Going underground at the Colosseum

Thu 15 Dec 2016

How many times do you go through the Gate of Death in the Colosseum? If you’re on a Colosseum tour including the underground tunnels below the arena, twice. If you were an unlucky gladiator, once. The gate was known as the Porta Libitinaria, and after a game, dead gladiators had a one way journey through the gate and the gloomy tunnel beyond.

Walking through the Gate of Death, I began to get a real sense of the atmosphere of the Colosseum. I had visited the Colosseum a couple of times before, but seen it only as a ruin. The most impressive ruin in the world, of course, but still something belonging to an unimaginable past. It was only on my Colosseum Underground tour with an expert guide that I started to see it through the eyes of the ancient Romans. And one of the many advantages of experiencing the Colosseum on a guided visit is that you can skip the line, which means spending more time exploring Rome, and less time waiting around.

Stepping out into the arena is an awe-inspiring experience. As you cross the arena and look around you, you realise just how enormous the Colosseum is. An average of 65,000 spectators watched the gladiatorial contests, animal hunts and battle reenactments that took place in this arena. When imagining these spectacular events, it’s easy to picture it from the perspective of the spectators, rather than the gladiators or slaves who provided the entertainment. But when you stand in the arena and look up, you understand how daunting it must have been. Even for gladiators who had fought in other amphitheatres, the sheer size of the Colosseum would have been a shock.

Walking into the vast, noisy arena and having to fight for your life beneath a blazing sun sounds bad enough, but the Romans were good at adding the occasional sadistic twist to their entertainment. When ordinary gladiatorial contests became too mundane, there were reenactments of Greek myths. To represent Icarus’s flight towards the sun (and his fall), a man would be catapulted to his death across the arena. The Prometheus reenactment was crueller still. In the myth, Prometheus is tied to a rock and an eagle slowly devours his liver. In the Colosseum they took some artistic liberties with the myth and replaced the eagle with a bear. The unfortunate victim would be tied up and slowly mauled to death by the bear, which had been starved beforehand to make it more aggressive. The bear was also kept on a chain and pulled back mid-mauling, to ensure the death would be long and drawn-out – thus providing more entertainment.

A visit to the Colosseum is full of vivid details and stories. These anecdotes would be fascinating even if you were only reading them in a book, but standing in the same place where thousands of people fought and died is a much more profound experience. Descending into the tunnels below the arena, you continue to walk in their footsteps, while also gaining a greater understanding of how the Colosseum worked.

The underground tunnels (hypogeum) have only recently been opened to the public. Now you can explore the hidden parts of the Colosseum on a journey through the tunnels, and go behind the scenes. The network of tunnels involved multiple lifts and trapdoors, and an impressive amount of machinery and manpower was required to start the show. The area beneath the arena would have been infernally hot, with little ventilation, and you can imagine the slaves and gladiators sweating and suffering in the dark lifts and tunnels. The lions and tigers that sometimes took part in the spectacles were kept in cramped cages before making their dramatic entrance through a trapdoor in the arena.

Experts have made a wooden reconstruction of the massive lift used to transport the animals. Seeing this modern reconstruction juxtaposed with the crumbling remains of the tunnels really helps you to imagine what it would have been like, especially as your guide tells you stories of the games. Exploring the tunnels with a guide brings the past vividly to life, as you learn of the mechanics behind the staged sea battles, and the remnants that are still being uncovered by archaeologists today. Recent discoveries include fruit seeds, jewellery and gaming dice that were lost or discarded by spectators, and which ended up in the tunnels. These findings may not be as exciting as gory battles, but they give us some insight into the people who came to watch the games – spectators who liked to have a snack and gamble during the intervals. The visit is full of interesting little details like this, humanising the past.

The tour ends overground, with exclusive access to the third tier. This is effectively the top level of the Colosseum, so the seats up here were not the most desirable. Wealthy Romans, and of course the emperor himself, would have sat as close to the action as possible. But the advantage of the third tier is that it gives you a spectacular view of the Colosseum, and a panorama extending beyond the amphitheatre to the rooftops of Rome, and even the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill, and the distant hills beyond Rome. Standing at the top of the Colosseum beneath a beautiful blue sky, the tunnels seem to belong to another world.

This view of the Colosseum adds a new fascinating perspective to Ancient Rome. You see this amazing monument from so many angles, through the eyes of the spectators, the slaves and the gladiators. Now, whenever I walk past the Colosseum, I remember my underground journey and feel lucky to have had such a unique experience.

~by Alexandra Turney~

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