Into the Gladiators' Lair: Behind the Scenes in the Underground Colosseum Tour
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls - the World.” -- Lord Byron
Here's my guide to visiting the underground basement, called the hypogeum, of the Colosseum in Rome Italy.
Formally named the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum has stood in Rome for almost 2,000 years. It's the most instantly recognizable monument from the classical world. Despite the ravages of time, the Colosseum is an incredibly well-preserved piece of Rome’s fascinating history.
On this visit, I opted for a Colosseum Underground Tour with That Roman Guy. In the Colosseum Underground Tour, visitors can access areas not open to standard ticket holders. It’s like a backstage pass into the riotous Colosseum history. Plus, I loved having an actual archaeologist as a guide.
The Colosseum embodies ancient Rome, especially its lust for violence and entertainment. Killing became a spectator sport. On the underground tour, you're immersed in tales of gladiators, chariots, and wild beasties. Gladiators and every type of wild animal fought to the death in physical contests in this grand public arena.
History of the Colosseum: What Is The Colosseum?
Emperor Vespasian began constructing the Colosseum in 72 AD. It was finished by his son Titus in 80 AD. Domitian subsequently added the hypogeum.
The Colosseum was built on the site of Nero's former Golden House. This wasn't happenstance. Vespasian wanted to distance himself from the disgraced Nero. He sought to shift Roman architecture away from gaudy pleasure palaces to public buildings to be enjoyed by all citizens.
But Vespasian also used the Colosseum as a propaganda tool. It displayed the power of the Roman state. It increased the popularity and prestige (or "dignitas") of the emperors. And kept the masses happy and entertained.
The Colosseum is massive, over 160 feet high. My tour guide said historians now estimate that up to 80,000 people could be packed in the stands (previous estimates were 50,000).
The Romans invented the technique of building with lightweight concrete. That allowed them to build on a large scale and use design elements like rounded arches. Each level of the Colosseum features Greek columns, ascending from Doric to Ionic to Corinthian at the top.
In its glory days, the Colosseum was a vivid white with painted trim and frescoed hallways. There were monumental statues of the Greek and Roman gods in the arches of the middle two stories. The top story had a retractable canvas awning to shade spectators.
Seating was strictly segregated, but free. The ringside seats were marble. They were reserved for emperors, senators, the vestal virgins, and other VIPs. The next level up was for the aristocracy. The next level up was for the plebians, the free Roman citizens. At the very top, slaves and women sat on wooden seats.
Prostitutes, referred to as “lupe” or “she-wolves," were welcome guests at the Colosseum. They huddled in the lower level arches, called “fornix” or “forniche," In fact, that's the derivation of the modern word “fornicate."
Outside the entrance stood the Colossus Solis. Previously, the statue stood guard at Nero's Golden House and was called Colossus Neroni. After Nero's memory was officially condemned, images of him were destroyed. But this giant statue was given a new face and moved to the Colosseum by Hadrian (and 24 elephants).
Inside were the games, a form of ancient theater re-creating far flung lands and mythological themes for the masses. There were many variations. The spectacles pitted men against men, men against beasts, and beasts against beasts. There was a menagerie of beasts -- lions, giraffes, crocodiles, dogs, rhinos, elephants, etc.
In the morning, there were warm up acts and staged hunts. The wild animals that were killed represented Rome itself, as the conqueror of wild lands. At midday, criminal were executed. The main event -- the gladiator duels -- occurred in the afternoon. Trumpets would flare, drums would pound in anticipation. The gladiators used many different weapons -- swords, javelins, and tridents.
With the advent of Christianity, the bloody spectacles in the pagan Colosseum became rather politically incorrect. Plus, the church didn't want citizens attending games instead of sermons.
The Christian Emperor Honorius outlawed gladiator contests in 407 AD. Nonetheless, the games continued sporadically until 435 AD. As the Roman Empire declined, so too did the Colosseum. The Colosseum shut its doors for good in 523, after nearly 500 years of games, and fell into neglect.
In the 18th century, steps were finally taken to protect the Colosseum. The Pope designated it a holy place, due to the many Christians believed to have died on the arena floor.
Only one third of the Colosseum now remains. Much of it was destroyed by earthquakes. And, like everything else in Rome, the Colosseum was repurposed. Scavengers carried off the stone and statuary in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for new buildings, like St. Peter's Basilica.
What You'll Visit on an Underground Colosseum Tour
1. The Arena Floor
Our tour began on the arena floor, also known as the "stage." You enter the arena through the Gate of Death. This was the gate that dead gladiators were brought through. A hallway leading to the seats was called the Vomitorium. When the games were over, the Colosseum would "vomit" out its spectators.
The games and spectacles took place in the oval shaped arena. Originally, the arena had a wooden floor, sprinkled with sand to absorb the blood. There's a bit of reconstructed floor to give you a sense of what it looked like. There's also a reconstructed trap door, which was one of 36, from which the animals below were brought onto the stage.
You can't help but feel small and insignificant standing on the edge of the arena floor. Before you are the massive ruins of the ancient world's most impressive amphitheater.
You can imagine the emperor giving the thumbs up or thumbs down sign amid roaring crowds. Our guide told us that this did happen on occasion. But, unlike in the movie Gladiator, the crowds likely didn't have much say in thumb's direction. Nor did gladiators greet the emperor with the legendary phrase “We who are about to die salute you."
2. The Basement, or Hypogeum, of the Colosseum
Next, we headed to the area which gives the tour its name – the Colosseum’s underground basement, the hypogeum.
Until the 19th century, the hypogeum was buried under 40 feet of earth, its existence obliterated. In 1813 and 1874, attempted archaeological excavations were thwarted by flooding groundwater. Finally, as part of Benito Mussolini’s glorification of classical Rome, workers excavated and cleared the hypogeum.
The hypogeum was the underground staging area for the games. It was an elaborate network of tunnels, cages, and holding rooms beneath the arena floor. Slaves, prisoners, animals, and gladiators were kept there before their “performances."
Set pieces and scenes for a performance were also stored there too. Man made machines -- ramps, cranes, and lifts -- hoisted them up to the arena floor.
With the arena floor long gone, most of the hypogeum is completely exposed. Grass grows where tunnels and cages once were. However, much of the underground structure around the outer rim of the arena is fairy well preserved. That's the part you'll tour.
Exploring this area gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the intense preparation that went into producing the public spectacles. You'll stroll down the same central corridor that the gladiators once strode. You can see canals that were used to launch mock sea battles when the Colosseum was flooded and animal cages.
Parts of hypogeum are reconstructed, like the lifts and elevator shafts that once took the animals and gladiators up to the arena level, to make it easier to imagine how things operated down here. It's dark, but not nearly as black as it would've been 2,000 years ago when the arena floor was intact.
The hypogeum definitely wasn't glamorous. It was dark and smelly, with little air circulation. According to the Smithsonian, the hypogeum:
was as hot as a boiler room in the summer, humid and cold in winter, and filled all year round with strong smells, from the smoke, the sweating workmen packed in the narrow corridors, the reek of the wild animals ... The noise was overwhelming — creaking machinery, people shouting and animals growling, the signals made by organs, horns or drums to coordinate the complex series of tasks people had to carry out, and, of course, the din of the fighting going on just overhead, with the roaring crowd.