Ultimate Guide To Rome’s Colosseum In 2023 + Tips!

If you’re planning a trip to Rome, you won’t want to miss the Colosseum. It’s the largest amphitheater in the ancient world and is the very symbol of the Roman Empire. To help you have the best visit, I’ve put together a detailed guide to help you plan your visit to this incredible structure.

In this guide, I’ll provide you with an overview of the remarkable history and construction of the Colosseum. You’ll learn all about the gladiatorial games that once entertained rabid Romans and get insider tips on everything you need to see inside the Colosseum.

Whether you’re a history buff or just someone who appreciates stunning architecture, this guide has got you covered.

aerial view of the Colosseum

When visiting Rome, the Colosseum is an essential destination that you won’t want to miss. However, it’s also an incredibly popular spot, so it’s important to know some must-know tips for getting tickets and reservations. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!

It’s worth noting that the term “Colosseum” is actually a nickname. The formal name of this impressive structure is the Flavian Amphitheater.

This historic amphitheater has been standing in Rome for nearly 2,000 years and is a true marvel of ancient architecture. In addition to visiting on your own, I also recommend considering some guided tours that will enhance your experience of the Colosseum.

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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 and brilliant engineering.

The Colosseum embodies ancient Rome, especially its lust for violence and entertainment. Killing became a spectator sport.

On a Colosseum visit, you’ll be 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.

facade of the Colosseum

History Of The Colosseum

1. Construction

From its monarchical foundations in the 8th century BC, to the collapse of the Empire in the 5th century AD, Rome was the city and civilization that dominated the ancient world.

The Colosseum was built under the reign of three emperors, all whom came from the Flavian family. They foot the bill for construction, mostly with booty from the fall of Jerusalem.

In 72 A.D., Emperor Vespasian began constructing the Colosseum. It was continued by his son Titus. The Colosseum was finally inaugurated in 80 A.D. under the reign of Emperor Domitian, who later added the hypogeum, or basement.

the Roman Colosseum

In other words, the massive amphitheater was built in an incredibly speedy and efficient 8 years using slave labor. The slaves were specialized. Many were skilled freemasons (except they couldn’t go on strike).

The Colosseum was built with travertine marble, quarried from nearby Tivoli. Travertine was porous and hence a good building material. As it was quarried, the blocks of marble were marked so the builders knew exactly where they would go in advance.

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 Emperor Nero, who had bankrupted Rome with his maniacal spending.

view of the Colosseum tiers and the hypogeum

Nero was a murderous criminal who may have killed his step brother, mother, and various senators. But Nero is most infamous as a suspected arson in the Great Fire of 64. Many Romans thought Nero wanted to grab some prime real estate for yet another gaudy pleasure palace.

Vespasian sought to shift Roman architecture away from imperial palaces to public buildings to be enjoyed by all citizens. But a shrewd Vespasian also used the Colosseum as a propaganda tool. It displayed the power of the Roman state.

It also increased the popularity and prestige (or “dignitas”) of the emperors. And kept the masses happy and entertained.

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.

statues on display at the Colosseum
statues on display at the Colosseum

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. It 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 decorations and building material of 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.

the Colosseum, a must see site in Rome

2. What Did the Colosseum Look Like In Ancient Rome?

The Romans were the best engineers on the planet. The Colosseum was built using cutting edge building techniques.

Romans invented the technique of building with lightweight concrete. This material allowed them to build on a large scale and use design elements like rounded arches.

READ: Guide To Hadrian’s Villa Adriana in Tivoli

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 dome to shade spectators.

view of the Colosseum and its hypogeum or basement
view of the Colosseum and its hypogeum or basement

Seating was strictly segregated, but free. 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 Vespasian (and 24 elephants).

column capital inside the Colosseum
column capital inside the Colosseum

3. Games Of the Colosseum: Blood Sport

Inside were the jaw dropping spectacles and bloody contests. The games are believed to have started in the 3rd century B.C. At their peak, there were 162 games in Rome, occurring on public holiday, religious holidays, and imperial holidays.

The games were 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.

The first people to arrive at the stadium were usually the bookies. They would head to the gladiators’ barracks across the street to get the low down on who was most fit, who was ill, etc.

The actual spectators would arrive around 10:00 am on game day.

Staging of the Games: A Crescendo of Gore

The games were blockbuster entertainment. They were expertly stage managed, slowly and inexorably building to a grand crescendo.

In the morning, there were warm up acts, animal tricks, and staged hunts. The wild animals that were killed represented Rome itself, as the conqueror of wild lands.

