The Roman Colo-freaking-sseum. It was finally about to happen. I had waited almost 18-years of my life after the fateful day when I picked up one of those ginormous glossy “History of Ancient Rome” books bigger than my torso that, in all honesty at age 8, was fascinating only because of the nifty section chock full of weaponry. My eyes were dazzled by the scenes of brutal arena combat, the fascinating architecture, the kick-ass photos of armor and weapons, and the perfectly executed warfare of the Romans.
Oh, and of course the pages that would show a cut out comparison of the exterior and interior, with the ever hilarious images of a person on an ancient toilet going #2.
Hey, it was funny to my immature miniature-self ages ago. It also made Ancient Rome and the colosseum a fantastical obsession. Not the poo part of course, but the combat and architecture. Now, mind you, to my 8-year old brain it didn’t seem possible that I would ever lay eyes upon the real deal, even if my imagination would take me into the center of the blood-stained arena to battle it out against ruthless gladiators and vicious tigers to the roars of thousands.
Mainly, it was lil’ Ryan in the woods leaping and jumping and slashing at make-believe warriors with a stick. And after a long day of being the hero of the Roman world, I would return home to normal life where none of that really existed.
Just a young boy’s silly fantasy.
Until fantasy became reality 18 years later, and my Walks of Italy tour group was standing under the tall archway of one of the 76 entranceways into the Colosseum of Rome. We had just explored the Roman Forum in its entirety, but all the while I was thinking about the second half of the tour.
I had unknowingly stumbled across the Colosseum by accident days before while lost in Rome, trying to find a hostel, until I glanced up from my phone’s map and saw the towering structure silhouetted by the setting sun behind it. The child-like giddiness struck me, and no matter how tired I was from wandering lost all day, I couldn’t help but walk around that ancient wonder at least once before moving on. I had already set up a tour for the Colosseum before I arrived in the city, but it finally hit me once I found myself standing beneath the arch.
So, come with me as I take you through my own childhood dream come true on my tour from the depths of the hypogeum, to the apex of the Flavian Amphitheater below!
HISTORICAL NOTE: Each one of the entrances into the Colosseum was marked with numbers above, and shards of pottery which acted as tickets marked which entrance you would enter to make seating 50,000-80,000 spectators fast. Construction began in 70AD by Emperor Vespasian and completed in just 10 years by 80AD by Emperor Titus. Though it is known as the Colosseum, the actual name is the Flavian Amphitheater. It was referred to later on as the Colosseum because of the Colossus, or gigantic statue of Nero which once stood beside it.
After we entered through the entrance archway, one of only a few still open to enter through, we bypassed the line that stretched nearly a hundred yards inside (hehe, suckers) and since we were on this VIP tour, we went straight through the interior gate past everyone. Once through, we were led outside again through another gate specifically for out tour and into a small clearing near the entrance that gladiators would pass through.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Those gaping holes in the columns and arches above you see we actually made from pillaging the Colosseum after Rome fell and the invaders striped everything precious, including the iron brackets that used to wrap around all of the supports. In the later years, those wretched and greedy Popes (sorry, but they were greedy) stripped whatever marble was left in the Colosseum to outfit their own structures.
Before entering the Colosseum we halted to get a brief lesson (though I was anxious like a little kid) and it was explained that after a massive earthquake, parts of the exterior wall collapsed which is why it now stands incomplete, or that it was also used as a stone quarry itself and stone was stolen from it. What punks. The massive brick triangle was added to support the walls and prevent further collapse.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Sometime around 1789, a swell guy by the name of Pope Benedict XIV decided to slap that big ole’ cross above onto the Colosseum. At first, I assumed it was just the church claiming everything as their own because they liked to do that back then, but plaques like these marked a building to pretty much state, in words like MC Hammer used, “Can’t touch this!”
I will admit — as I walked though the tunnel and onto the platform the stretched out like the original arena battlefield, my imagination got the best of me. Though I did’t start fighting off throngs of blood-thirsty imaginary gladiators where the rest of the group would think I’m a lunatic, it played out in my head as such. From the outside, the Colosseum is quite something to behold, but you don’t experience just how freakin’ big it is and just how overwhelming it is until you stand inside.
We were on the arena floor. I was in the Colosseum. I couldn’t believe it.
This is my I-know-those-people-wish-they-were-on-the-arena-floor-too selfie.
Imagine 50,000-80,000 rabid spectators screaming as you entered the arena — screaming for blood and battle. Your blood. Through the coin-sized sights in your helmet, which baked your head like a kiln under the heat of the high Roman sun, you might have seen any frightening scenario waiting before you. The
HISTORICAL NOTE: Colosseum held events of large-scale re-enactments from famous Roman conquests, to full-scale ship battles, to the parade and slaughter of even 9,000 different exotic animals in one day. However glorious it was to stand on that platform of sand, it was also a heavy experience knowing that the ground that once stood there glistened with the blood of thousands. As a gladiator, this was hell. Though some, whether it be from owed debts or to seek fame, chose to fight in the largest arena the world had seen.
And I thought getting on stage to play trombone in elementary school was terrifying.
Soon we were led out of the arena and descended into the underground and through dimly lit stone hallways. Unlike the fine craftsmanship that would have gone into the architecture above and the portions adorned with marble, here the structure was crude and uneven.
We had entered the Hypogeum, the labyrinth beneath the arena, the underworld of gladiators and animals. There was no need to make it look pretty down here or to worry about what it looked like, most of the time it was pitch-black, besides an occasional lamp passing by as the gladiators awaited combat. There was no constant flame light here since it was filled with animals and with gladiators and would most likely suffocate them.
