We have designed different Colosseum Tours with different length and itineraries to meet everybody's expectations and needs. Explore our tours of the Colosseum here.
Before The Colosseum
The Roman Colosseum was built in a small valley located between the Palatine hill, the Oppian hill, and the Caelian hill. There was, in ancient time, a fourth hill, named Velia, that was leveled out by Mussolini during the Fascist era, to build the so-called Via dei Fori Imperiali, which today links the Colosseum to famous Piazza Venezia. The four hills appear to have been taller than they are today, and the valley between them deeper and narrower. Small creeks run down from the heights and although the location was not particularly apt to human settlements, the populations who had first colonized the hills for defense purposes, started to came down and build houses in this area since the VII-VI century BC. Public edifices, private residences, temples and sacred areas continued to be built and to be active on the slopes of the hills for centuries, at least up until the year 64 AD. On this year a terrible and devastating fire burst out and destroyed many populated neighborhoods razing the buildings in this district to the ground. Christians — which at that time were considered just an obscure Jewish sept — were blamed for the fire. Christians paid an immediately toll for this charge and were persecuted. History, however, placed the blame on Emperor Nero. A would-be singer and effeminate poet, Emperor Nero allegedly watched Rome burning from his terrace, and enjoyed the terrific view accompanying it with the sound of the cithara. Some argue that actually, Nero, who was already building a palace for himself on the Palatine Hill, had already planned what came next. He literally confiscated the whole area affected by the fire and made plan to build to himself an imperial palace of unheard proportions and luxe: the Domus Aurea.
Nero's Golden House
Nero immediately started the construction of the Domus Aurea, the Golden House, his new imperial residence, a project that was meant to dismantle any other human construction in the area, and reshape the valley where now stands the Colosseum. In the center of the valley, the emperor build an artificial lake, supplied with water from the Caelian Hill, virtually transforming the location in a gigantic nympheum for his own pleasure. The pool was surround by terraces and porticoes on all sides, which can, here and there, still be seen today. On the Velia, where at that time stood the temples of Venus and Rome, was the vestibule, the magnificent entrance of the palace where Nero had his own gigantic bronze statue placed. This statue is important to understand the very origin of the name Colosseum, which comes from the Greek kolossós, which literally means "statue of huge proportions". In antiquity, the kolossós by definition was the statue guarding the port of Rhodes, which was 33 meters tall, about 108 feet. More or less like the modern Statue of Liberty. The Romans applied the name to all the large statues. Certainly that of Nero at the entrance of his luxurious palace was one.
The following emperors later dedicated this statue to the god Apollo and then to the Sun. But the name, kolossós, remained, and it was curiously transferred from the statue to the amphitheater that Emperor Vespasian built instead of Nero's lake. Nero's death in 68 AD was saluted with joy by most patricians and senators. If Roman emperors were deified after their death and had temples built in their honor for the sake of perpetual remembrance, Nero met the opposite fate, as he incurred in the ominous damnatio memoriae, literally "damnation of memory", a posthumous sentence entailing the destruction and obliteration of all possible traces left by a given person, so that nobody could mention and remember him/her ever again. This entailed scrapping off names from monuments and documents, as well as destroying the deeds of a lifetime. The new dynasty, the Flavians, returned the valley of the Colosseum to the Roman people. They transformed Nero's gigantic residence into a public space dedicated to games and entertainments. The first Flavian emperor, Vespasian, destroyed Nero's artificial lake and on its very site starting building the greatest amphitheater of the Roman empire.
The Flavian Amphitheater
With Nero ends the Julio-Claudian dynasty (Augustus, the actual founder of the Roman Empire, Tiberius, Caligola, Claudius, Nero). The roman senators, the aristocrats and part of the army were unambiguous in their will to mark a discontinuity with Nero and the previous political course. After a turbulent year of civil war in which three different emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) were elected and dethroned, finally an ambitious and shrewd general, Vespasian of the gens Flavia, prevailed and was able to secure his power with the support of the legions. With Emperor Vespasian begins the Flavian dynasty. Immediately after his appointment, Vespesian decides to return the valley between the Caelian and the Palatine hills — now occupied by the Domus Aurea — to the Roman people. He destroys Nero's nympheum and starts the project for a new amphitheater. The emperor's private residence, becomes the public space by definition. This decision responded to both functional and political purposes. On the one hand, the city of Rome did not hitherto had a permanent amphitheater for the gladiatorial games and hunts; on the other hand Vespasian intended to gain support from the plebeians, the common people, by offering them free games and entertainment. His decision obeyed to the logic later described by Latin poet Juvenal as panem et circenses. Literally "bread and circuses," "bread and entertainment," a formula allegedly employed by Roman rules to keep the the masses content and, ultimately, subdued. Whether this be true or not, Vespesian built the enormous amphitheater, later called the Colosseum, on the very site where Nero had created his artificial lake.
