Ultimate Guide To the Colosseum in Rome, Italy's Most Visited Landmark
“While stands the Colisseum, 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 mighty Colosseum in Rome Italy, the largest amphitheater of the ancient world. The Colosseum is Rome's most famous landmark, the very symbol of the Roman Empire.
In this Rome travel guide, I tell you what you need to know before you go. I give you an overview of the remarkable history and construction of the Colosseum, the gladiatorial games that once entertained rabid Romans, and tell you everything you need to see inside the Colosseum.
I also give you essential must know tips for getting tickets and reservations for this incredibly popular destination in Rome.
The term "Colosseum" is only a nickname. The formal name of this doughty edifice is 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 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.
History and Construction of the Colosseum
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. Rome’s territorial expansion would include nearly half of the known world. Greco-Roman culture would be exported to the far corners of the Empire.
The epicenter of the Empire was Rome itself. Roman ingenuity and aspiration would produce some of the most celebrated monuments of all time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
1. 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
There was a veritable menagerie of exotic beasts used in the games -- lions, giraffes, tigers, crocodiles, ostriches, dogs, rhinos, elephants, etc. The Romans would capture exotic animals on their conquests and bring them home.
Most Romans had never seen animals like this. Often, these animals had never seen each other in nature. The stagers might pit a black bear against a rhinoceros. To get the animal ready for the games, they would (cringe) starve the animals so they were deemed "ready" to fight.
There were multiple contests going on at one time. Sometimes domestic cows would be put on the stage. They would be charged by the hungry animals and it would full be out melee.
Sometimes professional hunters stalked and killed the animals. They were dressed and armed as they would be out in the jungle or dessert. The terrain of the far off places was recreated. Then, it was beast hunter against beast. Sometimes the crowd cheered for the beast.
The preferred animal of slaughter was (blech) the elephant. Legend holds that 5,000 animals were killed on the opening day of the Colosseum. More likely, it was over the first 100 days of the games.
One of the most gruesome stories associated with the Colosseum is the discovery of an elephant mass graveyard. It was discovered during the building of the metro.
3. The Gladiators
The gladiators were modern day sports celebrities, hero worshipped by the masses. Most gladiators were slaves or captured soldiers that were sold to gladiator school. But sometimes free men and even aristocrats became gladiators.
Once at school, they would specialize in a particular form of martial art. The gladiators used many different weapons -- swords, javelins, and tridents.
Their epic contests, fighting to the death, were what every Roman wanted to see. When they entered the arena, the gladiators would walk around one full revolution of the ellipse so the spectators could get a good look at them. They would stop in front of the imperial box and greet the emperor.
Legend holds that the gladiators would intone: "we who are about to die for you, salute you." But this is most likely fiction. Then they would retreat down into the locker room and staging area of the hypogeum to ready for the games.
Usually multiple pairs of gladiators fighting at one time. It wasn't always a fight to the death. Only about 1 one very 8 battles resulted in death.
If a gladiator wanted or needed to concede from injury he would signal the emperor. Legend holds that the emperor would then give a "thumbs up or thumbs down" signal, a motif now immortalized by television. If the gladiator had performed valiantly, his life would be spared to live to fight another day,
But this isn't very likely what happened. One archaeologists has suggested it was a thumb extended to the right or left. Recently, it's been claimed that the gesture was an open hand (let them live) or closed fist (let them die).
The gladiators earned money each time they fought. The winners received a palm frond and a cash prize. For superior performances, a laurel crown was awarded. If they survived for 3-5 years, the gladiators were set free, even the criminals and slaves.
The most famous Roman gladiator was Spartacus. Along with other gladiators, Spartacus masterminded an escape from their gladiator school. Spartacus and his cohorts marched all the way to Mount Vesuvius, freeing slaves and swelling their army.
Legions of Roman soldiers were sent to recapture the outlaws. Although they resisted valiantly, the Romans army finally ambushed and overwhelmed them. Nonetheless, Spartacus went down in history as the most famous Roman gladiator.
What To See and Do at the Colosseum
Here's everything you need to see in the Colosseum:
1. Exterior Facade
The Colosseum has an elliptical shape. This shape provided a good view for all the spectators. On its longer axis, the ellipse measures 188 meters. On its shorter axis, it's 155 meters.
When you look at the Colosseum you see three superimposed arcades or series of arches. The Greek columns ascend from Doric to Ionic to Corinthian at the top. The top level is called the "attic" level. it was essentially the base upon which the Vellurium was placed.
One of the great debates about the Colosseum was whether the Romans were able to dome the Colosseum. We know the Romans were able to extend or retract a series of horizontal sails over the seating area. If the weather looked rainy or it was excruciatingly sunny, they could extend the sails.
The 80 arches on the ground floor of the Colosseum are numbered. A spectator would know exactly which archway to use to get inside. Four of the archways were for VIPs -- the emperor, the senators, and the performers.
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.
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.
3. The Arena Floor
You'll likely first see 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.
The games and spectacles took place in the oval shaped arena, which is surrounded by a brick wall. Originally, this wall was surmounted with upturned elephant tusks. These prevents animals from trying to get out of the pit.
The arena had a wooden floor, sprinkled with sand. The sand was used 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 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.
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."
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. 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Alternatively, you can book a curated tour with a private tour company in Rome, which is what I did. Though the tours are more expensive, you'll skip the line and get a knowledgable tour guide who will likely also take you through the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Those two sites are included with a Colosseum ticket.
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.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Colosseum
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.
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