The most spectacular extant edifice of ancient Rome, the Colosseum 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").
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.
From the second floor, 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 (visitable via prebooked tour). 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.
Designed by order of the Flavian emperor Vespasian in AD 72, 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.
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 at night.
Are there ways to beat the 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 long line. Another way is to buy the Romapass (www.romapass.it) ticket, which includes the Colosseo. You can also book a ticket in advance through www.coopculture.it (for a €1.50 surcharge). Or you can book a tour online with a company (do your research to make sure it's reputable) that lets you skip the line.
Avoid the tours sold on-the-spot around the Colosseum: although you can skip the lines, the tour guides tend to be dry or, due to heavy accents, all but incomprehensible, the tour groups huge, and the tour itself rushed.
Outside the Colosseum, you'll likely come across muscled men who call themselves "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 fee. If you must have that photo op with a sword on your neck, make sure you set the price beforehand.