You can hardly find a city as inspiring as Rome. You can hardly find a place in Rome as inspiring as the Colosseum. And, once inside the Colosseum, it’s hard to describe the thrill of descending into its darkest heart: the underground tunnels right beneath the fighting arena, where beasts and men alike were kept in captivity, waiting for their turn on the stage. I was in my third year of college when The Gladiator came out and made a sensation. Built by Emperor Vespasian and inaugurated by his son Titus in the year 80 A.D., the Colosseum had long been one of Rome’s most famous landmarks, but the movie — like all great movies — was able to powerfully show the kind of stories connected to this magnificent place. It triggered my imagination — our imagination. Since the release of the movie, visits to the Colosseum grew exponentially. We all love life, but to a certain extent, we are also fascinated by death. Or at least, we are all attracted by whatever shape that struggle between life and death takes. As if, what happened 2,000 years ago inside the Colosseum, could still be telling us something about ourselves.
One can only imagine how gruesome the events must have been. It takes a bit of effort to feel and relive the terrifying effect it must have had on the protagonists — men and animals — of that cruel show, when you actually start walking down the steps that take you into the subterranean area. I tried exactly that, and it was a unique, almost spiritual, experience. I was in a small group of people, and despite the reassurance of being there with Vincenzo, our expert tour guide; I felt an icy shiver run down my spine. I followed the guide attentively and quietly with the rest of the group, and all of us held our breath. An official from the Colosseum administration opened a locked gate for us, and our group left the flocks of tourists behind to enter the reserved area. This step alone was symbolically very meaningful. One minute you’re in the crowd outside the building, and the next, you pass through a heavy iron gate that reminded me of that famous line from the Inferno, by Dante Alighieri:
Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch’intrate
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
It gives you a thrill when you cross the threshold and start walking down the stairs. It gets darker and darker. And you know that with every single step you take, you are traveling fifty years back in time. Every step. Fifty years. Two generations. Then, you reach the even pavement again: a hard travertine stone floor, covered here and there with small metal bridges that cross over ditches and ancient Roman water channels with the water still flowing. The corridors are long and dark, and as I’m the last in line, I feel that I am, in turn, being followed by some obscure presence, as if invisible eyes are watching me. Vincenzo, our guide is leading the group. He takes a couple of quick turns that for a split second leave me alone in the tunnel because of some pictures I’d stopped to take. I quicken my step to keep up with my group. At every turn, a new corridor opens towards different shades of darkness until we reach a point where you’re struck by the contrast between the obscurity coming from below and the rays of the sun that suddenly filter from above. Here, you start walking among the cells and recesses in the walls that — as our tour guide explains — must have been the cages for the animals.
Romans used to import large numbers of exotic animals from Asia and Africa, ferocious beasts that were destined to fight in arenas — not just the arena of the Colosseum, but also in the arenas of the many amphitheaters which featured the gladiatorial games that were so popular throughout the Roman Empire. The animals were often left without food and in complete darkness to stoke their killing instinct for that moment when they were released into the sun’s blinding light, in the middle of the stage, confused by the roar of the excited crowd that often numbered over 50,000 people! At the end of this long dark corridor, we reach a giant piece of equipment that reminds me of a medieval torture device. A sort of wooden elevator (an exact reproduction, Vincenzo explains) that was maneuvered by tens of slaves and used to hoist up the animals through an opening, from the Colosseum underground to the middle of the sandy arena. There were tens of these incredible machines throughout the underground of the Colosseum. The gladiators never knew where the next threat would come from.
I think the fascinating thing about all this is the theatrical nature of this deadly show. The games lasted the entire day, and it was as if there was a script to be followed. Lions, tigers and other ferocious beasts made their appearance on the stage unexpectedly, adding suspense to the plot. Startling turns of events would grip the attention of the audience, no less than what happens nowadays in movies or in modern theater. Except, of course, that this was not fiction. Gladiators were not actors. And what happened in the Colosseum was real life. Staged life. A sort of reality show. A form of ultimate theater. One could argue that the fights inside the Colosseum were, in fact, a talent show where the concept of being eliminated was not a metaphor.
I could not but think about this all, as we left the underground area and Vincenzo took us onto the arena. You are there, standing in the middle of the arena were the gladiators killed and were killed, where the lions made their sudden appearance after days of fasting, where the roaring crowd surrounded you from all sides, and you had no other way out than by killing every living being that materialized before you — if you wanted the chance to live. I considered all these things as I looked at the empty seats. People were really excited about the gladiatorial games, no less than we get excited about sports. Only, they didn’t even pay for a ticket. The games were offered free of charge by the Emperor or by other wealthy men. Generous enough to offer up somebody else’s life. I feel relieved as I turn to see our tour guide smiling, and confidently recounting the history and stories of this incredible place.
The tour continues with a visit of the third level of the Colosseum, closed to the general public, from which there’s the best possible view of the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, which together form one of the largest and richest archeological areas in the world. I could not wait to be there, to walk through the streets of Ancient Rome. Half an hour later we are already climbing up the Palatine Hill, where Rome was first settled. The first huts probably date back to the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. More than 3,000 years ago.
In the following centuries, this place witnessed the growth of what would become the largest city of ancient times, hosting more than 1 million people. It was on the Palatine Hill that Rome’s aristocrats built their opulent residences, and it is from the name “Palatine” that we derive the word “palace.” But the Palatine Hill is as legendary as it is historical. Here, the she-wolf nursed the two twins, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. There is even a date for the founding because legends can be very detailed. It was April 21, 753 B.C.
Public life was played out in the Roman Forum, one of the most fascinating places of Rome, between the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Hill (where the Temple of Jupiter once stood, which is now City Hall). Walking through the Roman Forum you can still admire the amazing remains of ancient buildings; including the Senate — very well preserved — and the House of the Vestal Virgins, as well as the very site where Julius Cesar was cremated! Every rock has a story. And the stories come together to form history. I could not but listen to it with my ears, eyes and jaws open, in admiration of the glorious past of Rome that Vincenzo was bringing back to life with his skillful narrative.
As we walk through the ancient city, it’s impossible not to remain stunned at the beauty on display. But as I walk, I’m also perplexed at a paradox that could be described with a very simple way: on the one hand you have a glorious civilization that realized unsurpassed achievements in the fields of architecture, literature, law, and whatnot, and created things that are still able to impress us for their beauty and sophistication. On the other hand, underneath your feet, as in the Colosseum underground, you can walk through the dark tunnels where those who were expendable made the whole show go on: slaves and gladiators.
This is what I found amazing about this Rome itinerary. It tickles not just your pleasure but also your ethical antennae, so to speak, as you gain the first-hand experience that lightness and darkness have gone together all along. Because, as in a painting, a picture without shadows has no depth. Next time you visit Rome, don’t forget to visit the Colosseum underground with an expert guide. This is a tour that amplifies your whole experience of Rome. And you will look at the Eternal City with brand new eyes.
- by R. Ambrose