Halfway down the broad avenue of Via dei Fori Imperiali, I giggled out loud to myself: the Colosseum was right in front of me!
The actual Colosseum!
Three days after my arrival in Rome, and the city still had the capacity to surprise me. I had caught a glimpse of the (almost) 2000-year-old amphitheatre on my first night in the city, lit up from the distance of Piazza Venezia. Now, here it was towering in front of me, bright and imposing in the midday sun.
I would be going inside the Colosseum itself, but not quite yet. As part of The Roman Guy’s VIP-style Colosseum Underground Tour, my first stop was the Roman Forum, the crumbled ruins of Ancient Rome I had glimpsed on my walk from the Centro Storico.
This had been the heart of Ancient Rome, a bustling collection of temples, senate buildings, and public spaces – the ‘downtown’ of the city, so to speak. As we filed in through the ticket gate, our guide, Laura, informed us of a well-known saying in Rome; it’s one that claims the Barberinis did more damage to the city than the ‘barbarians’ who first sacked the city in 410 AD.
The saying exists because one of the reasons the area is in ruins today is that during the Middle Ages, the Barberini papal family plundered the old city for its marble. (If you visit the Vatican, you’ll see plenty of the smooth white stone there!).
It may be in ruins, but the Roman Forum was still an incredible place to experience.
Seeing the archway where Marc Anthony gave his speech to the senate after the murder of Julius Caesar was mind-blowing. I’d learned about it in history lessons, read about it in Shakespeare’s play – and that very spot was where it all happened.
As we moved around the grounds, I found myself pausing to take it all in. The very stone path I walked on was one that the emperors and senators walked on thousands of years before. The grassy rise of Palantine Hill was where the legend of Romulus and Remus was born, and where the city of Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC. Later, it was home to Rome’s emperors.
Without a guide, the remains of what was once the centre of the Roman Empire would be impossible to navigate. I could have scanned my guidebook, yes, but I would have missed out on the context, the little details, and maybe most importantly, the enthusiasm that comes with exploring it with a Roman (in my case, Laura, who entertained as well as informed).
After our introduction to Roman history, we returned to the Colosseum – and learned that it wasn’t originally called ‘The Colosseum’ at all.
Built by the Flavian Dynasty and opened by Emperor Titus in 80 AD, the building was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. It was the largest in the Roman Empire, and the entire structure only took eight years to complete – but as Laura wryly pointed out, that was with the help of war booty from Jerusalem, and an army of slaves.
Once inside the Colosseum walls, we walked through ‘loser’s gate’ into what would have been the main arena. I have to admit that at this point I momentarily zoned out of the tour: I was too much in awe, too thrilled to be standing there in the centre of the Colosseum. With the crumbled stands rising around me, I could almost imagine hearing the ancient crowds roaring, thirsty for gory entertainment.
I snapped out of it as we moved onto the first VIP section of the tour: the hypogeum, or the ‘dungeons.’ The basement level of the Colosseum was excavated in the late 20th century, and only opened to limited numbers of the public in 2010. It was dark and damp underground; one can only imagine how it felt to the gladiators, waiting for their turn to fight.
As Leah, Laura’s colleague, explained to the group, these basements completely revolutionized the games: thanks to the introduction of a trapdoor and pulley system, props, wild animals, and the gladiators themselves could be kept hidden until the most opportune moment, then put on show quickly for the entertainment of thousands.
We learned that gladiators fought other gladiators, and only specially trained men fought animals. What I found fascinating was that contrary to modern Hollywood interpretations, gladiators were actually the Roman Empire’s superstars. In centuries BC, yes, they were slaves and prisoners, but by the AD years they were professional athletes, trained at an elite gladiator school next to the Colosseum.
“Bread and games are the recipe for peace,” or so the Roman emperors believed.
Leah told us that the Romans had 186 days of holiday a year (sounds like my kind of place!), with games held every few days. Free tickets provided swift and easy access for 70,000 people, while the animals killed in the mornings were roasted and eaten by the spectators for lunch. By providing food and entertainment to the masses, the emperors believed they could be more easily controlled.
From the darkness of the dungeons, we were led to another VIP section: the topmost level of the amphitheatre. As the sun began to set, the stone walls of the Colosseum turned different shades of gold and bronze. It was a surreal moment, looking down on the arena. It was almost unreal to think of the age of the stones under my feet, or of the walls reaching around the arena, of everything that had happened here over many, many centuries.
I lingered a while longer, as the sky darkened and my fellow tour group members slowly left. By indulging a little bit of my imagination – and my inner history geek – visiting the Colosseum really was like stepping back in time to Ancient Rome, and an experience I don’t think I will ever forget.
NEED TO KNOW
How do I get there? I walked from the centre of Rome to the Colosseum in less than half an hour; you can also take the blue Metro line towards Laurentina and get off at the Colosseo stop (make sure to use the exit on the lower level of the station).
Do I have to take a tour to get in? No – you can buy your own individual ticket that covers the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but you won’t get access to the dungeons or the third level with a regular admission ticket (or get to skip the queue, like our group did!).
How much does The Roman Guy tour cost? The Colosseum Underground Tour costs $99. The tour I was on lasted nearly four hours, allowed us to skip the (very long) queue, experience normally out-of-bounds areas of the building, and of course, get a local Roman expert’s insider view on the whole place!
Please note: I received a complimentary tour of the Colosseum from The Roman Guy, but as always, all opinions – and geeky history obsessions – are entirely my own.