Early History of the Colosseum
The very name Colosseum was given to the Flavian amphitheater, as explained above, by association with the enormous colossus of the god Apollo that stood nearby. The whole planning of the Colosseum and its construction was relatively fast, as it took a little more than 10 years. Emperor Vespasian however was not able to see it done. It was his son Titus who inaugurated the Colosseum in the year 80 AD. For the occasion, Titus organized 100 days of gladiatorial games and hunts, but it was Emperor Domitian, Titus' little brother, who ruled after him, who finally completed the Colosseum adding the external orders and building the underground level under the arena. The entrance to the games for all the Roman citizens was free of charge, and so it has remained later. All the following emperors were concerned and worried to offer games to the people every once in a while, to consolidate their consensus. Particularly known for his passion for the gladiatorial games was Emperor Commodus (177-192 AD), son of Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. The emperor himself apparently used to take part of the games on the arena and wanted to be referred to as a gladiator. Early enough however, fires and earthquakes, damaged the Colosseum and severe restorations needed to be undertaken. Particularly, the Colosseum was almost completely refurbished during the first half of the third century, and for this reason most of its structures today date back to this time and to the Flavian era. But alas, the glorious amphitheater was then vandalized by the Visigoths of King Alaric I, during the sack of Rome, in 410 AD, and suffered great damages. New terrifying earthquakes then contributed to the beginning of the decadence of the Colosseum. In addition, the gladiatorial games had started to lose appeal as most Roman nobles had converted now to Christianity and despised the bloody spectacles that there happened. Valentinianus III abolished the gladiatorial games in 438 AD (but not the hunts, the so-called venationes).
Literally every day, you could have your dose of games. In the first half of the IV century a Christian officer working at the Papal court, whose name was Furio Filocalo, compiled a calendar that is still the most ancient Roman calendar known, in which he recorded the days in Rome officially dedicated to games of all kinds. Romans of Rome enjoyed apparently 177 days off a year. Every other day it was holiday. Basically, one day of work, one day of rest. Not to bad — if you were not a slave. Anyhow, of these 177 days, 101 were dedicated to theater, 66 to circus games and 10 to gladiatorial games. Now, gladiatorial games had started at the beginning of the III century before Christ as a private initiative. The first recorded gladiatorial games in history apparently took place in 264 BC, in the Forum Boarium, a place near the Tiber river, during the funeral of Bruto Pero. His sons had three couples of slaves fighting as part of the funeral service. Less than 200 years later, Caesar had 320 couples of slaves fighting in Roman Forum — to such extent the practice of gladiatorial games had grown! Soon enough, publish squares and forum were not enough to contain all the people. But you had to wait for Emperor Vespasian, in 70 AD, to have a dedicated building for the games. And what building! For its inauguration, Emperor Titus, Vespasian's son, offered to the city of Rome 100 consecutive days of gladiatorial games. It was a slaughter of slaves and exotic animals. Yes, because Romans were just crazy for hunts as much as for the games. Everything had started in 252 BC, when a successful general, called Caecilius Metellus, fighting a war against Carthago, brought back to Rome more than 100 elephants. At first it was a curious thing to see for the Romans, but then they grew bored of them and realized that they did not know what to do with 142 elephants. Plus, they were very expensive. So, they decided to organize a day of elephant hunting at the Circus Maximus. It was a bloodshed (for the animals) but they found it so entertaining that they continued the tradition for many century to come.
Ingredients for a perfect Colosseum
Travertine, bricks, tuff stones, wood, iron, blood. Make sure you have a lot of everything and you are ready to build your own Colosseum. Jokes aside, when you think about the Flavian amphitheater, and the fact that it took just a bit more than ten years to be built, you can't but be puzzled — especially if you are a living Italian person in Rome, and you are a witness everyday of how long they take to build the notorious C line of the underground tube. Vespasian, the first emperor of the Flavian dynasty, was just a general fighting a war in the Iudaea province when he was elected emperor by his legions. He thus came back to Rome, leaving behind his son Titus, who besieged Jerusalem. In Rome Vespasian was completely dissatisfied with the condition of the capital. While Titus' troops in Jerusalem were sacking the city and destroying its temple, Vespasian made up his mind to make Rome great again, or at least decent. He refurbished streets and temples and, above all, started the project of the Colosseum on the very site of Nero's stagnum, his private little lake. There are legends around the constructions of the Colosseum that should be dismantled, such as for example the fact that Vespasian might have employed thousands of Jewish slaves sent to Rome by Titus. It seems unlikely that this is what happened, although it is true that he paid specialized hard hats and engineers with the booty coming from the sack of Jerusalem (and particularly the plundering of its rich temple). It also seems unlikely, as somebody holds, that construction workers covered the newly built parts of the Colosseum and then unearth it once the work was complete.
