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.
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.
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.
Piazza del Colosseo, Rome, Latium, 00184, Italy