As promised in last week’s post, we will be visiting the Colosseum this week.
This is the largest surviving ancient Roman structure in the world. For the best approach, and to get a sense of the buildings size and scale, walk towards it from the Via dei Fori Imperiali. If you have the time, take a walk around the building in order to take in the exterior architectural details. Given that this amphitheatre’s interior has been severely damaged over its near 2,000 years of existence, it is almost essential to either take a tour or use an audio guide to, well, guide you through the Colosseum. I would recommend Rick Steves’ free audio guide, which can be found at https://www.ricksteves.com/europe/italy/rome.
Last week I told you about the Roma Pass, which will give you free entry to the first two attractions and concessions for any others that are part of this program; luckily, the Colosseum is part of this, so you can save yourself €12, and getting to the Colosseum will be free using the pass. Note that entry tickets to the Colosseum also include entry to the Roman Forum/Palatine Hill.
There is an alternative to the Roma Pass, called the Archeologia Card, which is valid for 7 consecutive days and allows free entry to a number of archeological sites, including the Colosseum. This card costs currently €27.50, but does not include free transit. For most people the best bet is the Roma Pass, as it covers more tourist attractions and the free transit alone makes it worth it.
If you are not buying the Roma Pass (why wouldn’t you) you can purchase your Colosseum entry tickets online at http://www.coopculture.it.
Using you Roma Pass (or a conventional transit ticket), a number of busses will get you to the Colosseum, as well as Tram #3 or Line B of the Metro; the choice is yours.
The Colosseum opens daily at 08:30hrs and depending of the time of year you visit it closes as early as 16:30hrs during winter, for more details on the opening times for your visit go to http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/archaeological-site/colosseum. Free admission, as is the case with so many attractions these days, is on the first Sunday of the month. Be warned though, it will be ultra busy on those days.
In order to beat the crowds visit as soon as the Colosseum opens or go later in the day, and try to avoid visiting on Wednesdays, when St. Peter’s Basilica is only open to ticketed visitors in the morning, all other attractions in Rome tend to be busier on that morning.
Also note that large backpacks and any other bulky items are not allowed inside the Colosseum. Medium and small bags will have to go through a security screening and you may be asked to open your bag for physical inspection.
If you have a reservation please ensure you arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your reservation time to avoid missing your spot.
Practical matters over, let look at some of the history of this arena.
The inside of the Colosseum must have been amazing in its heyday; marble benches, some of which can still be seen, for the 50,000 or so spectators to sit on. Only during the later days of the empire were cushions provided, games could last for days, so I am sure they were more than appreciated. Entry was free for all Roman citizens and seating in the amphitheatre was arranged by rank, the higher your rank the closer to the action you were seated. Lower ranks, including women, had to make do with the nosebleeds (or sitting in the gods as it is called in the UK, which I much prefer). The emperor and his family and the Vestal Virgins had their own box.
At the top of the building you can still see the shelves and holes for the poles that held the large canopy, which is called the “Velarium”. The Velarium was huge and took 100 sailors from the Imperial fleet to move, and thanks to the beating of a drum they all moved in perfect unison.
It speaks volumes about the Roman organization in general when you consider the tickets handed out for the Colosseum at the time. Each ticket was a wooden plague and carved into it were the entrance number, aisle number, row and seat number. To this day it is still the system by which we all find our seats either at a concert, a sports event, or in the theatre.
Underneath the middle of the arena was a labyrinth of passages in which exotic animals like hippos, lions and elephants were held until they were elevated up through trap doors onto the arena floor. In other parts of the underground tunnels criminals and gladiators alike were waiting for their turn to enter the arena. In addition, some of the channels carried water into the arena for the naumachia, where criminals would fights to the death in re-enactments of naval battles, complete with scaled down galleys.
Christians, despite popular believe, were apparently not killed in the arena as part of the spectacle.
The amphitheatre has been known as the Colosseo since the 8th century. Building on this vast arena began in AD72 under Vespasian and its inaugural games took place in AD80 under his son Titus. These games lasted around 100 days – yes it’s not a typo, I truly meant to write 100!
The Colosseum was only partially finished at that time and completion followed under Titus’ brother Domitian. Games and fights were held in the arena right up to the end of the Roman Empire, with the last recorded event having taken place in the 6th century.
During the Middle Ages it became a fortress and during the 15th century a quarry, providing building stones for the finest palaces in Rome. Eventually it fell into ruin and was overgrown. Pope Sixtus V wanted it demolished for town-planning purposes, but under Benedict XIV it was declared a sacred monument dedicated to the Passion of Christ and in the 19th century conservation started in earnest on this amazing monument.
Despite the fact that a lot of the Colosseum is no longer in place, you can still make out the benches, the entry ways where people would have filed down into the different seat rows. You get a sense of the atmosphere that must have existed inside, people finding their seats, perhaps meeting family and friends or neighbours. Vendors squeezing through the crowds shouting their wares, money changing hands. Yes the games were bloody and violent, but that was nothing unusual in those days, life was a lot more violent for the average person in those days. And let’s not forget, gladiators were the celebrities of their day; they were hailed and revered by the people.
There is a lot more to discover about this ancient monument, so I encourage you to read up about it, and if you are planning a trip to Rome, immerse yourself and try to find some of the smaller more hidden little details in the Colosseum, which will help to bring this big space alive.
Next week I will show you my favourite statues in Rome; Bernini’s Angels.