After spilling the secrets of underground Rome with our readers, Alexandra Turney returns to the blog to share her experiences of the Roman Empire’s notoriously bloody games and it’s grand stage: The Colosseum…
To enter the arena of the Colosseum, you walk through the Porta Libitinaria – the Gate of Death. If you were unlucky enough to be a gladiator, it was most likely a one way journey through this gloomy tunnel. If you’re a 21st century visitor, however, you can walk across the arena floor unscathed, before returning through the Gate of Death to continue your exploration of the Colosseum.
When I walk through the Gate of Death I feel a shiver pass me through me. Despite the warm weather, it’s hard not be chilled by the thought of what took place here. As I step into the arena and see the walls of stone rise up around me, I imagine the amphitheatre through the eyes of the gladiator – a man surrounded by vast crowds of spectators, aware that he was about to face the fight of his life, if not his death. The seats may be empty now, but they were once filled with up to 65,000 people baying for the blood of the tiny man below them, cheering the enemy gladiator, the chariot, the ravenous lion.
Although I’ve visited the Colosseum several times before, this is my first time on a Colosseum Underground tour, organised by Through Eternity Tours. On previous visits I’ve queued up and walked around the Colosseum on my own, without a guide or even a guidebook, and found the experience slightly underwhelming. By joining this guided visit, I’m hoping to gain a new perspective on this ancient monument, seeing parts of the Colosseum that aren’t open to the general public, and learning more about the people who lived, worked and died here.
Our guide, Luca, is an archaeologist from Rome, and an expert on the bloody history of the Colosseum. He explains how the Romans liked to add a sadistic twist to their entertainment. If the straightforward man-to-man combat of the gladiator fights was too simplistic, you could watch a violent re-enactment of a Greek myth instead. The myth of Icarus (who flew too close to the sun) took the form of a man being catapulted to his death across the arena. Prometheus (whose liver was eaten by an eagle while he was still alive) became a man being slowly mauled to death by a bear. The bear had been purposefully starved to make it more aggressive, and if it seemed as though the victim was dying too quickly, the bear would be pulled back every now and then, prolonging the victim’s agony and the crowd’s entertainment.
Luca is full of vivid stories about the games, and knows how to bring the past to life. As we descend into the labyrinth of tunnels below the arena floor, known as the hypogeum, he tells us about some of the findings that have been discovered here, such as a fruit seeds, jewellery, and even gaming dice. Although this may seem like a mundane detail, it makes you see the spectators differently. We may think of the audience at the Colosseum as bloodthirsty barbarians, but they were not so different from us – they snacked and played games, rather like modern-day audiences at a football match. Men, women, and even young children came to watch the games.
But as I explore the subterranean tunnels of the Colosseum, I find myself thinking of the slaves and gladiators much more than the spectators, as in this moment I’m walking in their footsteps. Slaves toiled in the heat and dust, operating the sophisticated system of lifts and trapdoors that allowed gladiators and wild animals to make a dramatic entrance in the middle of the arena. Gladiators waited in the tunnels or the lifts, alongside the lions, bears and tigers that were about to be unleashed. Luca shows us an impressive reconstruction of a Roman lift, making us appreciate how the Colosseum was, on every level, an incredible feat of engineering. You might be disgusted by the cruelty of the games, but you can’t deny their ingenuity.
As I walk along the third tier of the amphitheatre at the end of the tour, I think of the spectators who once sat here, in the cheap seats, craning their necks for a better view. They would have resented being so high up, far removed from the action, while richer Romans – and the emperor himself – got to see every swing of the sword. Standing here today, however, you appreciate the breathtaking scale of the view, as you can see the entire amphitheatre. Look beyond the Colosseum and you can see the statues of saints that line the rooftop of a nearby basilica, and the blue outlines of distant hills. Standing up here, the dark tunnels of the hypogeum seem to belong to another world.
The arena is empty now. The dust has long since settled; the blood stains faded away. Gladiators, slaves, spectators and emperors have been dead for centuries. But visiting the Colosseum today, you can still get a real sense of its history. Listening to stories of the gladiators as I stand in the amphitheatre, or learning about Roman engineering as I walk beneath the arena floor, I have a new appreciation for the Colosseum, in all its complexity and horror. Luca’s stories and explanations have made me realise that the Colosseum is so much more than a ruin. Explore the Colosseum in-depth, and you discover its humanity, as your guide gives a voice to the echoes of the past.