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The Colosseum

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The Colosseum Review

The most spectacular extant edifice of ancient Rome, the Colosseo has a history that is half gore, half glory. Here, before 50,000 spectators, gladiators would salute the emperor and cry Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant ("Hail, emperor, men soon to die salute thee"); it is said that when one day they heard the emperor Claudius respond, "or maybe not," they became so offended that they called a strike.

Scene of countless Hollywood spectacles—Deborah Kerr besieged by lions in Quo Vadis, Victor Mature laying down his arms in Demetrius and the Gladiators, and Russell Crowe fighting an emperor in a computer-generated stadium in Gladiator, to name just a few—the Colosseum still awes onlookers today with its power and might.

Designed by order of the Flavian emperor Vespasian in AD 72, the Colosseum was inaugurated by Titus eight years later with a program of games lasting 100 days.

Such shows were a quick way to political popularity—or, to put it another way, a people that yawns is ripe for revolt.

The arena has a circumference of 573 yards and was faced with travertine from nearby Tivoli. Its construction was a remarkable feat of engineering, for it stands on marshy terrain reclaimed by draining an artificial lake on the grounds of Nero's Domus Aurea.

Originally known as the Flavian amphitheater, it came to be called the Colosseo because it stood on the site of the Colossus of Nero, a 115-foot-tall gilded bronze statue of the emperor that once towered here.

Inside, senators had marble seats up front and the Vestal Virgins took the ringside position, while the plebs sat in wooden tiers at the back, then the masses above on the top tier. Over all was the amazing velarium, an ingenious system of sail-like awnings rigged on ropes and maneuvered by sailors from the imperial fleet, who would unfurl them to protect the arena's occupants from sun or rain.

Once inside, take the steep stairs or elevator up to the second floor, where you can get a birds'-eye view of the hypogeum: the subterranean passageways that were the architectural engine rooms that made the slaughter above proceed like clockwork. In a scene prefiguring something from Dante's Inferno, hundreds of beasts would wait to be eventually launched via a series of slave-powered hoists and lifts into the bloodthirsty sand of the arena above. The newly restored hypogeum, along with the third level of the Colosseum, reopened to much acclaim in fall 2010 (visitable only via a prebooked, guided tour). Since then, however, it's open and shut, depending on the season and recent rains. Check the Pierreci website for its current state.

Legend has it that as long as the Colosseum stands, Rome will stand; and when Rome falls, so will the world...not that the prophecy deterred Renaissance princes (and even a pope) from using the Colosseum as a quarry. In the 19th century, poets came to view the arena by moonlight; today, mellow golden spotlights make the arena a spectacular sight.

TIPS

Are there ways to beat the big ticket lines at the Colosseum? Yes and no. First off, if you go to the Roman Forum, a couple of hundred yards down Via dei Fori Imperiali on your left, or to the Palatine, down Via di San Gregorio, the €12 ticket you purchase there includes admission to the Colosseum and, even better, lets you jump to the head of the looooooong line. Another way is to buy the Romapass (www.romapass.it) ticket, which includes the Colosseo. Or you can book a ticket in advance through www.coopculture.it (for a €1.50 surcharge), the main ticket-reservation service for many Italian cultural sights. Finally, you can book another tour online with a company (do your research to make sure it's reputable) that lets you "skip the line."

No matter what, however, avoid the tours that are being sold on-the-spot right around the Colosseum, including on the piazza and just outside of the metro. It's all part of a fairly disreputable system that goes on both there and at the Vatican. While the (usually young and English-speaking) "sellers" themselves vary and often work for different companies, their big selling point is always the same: You can skip the line. Although this makes them tempting if you haven't come up with any other game plan, be aware that the tour guides tend to be dry or, due to heavy accents, all but incomprehensible, the tour groups huge, and the tour itself rushed. Plan on an alternative way to get past the line so you don't fall into the last-minute-tour trap.

The exhibition space upstairs often features fascinating temporary exhibitions, included in your ticket price. A bookshop is also on-site.

Thumbs Down

Although the Colosseum had 80 entrances, it only had one exit named after the Roman goddess of death—the Porta Libitinaria—which was how dead gladiators were trundled out of the arena. Historians state that most of these warriors did survive to fight another day. If the die was cast, however, the rule was a victorious gladiator was the person to decide to take his opponent's life. He was often spurred on by the audience and the emperor—pollice verso meant the downturned thumb. Gladiatorial combat, or munera, is now traced back to the funeral rites of the early Etruscans when prisoners of war would sometimes be sacrificed to placate the spirits of the underworld. Rome's City Council, in conjunction with Amnesty International, tries to make amends for these horrors by floodlighting the Colosseum by night every time a death sentence is commuted or a country votes to abolish capital punishment. As well as the sellers pushing tours on the piazza outside the Colosseum, you'll come across muscled men who call themselves the "gladiators." They're actually dressed as Roman centurions, but that doesn't stop them from posing for pictures with tourists—and then insisting on a €5, €10, or even higher price afterwards. If you just have to get that photo op with a sword on your neck, make sure you set the price with the "gladiator" beforehand.

    Contact Information

  • Address: Piazza del Colosseo, Monti, Rome, 00184 | Map It
  • Phone: 06/39967700
  • Cost: €12 (combined ticket with the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Imperial Forums, if used within 2 days)
  • Hours: Daily 8:30–1 hr before sunset
  • Website:
  • Subway: Colosseo; Bus 117, 75, 81, 673, 175, 204
  • Location: Colosseum and Environs
Updated: 03-19-2014

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    Italian Vacation Superstar; and tips to save money

    Firstly, unless you want to wait 2 hours on line in the broiling sun, please book your Colosseum tickets ahead. If you buy a Roma Pass, you will walk past the line and right in, and for free. There are, in fact, many ways to save money with just a little planning and no compromise on your vacation experience. Then you can relax and have your photo taken with one of the posing "gladiators" in the Colosseum (are they tacky, or is it just me? Your best investment will be to purchase a good travel guide, which will give you insider tips, free events, and prevent costly rookie mistakes. We researched ahead to find free and inexpensive attractions. If you travel in the spring or fall, you will not only save about half, but you will avoid the crush of tourists. If you will be mainly haunting museums,cafes,and other indoor venues, why not travel in the winter for the best savings of all? If you buy combination packages of airfare, hotel, train, car rentals, etc., you pay less than if you'd arranged them separately. For example, before your flight or cruise to Europe, stay and park packages let you save big over parking in the airport lot, and with much better security. We always use Stay123.com, their prices and service are just terrific. If you book a coastline cruise of Italy with Carnival, or any cruise line really, you not only pay in dollars, but with one price you're covered for the trip, accommodations and dining. When you visit a large city, you could stay just outside the city and go in by train, getting incredible value this way. In fact, if you check out vacation rental homes, these are often just lovely, cost far less than a hotel, and permit you the choice to shop locally and cook for yourself when you like. Overall, if you take a short walk away from the tourist sites, you will watch the restaurant prices decline - but not the quality.(honestly, where can you go in Italy and not eat memorably?) Tourist cards offer public transportation discounts and often include admission for museums and other points of interest. With just a little forethought, we enjoyed our trip and the unforgettable Colosseum, without breaking the bank.

    by cruisealicious, 12/13/12

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