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Is there any place in Rome more inspiring and fascinating than the Colosseum? Until today, this landmark has been widely overlooked by visitors and tour operators. Recently, however, the Colosseum’s administrators announced that visitors will be able to enter through the same doors used by the ancient gladiators on their way to the glories and dangers of the main stage. Tickets for this special entry will be for specific times, avoiding the need for visitors to wait on long lines. Yet, despite this commendable initiative, it is important that Rome visitors are aware that this is probably not the best way to see the arena of the Colosseum, as there are in fact better ways to see the arena, as for example joining a Colosseum tour that includes the underground area, as these also go to the arena without having to join group with more than 40 people.
What is the Colosseum Arena
Today, the word arena conjures images of sports or musical events. But historically, the “arena” was a stage for combat, the gladiator stadium in Rome. The Latin word arena literally means sand, because the stage where gladiators fought was covered by a thin layer of sand. It was here that the gladiators and exotic animals engaged in mortal combat for the entertainment of the Romans and especially the Emperor.
What did they do in the Colosseum?
Therefore, the Colosseum arena was the gladiator stadium in Rome, a place for excitement before the eyes of thousands of spectators. How many people did the Colosseum hold? Some say that the Colosseum could hold up to 80,000 people, a crowd comparable to the present day Superbowl or World Cup Final. Back then, like today, the crowd contained a mix of people from all backgrounds and social stations. But modern fans might be jealous to learn that entry to the Roman Colosseum was free to all. Accompanying the Colosseum’s egalitarian allure was an event, under the masquerade of entertainment and fun, which reflected and reinforced the social and political institutions of ancient Rome.
Throughout the Roman Empire and its provinces, gladiatorial “games” were financed by powerful, ambitious, and wealthy politicians that hoped to gain the favor of the people. But in the Colosseum, the Emperor himself often paid for the games. In fact, for its inauguration in the year 80 A.D., Emperor Titus funded one hundred straight days of games. This strategic generosity coincided with Titus’s intent to build the greatest amphitheater in the world on the land that his infamous predecessor, Emperor Nero, had stolen from the city to build his own private lake. To undo Nero’s harm, Titus’s father, Emperor Vespasian, drained the lake and built the Colosseum. It was a gift to all Roman citizens and a shrewd and calculated move to gain public favor. The Romans summarized this political experience through the expression panem et circenses—bread and games. Satisfying a crowd with food and fun worked as well then as it does now.
The schools of the gladiators
A massive business arose around the gladiatorial games. Gladiators (a word derived from the Latin gladius, meaning sword) were trained in dedicated schools called ludi. Like modern sports heroes, the most skilled gladiators were hired and traded at a great price, and some became rich and famous. In fact, one famous ludus remains standing in Rome today. It is called Ludus Magnus, and it is a short five-minute walk from the Colosseum. In ancient times, the two were connected through a secret, underground tunnel. Then there were the animals, often captured in Africa and Asia, brought to Rome to fight unlucky men on the Colosseum arena. They were often kept hungry and in the dark so the sun and crowd would excite their killing instinct. Interestingly, exotic seeds that remained buried in the animals’ fur often fell to the arena floor. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, and upon the abandonment of the Colosseum, exotic plants of all sorts took root and filled the otherwise empty Colosseum.
The Colosseum Arena: An Ancient Theater
The logistics of daily Colosseum operations highlight the Romans’ engineering prowess. The amphitheater had a sophisticated water retention and drainage system used to control intentional flooding of the arena for the staging of mock naval battles, called naumachiae. The Romans also perfected the retractable roof. The Colosseum’s covering was operated by thousands of expert sailors (because of the complex rigging involved) to protect rowdy spectators from the Roman sun and rain. The Colosseum’s corridors and galleries were built so that tens of thousands of people could get to their seats and leave in just minutes.
Lastly the arena, like a modern theater, was flexible enough to adapt to any scenography. Stages were changed in little time with the help of complex machines, ramps and elevators. One of these elevators has recently been reconstructed, and it can be seen today. These devices were operated by slaves hidden in the many levels below the Colosseum. The same concealed corridors brought new fighters to the stage, keeping spectators’ attention on the show, just as a modern director would strive to do. The Colosseum was, at its core, a theater for scripted spectacles, with one crucial difference. In the Roman Colosseum, reality and fiction were inextricably combined. The blood was real, and whoever its owner, he was not an actor. Life was a show, and it was happening on the Colosseum arena. The show must go on, and the crowds loved it.
Visit the Colosseum Underground
Today, visitors can walk on the arena where, thousands of years ago, blood was spilled and bravado was on full display. The Colosseum’s administrators recently announced the availability of a tour during which groups are guided around the arena and permitted to visit the first and second levels. However, during these official tours, the groups are more than forty people big and the time spent on the sites very little. While it gives the chance to those visiting Rome on a budget and little time to walk on the arena floor, still this is not the best way to experience the gladiator stadium in Rome.
There is so much more to explore. Those interested in a more thorough Colosseum experience, including underground tunnels and the third level (sites closed to the general public), could join a Colosseum underground tour provided by specialized tour operators, employing licensed and professional guides. As weird as it may sound, often private tour operators employ better guides than the official administration of the Colosseum and they have better customer care! In any case, despite their budget, all travelers should be pleased that one of history’s greatest and most intriguing sites is now open and accessible to anyone interested in Rome’s colossal past. You can choose among a wide range of Colosseum Tours.