you could do an full circuit on the second level.  If you paid for an official guided tour, you could even go into the basement, out onto the reconstructed arena floor, and even go up to the third and fourth levels!  We didn’t pay for a guided tour, but we spent a long long time wandering around trying to figure out what was original construction, what was modern reconstruction, and where people would have been sitting.

One of the most interesting things I heard though was that apparently the Colosseum could empty completely in 5-10 min.  In fact, the passageways were called vomitoria due to the speed at which people could be ejected.  This factoid is considered common knowledge, and I found it really difficult to find anybody citing a source for where this information comes from.  The only published work I could find with mention of this (besides guidebooks and a deluge of online content) was J Pearson’s book from 1973, which compares the engineering of the Colosseum to water management and drainage.  Pearson says that the Romans very carefully managed the drainage the Colosseum, directing excess water away, and similarly managed the flow of people to allow a full audience to leave the building in 3 min.  I also found some discussion of the fact that the staircases were wider at the bottom and narrower at the top, allowing people to funnel out of the structure.

This is an amazing claim.  My husband, an engineer, says he heard in one of his engineering classes that modern architects and engineers haven’t been able to replicate this marvel of crowd control, and that the Colosseum is held up as an example of excellent early engineering!  Of course, I can’t find any sources on that either.

This could be because it actually took a lot longer to empty the Colosseum, so how can we tell?

Arched passageway under seats at the Colosseum, Rome

Arched passageway under seats at the Colosseum, Rome

One modern study has begun to question the common knowledge that the Colosseum was an efficient crowd mover, using a 3D reconstruction and AI digital people to recreate how crowds might have populated the Colosseum (Gutierrez, Frischer, et. al. 2007).  This model found that there would have been some chokepoints in the upper levels of the Colosseum, and therefore might not have been able to be filled and emptied as quickly as legend has it.  However, I have some questions about their model.  They claim that they gave different agents slightly different information about the layout of the Colosseum, representing people who had or had not been into it before.  However, there was no mention of the fact that people were apparently given tickets with their correct entrance door to access their seat.  This would have cut down on travel around the circumference of the Colosseum once people were inside, which was one of the chokepoints they had found.

Stairs at the Colosseum, Rome

Stairs at the Colosseum, Rome

Stairs at the Colosseum, Rome

Stairs at the Colosseum, Rome

Regardless, the Colosseum clearly represents careful thinking about the way crowds enter and exit a structure.  Apparently in its hey day, 50 000 – 80 000 people could have watched events there.

If, as I was told, engineers and architects haven’t been able to figure out and replicate the speed of filling and emptying the structure, maybe the space itself wasn’t the reason.  Maybe the fact that people could exit quickly had nothing to do with the width and steepness of the stairs, or the fact that there were no handrails restricting people’s movement through the middle.  Maybe people could leave quickly because of people’s expectations?

Today, when in a crowd, we try not to touch.  You crowd up as close as you can to the person in front of you without actually touching them.  Maybe people in the Colosseum didn’t mind touching.  In that case, the weight of the crowd would have been literal and inexorable.  People would have moved quickly because they had no choice.  There would have been no waiting in the door for your friend to catch up, no side trips to the bathroom, no ‘swimming upstream’ to get somewhere else.  You moved to the exit immediately at the pace the crowd set.

The rigid social structure regulating where people sat might also have helped.  If the higher status people on the lower levels were automatically given right of way then the stadium could have emptied more efficiently than the way modern stadiums do – with everyone just elbowing and jockeying for position and slowing things down for everyone else.

Of course, people probably fell.  People would have gotten hurt.  In today’s world, this feels terribly dangerous.

But it would be fast!

Further Reading:

J. Pearson. Arena. The Story of the Colosseum. London, 1973.

Gutierrez, D., B. Frischer, et. al. “AI and Virtual Crowds: Populating the Colosseum” Journal of Cultural Heritage 8 (2): 176-185, 2007.   (Full Text)

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2 Responses to Crowd Flow at the Colosseum

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #7 | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Harold Francisco says:

    Thank you for posting this and for challenging common knowledge. I found your article useful for my field study of ancient Rome.

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