"The Coliseum" explores Rome as a past glory that still exists in imagination. Poe submitted the poem to a contest sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, which offered a prize of $25 to the winner. The judges chose a poem submitted by editor John Hill Hewitt under the pseudonym "Henry Wilton". Poe was outraged by what he considered nepotism; Hewitt later claimed that the two had a fistfight in the streets of Baltimore, though no evidence proves the event.
Despite the controversy, "The Coliseum" was published by the Visiter in its October 26, 1833, issue. It was later incorporated into Poe's unfinished drama Politian.
In a July 1844 letter to fellow author James Russell Lowell, Poe put "The Coliseum" as one of his six best poems.