At midday, as more people entered the stadium, there were comic performances. Women dressed as gladiators would battle dwarves. Sometimes criminals were executed. And there were the animal contests described above.

Then there would be an intermission. The main event — the gladiator duels — occurred in the afternoon. Trumpets would flare, drums would pound in anticipation. Then the gladiators marched into the performance arena.


2. The Animals

The Romans had a fascination with exotic beasts, often capturing them on their conquests and bringing them home for entertainment in the games. These animals included lions, giraffes, tigers, crocodiles, ostriches, dogs, rhinos, and elephants.

The animals were often starved before being pitted against each other in the games, with contests featuring multiple beasts happening simultaneously. In some cases, professional hunters dressed and armed themselves as they would in the wild, engaging in battles with the animals.

One of the most gruesome stories associated with the Colosseum is the discovery of an elephant mass graveyard, likely a result of the preference for slaughtering elephants in the games. Legend holds that 5,000 animals were killed on the opening day of the Colosseum, though it was likely over the first 100 days of the games.


3. The Gladiators

In ancient Rome, the gladiators were the ultimate sports heroes, revered by the masses. Although many of them were slaves or prisoners of war who were sold to gladiator schools, some free men and even aristocrats became gladiators as well.

At the school, they would focus on mastering a particular type of combat. The gladiators were trained to wield a variety of weapons including swords, javelins, and tridents.

Their legendary battles, often ending in death, were the main attraction for every Roman spectator.

the central corridor where the gladiators strode
the central corridor where the gladiators strode

Before the games, the gladiators would enter the arena and walk around one full revolution of the ellipse, allowing the spectators to get a good look at them.

They would then stop in front of the imperial box and greet the emperor, though the oft-quoted phrase “we who are about to die for you, salute you” is likely a work of fiction.

After their entrance, the gladiators would retreat to the hypogeum, the locker room and staging area beneath the arena, to prepare for the games. Each time they fought, the gladiators earned money, with the winners receiving a palm frond and a cash prize. For outstanding performances, a laurel crown was awarded.

Interestingly, even criminals and slaves who survived as gladiators for 3-5 years were set free.

view of the Colosseum

Guide To The Colosseum: What To See

Here’s my guide to everything you need to see at the Colosseum:

1. Exterior Facade

The Colosseum’s elliptical shape was designed to offer an optimal view to all spectators. It measures 188 meters on its longer axis and 155 meters on its shorter axis.

The Colosseum’s three levels of arches are stacked on top of each other, with Greek columns transitioning from Doric to Ionic to Corinthian styles as they ascend to the top level, called the “attic” level. The Vellurium, or retractable awning, was placed on top of the attic.

There has been a long-standing debate about whether the Colosseum could have been domed. However, the Romans were able to use a system of horizontal sails to protect the seating area from rain or intense sun.

The Colosseum’s ground floor has 80 numbered arches, which made it easy for spectators to find their way in. Four of the archways were reserved for VIPs, including the emperor, senators, and performers.

view of the teirs of the Colosseum

2. Seating Areas

The Colosseum could likely seat as many as 80,000 people. Roman chroniclers claim they could fill and empty the Colosseum in 20 minutes. Once inside, spectators would enter a passageway known as a Vomitorium.

The word Vomitorium isn’t as gross as it sounds. It connotes moving or expelling. After passing through the Vomitorium, spectators would head to their seats.

The seats were essentially a series of bleacher seats running the entire circumference of the ellipse. Row upon row of seats were built on an incline.

 seats for the senators, who had their full name inscribed in their designated seats
ringside seats for the senators, who had their full name inscribed in their designated seats

There were three distinct sections: 20 rows at the bottom, 16 in the center, and 16 on the top. Where you sat was based on your social status.

The ringside seats were marble. These were the front row Imperial seats. They were reserved for emperors, senators, the vestal virgins, and other celebrities. The next level up was for Rome’s well-to-do middle class.

The highest level was for the plebians, the free Roman citizens. At the very top, slaves and women sat on wooden nose bleed seats or were standing room only.

arena floor

3. The Arena Floor

As you enter the Colosseum, the first thing you’ll see is the arena floor, also referred to as the “stage.” The entrance to the arena is through the Gate of Death, the same gate through which dead gladiators were carried out.

The oval-shaped arena is surrounded by a brick wall that was initially topped with upturned elephant tusks to prevent the animals from escaping the pit. The games and spectacles were held within this space.