Building the Colosseum
It is hard to explain how Roman architects could build such a massive edifice in so little time, also considered that the number of workers needed was larger than the number the could be contained in a relatively small yard. Well, Roman engineers built the skeleton of the amphitheater first, putting in place all travertine pillars necessary, up to the fourth order, raising more than 50 meters off the ground, and created a wood scaffolding all around he structure. In this way, the workers could be divided in groups and be working at the same time on five different levels including the underground area and the highest level. Thus, they filled up the spaces between the travertine pillars, where necessary, with tuff and and bricks, and created the vaults and arches that made Roman famous. The huge blocks of travertine, a specifically "Romanesque" material, coming from the mines just outside Rome on the famous Tiburtina Way, were held together by placing between them a sort of U shaped iron joint. During the centuries, the Flavian amphitheater have been systematically plundered and pillaged in numerous occasions to retrieve the iron to make cannon balls and other arms. The system, with which they robbed the iron was by fire. They pulverized the travertine blocks and extract the iron. Finally, the whole structure was covered with white marble. The floor of the arena, was made of wood. Sand was thrown upon the wooden floor and blood spread all over. The Colosseum was ready. Despite pillaging, earthquakes, vandals, fire and whatnot the Flavian amphitheater is still standing today. And Rome too. Maybe the prophecy of Saint Bene, a monk living in 7th century England and famous for his groundbreaking Ecclesiastic History of the English People, was true:
Quandiu stabit coliseus, stabit et Roma; quando cadit coliseus, cadet et Roma; quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus.
As long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world.
The Colosseum Arena
The English word "arena", which means "battle stage", comes from the Latin word "arena" that actually means 'sand'. There was in fact sand on the arena of the Colosseum, but we should not think that the arena was made of sand. The main material which the arena was made of, mainly, was wood — and for a very simple and important reason. Gladiatorial games and hunts followed a script. It was important that the attention of the audience was kept alive by surprises, twists and unexpected turns of events. The arena floor was built in such a way to hide sophisticated mechanisms and machines that were able to chance the whole scenography, in a split second. The directors of the games were able to make a tree appear or disappear, bushes, rocks, exotic beasts, tigers, lions and whatnot through the use of elevators, ramps, revolving wood planks and boards. However, the wooden floor, was covered with a particular kind of yellow sand that is abundant in Rome. Romans had the habit to spread the yellow sand as a sign of blaze, not just on the arena of the Flavian amphitheater but also on the itinerary of triumphs, parades, theatrical stages and public squares. At times, sand of different colors was also used in the Colosseum — or normal sand mixed with glittering minerals — to make everything more spectacular. At the end of the games, the sand was removed, and so it was the wooden floor as well, in order to be refurbished and to allow the sunlight to enter the underground area and facilitate maintenance. Colorful sand, breathtaking scenography, plot twists, everything on the Colosseum arena was made to impress and entertain. But certainly, having ferocious wounded beasts jumping around just feet away from senators, knights, important public figures, not to speak of the emperor, was not without its risks. So the whole arena was surrounded by a removable iron fence. At the bottom of it ivory rolls running downwards made it impossible for the animals to jump above the fence. Even if the could, they would have probably died on one of the elephant tusks placed on top of the fence or hit by the deadly arrows of the archers guarding the fence.
- Classical Colosseum Tour: this is a 3-hour long guided tour of the Colosseum (first and second level), which includes the archaeological area of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill – in a small group of 12 people. We also have a private Colosseum tour version of this itinerary that will allow you to explore the ancient city with an expert guide.
- Colosseum Underground Tour: This is 4-hour long tour and covers all levels of the Colosseum, including the restricted areas closed to general audience: third level, Arena Floor, the underground area. This Colosseum tour also includes the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill.
- Domus Aurea Tour: This 5-hour long itinerary is the most beautifu and most comprehensive of all our Colosseum Tours, as it includes Nero's Golden House, with exploration of the underground area and a stunning virtual reality experience, the Colosseum (first and second level) and Ancient Rome (Roman Forum and Palatine Hill).