The Family that turned the Roman Colosseum into a Fort

Illustration for article titled The Family that turned the Roman Colosseum into a Fort

Gladiatorial games came to an eventual end within the walls the Roman Colosseum in the 6th Century CE, but Romans continued to use the spectacular structure in a variety of ways.


As the political seat of power in Rome shifted from elected officials to a cadre of warring families, the powerful Frangipani family turned the Roman Colosseum into a fortified castle. How did the Frangipanis rise to power and why did they chose the Colosseum?

Illustration for article titled The Family that turned the Roman Colosseum into a Fort

Families at war
After the sack of Rome by the Normans in the 11th Century, rival families strewn about the city controlled more aspects of day to day life than elected officials. The Annibaldi, Frangipani, Colonna, and Pierleoni families held several fortified castles throughout Rome, often re-purposing palaces and sanctuaries used by ancestors.

Ruling with mob-like tactics and behind the scenes intrigue, these families often gained the support of citizens with charitable giving. The Frangipani family changed their name from Onicii in the 8th Century. The name Frangipani is tied to the Latin phrase for "breaking bread," leading historians to connect their name to a prominent family known for distributing bread to the poor during a particularly harsh famine.

Changing the outcome of a Papal election
Citizens of Rome traditionally had a say in the election of a Pope, but as time passed, this power disappeared and prominent Roman families emerged as the deciding factor in choosing representatives of the papacy.

Cencio II Frangipani played a role in the election of Honorious II as Pope in 1124, using violence against his opponent, Celestine II. During the process of consecrating the officially elected Celestine II as Pope, several members of the Frangipani family attacked Celestine II and stopped the ceremony. This bought the Frangipanis time to position Honorious II for the role, as Celestine II could not officially become Pope until completion of the ceremony.


The rival Pierleoni family opposed the election of Honorious II, but members of the Frangipani family successfully won over the family and other officials with bribes, allowing Honorious II to become Pope.

A Colosseum in shambles
After its time as a viewing place for spectacles and bloodsports, the Roman Colosseum fell into disarray. The complex multi-tiered structure became sectioned into rental workspace for craftsmen, while the arena floor later became a cemetery. Clever Roman citizens used the dilapidated portions of the stone structure as a makeshift quarry.


In the early 13th Century, the Frangipani family found a wonderful opportunity in the Colosseum - the perfect chance to re-purpose one of the great structures of Rome into a fortified castle for the glory of their family. The Frangipanis controlled portions of the Colosseum and the area around it in beginning in the 12th Century (possibly obtaining rent money from local craftsmen), but this marked their first attempt to occupy the structure.

Records from the time show that the Frangipani's entrance into the Roman Colosseum improved the quality of life in the area. The Frangipanis also built a series of tunnels to connect the Roman Colosseum to other Frangipani homes in the area.

Illustration for article titled The Family that turned the Roman Colosseum into a Fort

Losing control
The Frangipani family did not maintain their hold on the Roman Colosseum for long, as Pope Innocenzo IV took over the site midway through the 13th Century. Innocenzo IV claimed the site for the Catholic Church, using part of the site as a hospital and again as a quarry after a series of earthquakes.


Pope Clement X restricted access to parts of the structure in the 1600s, with intervening Popes attempting to use the space for bullfights and as a wool factory to provide income for prostitutes. Pope Benedict XIV later declared the Roman Colosseum a sanctuary to Christian martyrs who died in the arena.

A portion of the Frangipani family moved to Croatia in the 12th Century and became known as the House of Frankopan, a prominent noble family in Croatian politics for over 500 years.


Top image by Franco Origlia/Getty. An image of the grave of Croatian descendant Nikole VI Frankopana is via Roberta F/CC, while the map of Medieval Rome is in public domain. Sources linked within the article.


Great article. Basically it's a post-apocalyptic scenario — how the structures left over from the wreckage of the collapse of the Empire were repurposed and occupied by those who came after.