The arena’s wooden floor was covered with sand, which served the gruesome purpose of absorbing blood during the violent contests.

trap door where the animals were brought up from the underground basement
trap door where the animals were brought up

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 launched onto the stage as if by magic.

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.

the exposed hypogeum of the Colosseum
the exposed hypogeum of the Colosseum

4. The Basement, or Hypogeum, of the Colosseum

The Colosseum’s underground basement, hypogeum, was the staging area for events. It was an incredibly important area. It appears as a pit space with a labryrinth.

The hypogeum was an elaborate network of subterranean dressing rooms, tunnels, animal cages, and holding rooms beneath the arena floor.

Slaves, prisoners, animals, and gladiators were kept there before their “performances.”

labyrinthian tunnels of the hypogeum
labyrinthian tunnels of the hypogeum

Set pieces and scenes for a performance were also stored there too. Sophisticated man made machines — ramps, trap doors, cranes, and lifts — hoisted them up to the arena floor. Sometimes a hunter on stage had no idea where an animal would appear.

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.

remains of a room used to cage animals
remains of a room used to cage animals

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.

Parts of hypogeum are reconstructed, like the lifts and elevator shafts that once took the animals and gladiators up to the arena level. This makes it easier for the visitor 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.

staircase used by slaves
staircase used by slaves

The hypogeum definitely wasn’t glamorous. It was dark and smelly, with little air circulation.

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 third ring or tier of the Colosseum
the third ring or tier of the Colosseum

5. The Third Ring or the “Attic”

The final stop on a Colosseum tour is the nosebleed seats. After passing through a gated area on the second level of the Colosseum, you arrive at the Third Ring located at the top of the amphitheater.

It’s the highest part of this UNESCO site. This upper level provides a wide view of the Colosseum and the ruins in the Forum and Palatine Hill.

This is also one of the few spots where you can still see pieces of the original outer walls of the Colosseum. The rest were taken and sold after the fall of Rome.

the Colosseum hypogeum

Tips For Visiting The Colosseum

No guide to the Colosseum is complete without some must know tips for visiting.

1. How To Book A Ticket For the Colosseum

The cheapest way to get a ticket is to book directly with the Colosseum. A standard ticket is € 16. A ticket to explore the underground is € 9. You can do this online here.

There’s a € 2 online booking fee per ticket. But it’s worth it to secure your preferred time and avoid the long ticket lines. You can’t visit the Colosseum anymore without a reservation.

If you purchase your ticket at the onsite ticket office, your ticket is only good for the same day. If you are using the Roma Pass, which includes entry to the Colosseum, you just have to pay the € 2 fee to reserve your time slot online.

Tickets sell out well in advance. Book as soon as you know your exact visit date. Tickets are released on a schedule throughout the year. You can see the release schedule in the right hand column of this page.

If you have booked a Roma Pass, the skip the line entry is included.

the exterior facade of the Colosseum

Alternatively, you can book a curated tour with a private tour company in Rome, which is what I did. You’ll skip the line and get a knowledgable tour guide.

2. Tours Of The Colosseum And Imperial Sites

You can take a guided tour of just the Colosseum or a guided tour that also includes the underground gladiator area of the Colosseum. If you’re short on time, you can also book a 1 hour Colosseum tour.

Often, Colosseum tours include the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Click here to book just skip the line entry tickets for all 3 attractions.

You can take a 3 hour guided tour of all three imperial sites. Or click here for an exclusive private tour of the three imperial sites.

If you are having trouble getting a ticket, check the Tiqets website or GetYour Guide.

There are two main lines at the Colosseum for individuals – one for those with a booked timeslot and a ticket, and one for those who want to buy a ticket. Be sure to get in the right line.

tiers of the Colosseum

3. Other Practical Information

Address: Colosseum is Piazza del Colosseo, 1, 00184 Comune di Roma RM


Metro: Colosseo (Line B). It’s also a 20 minute walk from central Rome near the Plaza Navona.

Pro tip: Tickets sell out far in advance. You should make your reservation as soon as you know your exact visit date.


Whether you’re on a guided Colosseum tour or have pre-purchased your tickets, you’ll still need to queue for the security check before entering the site. The wait time for the ticket line can vary, typically ranging from 10-30 minutes, contingent on factors like the time of day and the season.

Guided tours have a special priority entrance. So if you are on one, you will get through security more quickly than if you just have a ticket.


ruins of Marcellus Theater
ruins of Marcellus Theater

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Colosseum in Rome. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:

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