Our guide sat us all down on the ancient stones beside massive wood columns, now which support the mock aren floor, but previously were a part of an elevator that could bring you into the arena. As she explained what life was like in the hypogeum, all information I gobbled up of course, I also couldn’t help but wander off.
And yes, I wandered off a bit past those ropes that you are supposed to stay behind…
As I walked around, the voice of our guide faded and I found myself wandering alone. The noise from above the Hypogeum was barely noticeable, and I was in complete awe passing thought the maze of crumbling passageways in this sprawling underworld.
Birds here and there sipped water trapped in circular cut-outs — which used to hold the wooden beams of elevators that could bring up animals, props and set pieces, gladiators, and even special effects.
Rome had special effects for their spectacles. Kinda’ crazy to think about.
I explored a bit more, losing my place and my time in the experience. I leaps over a deep crack in the ground separating one of the outer chambers which may have once been a stream, and found myself almost in darkness. It was light in the hypogeum now, though once it was covered and completely dark, with the sounds of animals in the blackness from the 32 animal pens beneath.
Here is an excerpt from a description of a photo I shared previously, which was some of the scenes that the hypogeum evoked:
Imagine yourself as a gladiator of Rome, a slave warrior, deep under the enormous Flavian Amphitheater awaiting battle. The thunderous noise of 50,000 rabid Romans rumbles the roof above. You cannot see a thing. Their stomping and shouting sounds the exact same as a storm rolling toward you. It is pitch black, besides the brief and fleeting light of a dim lamp that occasionally flickers on the uneven stone walls, casting long and ghastly shadows which crawl over the ceiling like demons from the underworld.
Somewhere in that darkness, the feral roars from hungry caged lions and tigers echo, haunting that blackness. You cannot see who sits beside you, but you can smell them. You can smell the sun-burnt olive oil on their skin slathered on everyone to make them glisten in the sun. You can smell the sweat beading and dripping from yourself and the warriors around you.
That immense stench of sweat, a salt smell like a vast ocean as if you stood on a beach with your eyes shut — yet no cool breeze to cool your brow or culls from seagulls to calm your nerves. Just blackness and sweat. And in that blackness is the smell of death. Even though none have died yet, many have before you after leaving that blackness. The smell of death is of the piss and the shit and the sweat that happens before battle — the fear takes hold of some more than others and they lose their bowels and minds before being released into that sand-pit of death.
Soon the ceiling will crack open, raining dust and sand onto our heads. Light will pour through the opening and we will rise up to the cheers of thousands. And with that light, we do not rise up to meet life, but death.
Sometimes the darkness is better.”
My imagination broke when I realized I had been wandering around for a while and suddenly spotted that my group had gone. Whoopsies! Another tour was entering the Hypogeum, so I ran off through the hall and up the stairs where I was able to catch up to my group.
We were now heading back up above ground, but not just to one of the upper tiers, but to the very top tier of the Colosseum that was restricted access! We were let through a locked iron gate (oh yeah, I felt special) and were led upstairs after locking it behind us.
It was mind blowing to be walking through a hallway more the 4-stories up in a structure over 2,000 years old, naturally lit by the sun beaming through windows. As we ascended another staircase and came out into the light, the sheer height and scale of the Colosseum hit everyone in the group. We all quickly ran over to the edge (okay, I ran) and looked out over the entirety of the arena.
You really don’t realize it’s vastness until you see it from above. Just look at the people in the distance for reference! It was crazy to think that an ancient civilization, without modern machinery, made something so huge that still stands 2,000 years later. And seated more than most sporting arenas do now.
HISTORICAL NOTE: The people below on the mock arena floor are sitting on marble blocks to show what seating for the upper-class and important Roman citizens sat on. The higher up you got, the lower the classes. Since the Colosseum sometimes held battle with fierce animals like lions and tigers, the arena floor was ringed with a high wall topped with stone rollers that, if something let up to grab hold and escape, would just spin and throw it back down.
Cheesy GoPro selfie was a must.
HISTORICAL NOTE: At one point, the Colosseum was said to have had a retractable “roof” constructed of wooden beams over the seating with sails that could be extended to provide shade from the sun. Of course this didn’t cover up the arena floor, we wouldn’t want the gladiators to cool off.
We had a decent bit of time up there, but after about 10-minutes, and to my dismay, the tour came to an end and we had to leave the top tier. After everyone parted ways, I stayed a bit longer on the main level of the Colosseum that is general access just so I could take in a bit more of this fantasy. Even with the Colosseum teeming with tourists, none of that mattered because it all dissolved away.
The architecture and perfection of the brick-work of the Colosseum fascinated me.
Old remnants of statues or marble pillars lay scattered about. Ones that weren’t stolen.
Though the tour was over and I was about to exit the Colosseum, that experience will forever be one of the most gnarly and memorable attractions I had been to. Even if thousands of people wait in line to see the Colosseum, being on a VIP tour through the hypogeum and top tier made it feel as though you were only with a small number of people inside of it. And of course if you wander off by yourself like me…
*This tour was sponsored by Walks of Italy but, as always, my thoughts, reactions, and use of the word “gnarly” are my own*
INFORMATION: The Walks of Italy VIP Colosseum tour gives restricted access to the arena floor, the hypogeum underground, and the top tier. Prices for the 4 -hour tour are €89 and include the Roman Forum tour as well. Make sure to bring sun-glasses and a hat, and plenty of water and snacks. Street vendors are plentiful, but plenty expensive as well.