Visiting the Roman Colosseum

Visiting Rome? If so, be sure to visit the world-famous Roman Colosseum! Experience the grandeur of Rome at the height of its power, and admire the huge, complex construction for such a structure built almost 2,000 years ago.

I recommend taking a guided tour through the Colosseum so that you understand its history and understand what you see on your walk through.  Here’s some more information on what you can expect when visiting the ancient amphitheater. Be sure to scroll to the bottom for more tips!


The Roman Colosseum

Even though the first official name of the Colosseum was the Flavian Amphitheater, the structure got its current name because of its proximity to a colossal statue of emperor Nero, as well as its enormous size. Eventually enough people called it the Colosseum, so the name stuck.

Construction of the amphitheater began in 72 AD; it was mostly built by Jewish prisoners. Made of travertine, bricks, mortar, and cement, the Colosseum was completed in 80 AD. At the time, it was a huge undertaking; for example, roads were built just to allow the travertine rock to be transported to Rome from Tivoli, about 18 miles away.

Built to seat over 50,000 people to view spectacle and sport, the Colosseum was originally the site of gladiator battles, executions, dramas, naval battles, and animal hunting. Before the hypogeum (lower level) was added, the floor of the Colosseum was flooded so that small, flat-bottomed replicas of naval ships could participate in mock battles. In its four centuries of use, millions were entertained, yet thousands of people and millions of animals lost their lives there.

At the beginning of your Colosseum tour, you will go through security. Once inside, you will walk inward to get your first glimpse of the marvelous structure that is the Roman Colosseum.

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An early glimpse into the amphitheater.

Even from its infancy, everything involving the Colosseum was done with much thought and precision. Tickets of  small clay discs, were handed out to groups and organizations in Rome, who then handed them out to ordinary citizens. Tickets were free, but you had to have one to enter. On each ticket/clay disc, was stamped the seat, row, and section number where one was to sit. Also, there were numbered entrances for Roman citizens and separate entrances for gladiators, emperors, and nobility. Seating was arranged via social class. The highest level seating (the fourth level) was for women, the poor, and slaves. The third level was for Romans of lower social class and the second level was for the wealthy. Special seating was reserved for senators, the Vestal Virgins, the Emperor, and other nobility on the first level.

I was absolutely amazed that I was standing in the Colosseum! It was completely breathtaking for me to experience being in such a historic place. I think I walked around the whole place with my mouth agape. Seeing it in the glow of soft lighting and a full moon added to the mystique.

I marveled at the construction of such an elaborate building, built almost 2,000 years ago. In some areas, restorations were obvious, but were done very well, capturing the true sense of what the Colosseum once looked like. The complex architecture and attention to detail stunned me, for a structure so old.

During your tour, you will walk the hallways around the Colosseum that are called arcades. These vaulted spaces are underneath and behind the seating area. They create quite a feeling of majesty and grace with their tall ceilings and architectural details.

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The arcades surround the amphitheater. Here you can see three levels of the Colosseum.
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An eerie look into the arcade on the first floor, at night.

For entertainment, emperors had elevators or lifts constructed to add the element of surprise on the arena floor. From these lifts, gladiators, scenery, or fierce animals were brought out by walking up a ramp to a trap door. A replica of one such elevator was recently made and placed inside the Colosseum to show how this was accomplished. Tours of the lower level include a view of this mechanical elevator and you can see the trap door while you are on the main floor of the arena.

In fact, when you get to the lower level or hypogeum, you will walk by holes that were once part of the mechanisms used for these lifts (see below). Lifts were numerous in the Colosseum, because the entertainment always had to get bigger and better, as time went on.

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Holes in the hypogeum floor, where capstans, or vertical winches, would be turned to raise lifts up to the arena floor.

The hypogeum, was completely uncovered in the 1930’s under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. Here, under the arena floor, you can visit the area that once held exotic animals, gladiators, slaves, and scenery.  This underground area basically consisted of walls, tunnels, shafts, and mechanical devices, similar to a theater’s backstage. Fierce animals were kept down here, making this dark, cramped, and hot area a malodorous and unpleasant place to be.

During the hypogeum tour, you will walk through ancient corridors, most of which have been reconstructed or restored.  It’s easy to imagine gladiators down here, listening to a cheering crowd, before heading up for battle.

Parts of the original floor that have been unearthed by archeologists, are visible on the hypogeum floor. Here, you can see the magnificent herringbone pattern underneath layers of stone. It’s amazing to think how old those bricks are!

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Original herringbone pattern on the underground floor.

Along the arcades around the amphitheater, historians have created displays of the Colosseum. Some of these displays show how the structure fell to ruin and its progression up to today. They also have pieces on display that were once decorations on walls, pillars, or ceilings. Some of these broken pieces have been marvelously preserved and cleaned. The following photo gallery contain some of these broken decorative pieces.

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A carved stone that had fallen off the Colosseum is now part of a small exhibit in the amphitheater.

As the centuries went on, the spectacle of gladiators and animal hunts became monotonous and boring to the Romans. Fires damaged the amphitheater, and it closed for a few decades in the 200’s. The last gladiator battle was around 400 AD and by 500 AD, animal fights were not allowed. Afterwards, the structure was neglected, only to be overgrown by weeds and left to wild animals and the homeless.

Centuries later, the Colosseum was damaged from earthquakes that rocked Rome. Much of the original stone from the Colosseum, that fell off during the earthquakes, was taken by citizens and rulers; not only were the stones used to decorate private homes, but rulers ordered the stones to be used for construction of museums, bridges and other buildings in and around Rome. By the 1700’s, people began to care about the Colosseum again, as efforts to keep the structure standing had begun.

In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV declared the Colosseum a sacred site, as many Christians had been martyred there over the centuries. From then on, successive Popes, along with the Italian government, have continued with restorations and have saved this historical landmark from ruin.

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The plaque from Pope Benedict XIV

Restorations of the Colosseum are ongoing. Just in the last few years, the Colosseum’s stone exterior was completely washed and brought back to its original color; cracks were also filled and minor repairs were done. Today, the Colosseum continues to be one of Rome’s most popular tourist attraction, as throngs of visitors come to see the most famous structure of Roman grandeur.

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The Colosseum at night

Traveling Tips

If you are visiting Rome in the summer, I would highly recommend a night tour of the Colosseum. I scheduled a night tour only after our original day tour was cancelled by our tour company. Boy, was I glad I did! The summer days are hot in Rome, and there is little shade in the Colosseum (as well as the Roman Forum). Although photography is better during the day, you will benefit from a night tour for other reasons:

  • The Colosseum is closed to the public at night and therefore, there are few people in the arena. You will be able to view the Colosseum and take photos without crowds of people in front of you.
  • Fewer people means less noise, which makes for a quieter and more engaging experience.
  • It will be much, much cooler and you will enjoy the tour without the hot sun.

There are lights in the Colosseum at night, but not so many that it takes away from the evening experience. In other words, it won’t be scary and shouldn’t be frightening for young children.

Also, be sure to book your tour before your trip, ensuring that you are getting the right tour on the day and time that you want. Prepare to book the tour a month or more ahead of time, especially during the summer months. When I went to book my tour 4 weeks before my trip, only a few tour companies had openings. So plan ahead!

Enjoy Rome and have a delightful visit to the Colosseum!

Happy Travels!


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