Evidence of a Seating Plan Discovered at the Colosseum

Restoration efforts reveal the red-painted numbers that would help ancient Romans find their status-dictated seats

Ted Horowitz/Corbis

Tickets to the Colosseum were typically free. But the 50,000 ancient Romans filing in for an event still followed a formal seating scheme. And workers using water to clean and restore the famous landmark recently uncovered traces of the red painted into numbers and letters engraved above the Colosseum’s entrance gates to help event-goers find their seats.

"This is an exceptional discovery because we did not expect that some trace of the red paint was still preserved," Rossella Rea, the director of the Colosseum, told the International Business Times.

The paint, thought to be made up of iron oxide and clay, wasn’t intended to last more than a couple years when first applied; yet traces of the color are still visible nearly 2,000 years later, now that the dirt covering it has been removed.

The numbers, measuring about 13 inches tall, would have guided ancient Romans to the appropriate entrance gate listed on their ticket—a system not unlike what you’ll find at modern sports arenas. Colosseum spectators had their seating area decided for them based on their wealth, gender and social status. The New Historian describes who got priority placement:

In the top tier was the emperor’s box, which provided the best view of the arena. Other members of the Roman political and social elite also sat in the highest tier. On the second tier sat the Roman upper class, made up of government officials and business men. The third tier housed the ordinary Roman citizens, while in the fourth women and the poor sat or stood on wooden benches.

Numbers weren’t the only things likely painted at the Colosseum. We know that statues of the era got coats of color. Additionally, archeologists working in 2013 on an interior hallway uncovered plasterwork with traces of blue, red, green and black, suggesting that the now gray structure was once brightly decorated.

Editor’s note, May 21, 2024: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Colosseum held 5,000 spectators. It could hold more than 50,000. This story has been edited to correct that fact.

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