Iconic Colosseum: Rome’s timeless marvel and its colossal history

The etymology of the name “Colosseum” has long been linked to a colossal statue of Nero located nearby (the statue, in turn, was named after the Colossus of Rhodes). This statue underwent alterations under Nero’s successors, transforming into the likeness of Helios (Sol) or Apollo, the sun god, complete with an appropriate solar crown. Nero’s visage was replaced several times with those of subsequent emperors. Despite its pagan associations, the statue stood tall well into the medieval era and was attributed with mystical powers. It came to symbolize the enduring nature of Rome.

In the 8th century, a renowned epigram attributed to the Venerable Bede celebrated the statue’s symbolic significance in a prophecy that has been variously quoted: “Quamdiu stat Colisæus, stat et Roma; quando cadet colisæus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus” (“as long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world”). This prophecy is often misconstrued to refer to the Colosseum rather than the Colossus (as seen in Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage). However, during the time Pseudo-Bede wrote, the masculine noun “coliseus” was associated with the statue rather than the still-known Flavian amphitheatre.

Eventually, the Colossus did indeed fall, possibly dismantled for its bronze. By the year 1000, the name “Colosseum” had evolved to refer to the amphitheatre itself. The statue faded into obscurity, with only its base surviving, nestled between the Colosseum and the nearby Temple of Venus and Roma.

Through the ages, the name further morphed into “Coliseum” during the Middle Ages. In Italy, it retains its identity as “il Colosseo,” while other Romance languages have adopted similar terms such as “Coloseumul” (Romanian), “le Colisée” (French), “el Coliseo” (Spanish), and “o Coliseu” (Portuguese).