The Colosseum is a formidable place, made all the more so by the thousands of tourists that descend on it daily. We have never been ones for large crowds so it was with some trepidation that we joined our goatee-sporting, khaki-wearing guide Vincenzo for our Colosseum tour.
After gathering together our group of 11 (which, for the centre of Rome, qualifies as ‘small’), we were led through the huge crush of baseball caps and cameras and into the semi-darkness of the Colosseum’s corridors.
Instead of turning right with the large crowds, we continued onwards, following the curve of the giant oval, heading towards The Stage.
Most visitors to the Colosseum are restricted to the first and second floor seating areas, where the middle and ruling classes of ancient Rome would sit and eat, drink, and enjoy the scenes of carnage unfolding on the stage.
Our Walks of Italy VIP Access tour, on the other hand, gave access to the stage itself, a small portion of the under-stage area, and the third floor, where the working class folks would go and which gives you a much better overall view of the arena.
The Killing Floor
We were taken through huge locked gates and down towards a long tunnel that led to the main floor. This is the route the gladiators would have taken as they entered to the shouts and cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd, their voices energised by the free food and lubricated by the free wine given to them upon arrival.
Vincenzo does a decent job of giving us the lowdown on what would have happened out here, which basically amounts to a lot of killing.
A gladiator was a slave and not considered to be a Roman citizen, making him1 less than human (and we should, by now, know very well where that kind of thinking leads) in the eyes of the people. He would be dressed in the costumes of the enemies of Rome, and would have to contend with wild boars, bears, lions and tigers which had been trained to love the taste of human flesh; fire traps that send up huge tongues of flame from the arena floor; and, of course, the other highly trained fighter trapped in there with him.
Walking towards the light, it’s hard not to feel a slight twinge of adrenaline as you walk outside, fully aware that the gladiators would be walking out knowing that there was a very good chance that they could die today, all for the entertainment of the Roman crowds.
Now obviously this happened a long time ago and (perhaps somewhat naively) we as human beings feel that we have moved on from such barbaric times but I do think that the Colosseum should be considered as an example of something very dark that still exists within our nature—instead of rising above the animals, we have often chosen to sink further below them; to turn pain into a black art form, inventing new devices and techniques2 to bring suffering to one another.
Personally, I would have liked to have considered this with an appropriate air of solemnity, not have it cheapened by having the theme music from Gladiator played through tinny smartphone speakers.
But then, I do think too much.
And it was a good movie.
There’s a lot of energy and engineering that goes into killing people in inventive ways.
Underneath the stage is a vast network of corridors and rooms, with tunnels leading out to training camps, animal holding pens, and prop warehouses—all far outside the Colosseum walls. There are conveyor belts and lifts that are hand-cranked (by slaves, naturally) that moved the heavy stage pieces and angry animals from their various storage centres located throughout Rome and onto the stage.
The details are there once you’ve had them pointed out to you, but they would be hard to spot without having someone there who knows what they’re talking about—this kind of knowledge is invaluable in bringing places to life.
Vincenzo tells us about the carcasses of the dead animals that are brought down, skinned, and butchered right there and then, the smell mingling in with the excrement of the many live animals waiting their turn, and all of it brought to a suffocating boil by the heat of the Rome summer.
After the Colosseum was finished in 80AD following 10 years of construction, there were a hundred days of games with each day lasting up to 12 hours, so it’s unsurprising to learn that some of the slaves working below died of exhaustion.
The Roman Forum
The tour includes a visit to the Roman Forum, which is a stones throw from the Colosseum3.
On our way out of the Colosseum, we are taken via one of the souvenir stands and given a sales pitch for one of the hideously overpriced book and DVD packages from the many vendors situated outside. It’s a mildly uncomfortable moment, as it’s very clear that no one wants one.
We reach the Forum in mid afternoon, and the sun really begins to beat down. Once inside, it’s often a race against other tour groups for the next shady spot.
But the forum is where you begin to see the size and reach of the Roman Empire and the history that Vincenzo provides is interesting and, like all good stories, full of sex and death.
Like, for example, the House of the Vestal Virgins. These ladies could not have children and, if they got pregnant, they were buried alive with a candle. When it went out, that was that. They were on duty for 30 years and considered goddesses (though clearly they did not have enough Goddess power to smite anyone who tried to bury them alive).
Then, of course, there is the story of Caesar, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra. We are taken past the place where Caesar’s body was burned and his spirit allowed to rise through the smoke to the heavens. People still leave fresh flowers to this day, a testament to his reign and Marc Antony’s impassioned speech4, which turned his assassination from a “ding dong the witch is dead” into “whoops, we killed a God”.
Vincenzo leaves us in the Forum, allowing you to continue exploring on the ticket that’s included as part of the tour.
Walks of Italy Tours
We have done quite a few tours recently, and with each one we have found that having a guide that knows their stuff really helps to give you context for where you are and what you’re experiencing and, despite a few awkward moments, this tour was no exception.
The groups are deliberately kept small and the access to the ‘VIP’ areas of the Colosseum are almost worth the price alone—not only do you get to see parts not accessible to regular visitors, but you also get to escape the huge crowds that fill up the small general access areas, giving you space to fully appreciate this magnificent monument.
The VIP Access Colosseum tour costs €79 and takes around 3.5 hours. It includes access to both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. We would recommend that you bring a lot of water, as the (apparently) Mafia-run vendors outside charge ridiculous prices. We did the afternoon tour and it was steaming hot so the morning one would probably be a better option.
Our thanks to Walks of Italy for providing our tour and to Vincenzo for leading it and providing his fascinating commentary.
- I’ve used the masculine pronoun as males made up the majority, but there were plenty of female gladiators too. ↩
- Waterboarding, anyone? ↩
- Provided you throw it from the third floor and have arms like a gladiator. ↩
- And, perhaps, to the fact that Caesar bequeathed the Roman people quite a bit in his will. ↩