The velarium or awning at the Colosseum
could be extended or retracted with ropes and pulleys
according to the position of the sun - the original Roma
shades. Awnings were a common feature of all Roman theatres
and amphitheatres as the pampered audiences demanded
comfortable surroundings. Two hundred and forty mast corbels
were positioned around the top of the Colosseum which
supported the retractable awning, or velarium. (A corbel was
the bracket projecting from the face of a wall which was
used to support the awning.) The sockets where they stood
can still be seen. The velarium or awning covered over one
third of the arena of the Colosseum, and sloped down towards
the center. The panels of cloth that the awning consisted of
would have been tapered - wider at the top and narrower at
the bottom to enable ease of retraction for these ancient
Purpose of the Velarium or Awning at the Colosseum
The purpose of the awning, or velarium, at the Colosseum was
to provide shade to the spectators. It covered just over one
third of the inside of the arena because of the limited
length of the post supporting it. It was not necessary to
cover the whole of the Colosseum with a canvas because the
walls were high and as the sun moved around it cast
additional shadow and provided naturally shaded areas. There
is no evidence to suggest that the awning was used to shield
the spectators from either wind or rain. The velarium was a
Roman sun-shade. In inclement weather the spectators were
protected by wide brimmed hats and umbrellas according to
the Roman writer Cassius Dio.
Location of the Velarium
or Awning at the Colosseum
The location for the awning mechanisms was above the
maenianum summum in ligneis, also called porticus, which was
the top row of wooden seats. A platform ran all around the
edge of the top of the Colosseum where the men who operated
the awning would stand.
Who operated the Velarium
or Awning at the Colosseum?
It was believed that Roman sailors, enlisted from the
Roman naval headquarters at Misenum, were used to work the velarium
or awning at the Colosseum. As the awning were basically
custom-made sails this does make sense. Roman sailors made
possible the rigging of the large awnings over the Colosseum
as they represented the only large body of skilled workers
capable of envisaging and resolving any problems relating
rigging or to weather changes especially in relation to the
wind and rain. The sailors were housed in Rome in the nearby Castra Misenatium.
Experienced sailors would be used to operate the velarium,
or awning, and it was probably seen as a much sought after
position in the Roman navy.
Was the Velarium or Awning at the Colosseum
dyed different colors?
No one knows for sure he answer to this particular question.
Awnings at theatres were known to have been dyed in various
colors including purple, red, and yellow. It is also known
that in Nero's wooden amphitheatre which was destroyed in
the Great Fire of Rome, that awnings of silk had been used
which were decorated with a woven picture of Nero driving a
chariot. So, initially, colored or decorated awnings were
quite feasible. However, the fabrics used in the awnings
would become worn or torn needing replacing. It was possible
that just as in the sails of boats, that patches of material
was used for this purpose.