The Roman Colosseum is, without a doubt, one of the most recognizable structures in the world, one of not too many that nearly everyone everywhere could easily identify and name. In person, it is even more impressive, its just over 150 foot height dwarfing people and much of the city. It has existed for nearly two millennia; things we think of as old are downright modern in comparison. And after so many centuries, and so many natural and unnatural upheavals here in Rome, it is still here, and still able to be visited. It is almost incomprehensible.
And yet, despite the majesty – and magnificence – of the Colosseum, it also stands for some pretty bad things. Here, spectators cheered as people and animals were violently put to death for their entertainment. Here, emperors and the Roman elite distracted the plebs into believing their lives were ok. Oh, and the act of visiting the Colosseum is also a pretty terrible experience.
The Colosseum is, both in what it was and in what it is now, a dichotomy of amazing and horrible, and I think it is important to talk about it from both sides.
The Colosseum was completed in the year 80 by Roman emperor Titus, after being started eight years earlier by his father, the emperor Vespasian. As these two were members of the three person Flavian Dynasty (along with Domitian, Titus’ brother), it is also referred to as the Flavian Amphitheatre. Made of travertine, tuff, and brick, it was able to hold up to 80,000 spectators, who packed into its four levels with seating according to societal rank. It was the largest amphitheatre built in the ancient world, and one of the largest ever.
Any visit to the Colosseum begins outside of it, where one can walk around the circumference of the structure along public sidewalks. The outermost and highest wall of the Colosseum only exists today in part, as numerous earthquakes brought the remainder down and the stones and bricks were used as building materials, giving truly different looks as one circles around. Between that and the changing light, it is easily worth some time to find your own favorite view.
Archways encircle multiple levels of the Colosseum, until the highest, where they are either small windows or filled in entirely. At one point, each of these (outside of the ground floor, at which they were entrances, numbered according to one’s tickets) would have had a statue in it, but those are long gone.
If one wishes to enter the Colosseum, tickets are for a timed entry. (Note: a Colosseum ticket also includes same-day admission to the nearby architectural park, which centers on the Forum and Palatine Hill, but there are no in/out privileges so design the day accordingly.) Tickets can include an audio tour, a guided tour, admission into extra spaces, and all sorts of options. Mine is sans tour but with access to one small reconstructed part of the arena floor, and I am given a green sticker signifying that.
Once one passes through security and ticket checks to enter the Colosseum, one is funneled into some fairly narrow corridors along with thousands of other tourists, each jostling for prime position for photos. Tour groups often block the entire path and any signage other visitors might want to read. And heaven forbid one disturb the Instagram influencers needing to get their perfect poses, taking more time and space than one can reasonably expect when sharing a treasure like this with other visitors. (In case you can’t tell, there are few things that get to me more than overcrowded sights, especially those with tourists and groups unconcerned with the experience of anyone but themselves. Add to that my anxiety and claustrophobia, and I come close to a full panic attack at a few points.)
The highlight of an interior visit is seeing the labyrinth of cells and passageways beneath what would have been the arena floor. Here, gladiators (mostly slaves given the choice between that or death) and animals were kept in what amounts to an underground prison. Passages are very narrow, preventing either from being able to do anything but take the ramp or elevator up to the arena and near certain death for the entertainment of Roman society. My feelings on seeing these are very mixed. On the one hand, wow. This is the inner working of the Colosseum. On the other hand, death as sport is sickening.
From here, the visit path heads up some stairs to the first level. This level holds the Colosseum’s museum, with well-done signage, fragments of some of the more details archaeological finds that are no longer actually part of the physical building, and some fascinating looks into what the structure was used for after it stopped being an entertainment venue in the year 523 or so.
My favorite is that it became a fortress used by the medieval ruling Frangipane family, with an artistic rendering of what that might have looked like. (I am less impressed by the Catholic Church’s fortunately-not-followed-through-on plan to build a basilica inside the Colosseum.)
Other signage talks about gladiators, about the different seating for various social classes (although all tickets were free), and about restoration efforts. It gets crowded, though, especially as tour guides and their groups block entire exhibits frequently.
On this level, one can also mostly navigate around the balcony overlooking the arena for an aerial view of the floor, and the cells beneath. From here, it is easier to see holes in the stonework. Some of these are from stones falling out, but more once housed wooden beams used to support awnings and the huge shade canopy operated by Roman naval officers that even allowed the plebs to not melt under the Italian sun.
Few original seats are in existence, although a small section is, and one can see those either from the floor or from this level.
The Roman Colosseum is one of the wonders remaining from the ancient world, and a symbol of both the ancient civilization and modern city. It has stood for nearly 2,000 years, and seems to have some life left in it to hopefully get well beyond that. (Thank you to Roman architects, engineers, and builders for much of that.) It is an incredible place and something everyone should see in their lifetimes. It is also a place where some of the worst aspects of the mighty empire were showcased. And it is crowded, with one having to fight with countless others for the privilege to take a photo.
There are ups and downs with the Colosseum, as with so many other places. If you choose to visit, be prepared for both.
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