Rome’s most feared arena. The Flavian amphitheater. The Colosseum. Its reputation precedes it. It’s been years since I have taken a formal Colosseum tour. The underground layer (officially known as the Hypogeum) has only been open to the public since October 2013, and I was curious to see what other secrets were hiding below. I decided to go. And it made quite an impression on me. The small group of us followed our tour guide, Beatrice, a young Italian scholar, as she navigated through the stairs and corridors into the entrance of the underground area.
Walking down into the belly of the beast I felt the temperature drop, it’s as though the lost souls were reaching out with their icy hands drawing me further into the tunnel. When I closed my eyes, I could hear the breathing, snorting, stomping of beasts, pacing anxiously as they await their ghastly fate. Chills crept up my spine and my imagination ran wild envisioning the barbaric horrors which took place here. The cool breeze dissipated as I tried to conceptualize the atmosphere underground. It was sweltering and the stench of urine and fear hung like a thick fog. Torches lined the damp pathway and cast eerie yellow light, hiding beasts in the shadows. It was here where the animals and prisoners alike were held until the inevitable slaughter began.
The animals were brought from each province of the Roman Empire which extended as far north as modern Scotland, then down through Europe, east into Asia and south extending into northern Africa. Due to the significant expansion of the Empire, many varieties of animals were brought to the Colosseum. They were destined to live their days in hot, cramped quarters only being released to fight and eat. The games began early morning and finished at mid-day with a gruesome finale.
The morning ‘battles’ commenced with criminals and prisoners cast out into the arena to fight these wild animals. They were usually naked and meagerly armed with wooden swords. At mid-day, the truly cruel and unusual punishment of carnage commenced. Petrified prisoners were tied to poles, naked, awaiting the release of these ravenous beasts. These men and women watched along with the audience as they themselves were being gutted. It was important for the people to see the fate of those who disobeyed the laws of the land.
Contrary to popular belief, gladiators were not the primary slayers of animals, but rather shouldered the task only for pay or glory. Depending on who was fighting determined what type of animal was chosen. For criminals and prisoners, the animals were punishment, a fate of condemnation by wild beast. Sometimes the captives managed to kill their opposition, however, their demise was inevitable because reinforcements were sent in to finish the job. The type of animals used in this fashion were: lions, bears, leopards, tigers, black panthers, and bulls. Lions were the most popular for this spectacle, and were even triumphant when fighting multiple men. According to Cicero there was a single lion who devoured more than 200 criminals until he met his demise.
When the gladiators fought, the audience was most interested in the hunt rather than the kill. Sets were hauled onto the arena floor, for a more ‘realistic’ hunt. This allowed gladiators a canvas on which to paint their glorious re-enactments. The types of animals selected for this sport included: crocodiles, ostriches, hyenas, wild boars, elephants, buffalo, lynx, giraffes, deer, zebra, and antelope. Let’s not forget about the slaves that were chosen as handlers. They experienced imminent danger every time the animals needed to be moved for feeding. They starved the beasts for days to ensure their ravenous appetites would spark their natural predatory instincts. Animals were released through one of the 28 intricate trap doors littering the center of the arena. Sand was chosen as the perfect ground covering because it easily absorbed the gallons of blood drained from the living. Underground, the slaves on occasion suffered asphyxiation from falling sand when they opened the trap doors. If that were not enough, it was the handler’s duty to ensure the animals would deliver a great show or else they were sacrificed at mid-day too.
The sacrifice of life was unimportant. What mattered was the show. Animals and men alike were solely important towards this end. Take a glimpse of life as a prisoner back then, and learn more about the beasts of the Colosseum. Descend into the silence of the Colosseum underground. Close your eyes and see where your imagination take you.