On Sunday, our third day in Rome, we took full advantage of the Colosseum and surrounding Roman ruins with a group walking tour. Our guide gave us a quick exterior tour of the Colosseum, and then announced that our group had been selected to use the Gladiator entrance–not every tour group gets this opportunity, and groups are selected at random on the day of the tour (probably for security reasons). We quickly got patted down at the security checkpoint, and then found ourselves staring down a gigantic, dark tunnel into the arena.
When we emerged out of the same entry way that the Gladiators used, we were at floor level, standing on a platform where the original floor would have been. The underground area, where prisoners and animals were held, was right beneath our feet and we could see straight down into the vast network of underground tunnels. The best aspect of being able to access this area of the Colosseum was that they strictly regulate the amount of people on the platform at one time, so it wasn’t crowded at all and we could appreciate our surroundings without being trampled.
Our tour guide then led us through various weaving passages on the upper levels, telling us gory stories of how criminals were gruesomely murdered by being dressed up as gladiators and forced to fight till their death–all for the entertainment of the citizens. It’s interesting that the Colosseum was just a common entertainment stadium in its glory days. Christians were not actually murdered here, contrary to popular belief. The proper name for this structure is Flavian Amphitheater; the name “Colosseum” is a slang term, originating from how the Romans would refer to this amphitheater to distinguish it from the others: it was the one closest to the Colossus of Nero, the gigantic statue he erected of himself because he was crazy (our tour guide’s exact words).
After the fall of Rome, the Colosseum was used for many different purposes, including a chapel, a cemetery, a castle, a wool factory, and a plant nursery. It was also used as a rock quarry, and much of the stone was stripped and used to build up churches and other buildings. Around 2,500 cartloads of stone from the Colosseum were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica! I was amazed at all these new facts we learned, but my favorite thing was that the entire capacity of the Colosseum (50,000 people) could be evacuated in under 3 1/2 minutes if there was an emergency during an event, because of the vast number of stairways and passageways dispersed throughout the seating area. I’m pretty sure an evacuation that fast is not even possible in modern stadiums.
After the Colosseum, we toured Palatine Hill and saw the Roman Forum (which was the true heart of Rome), the Temple of Vesta and House of the Vestal Virgins, Nero’s house, and the Flavian Palace.
We learned that the only reason the churches in this area were still intact was because they were converted to Christian churches. The bronze door (pictured above) is still the original door. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was left standing because attempts to tear it down after the fall of Rome were unsuccessful. The Tiber river was so high and the pillars were so entrenched into the ground that ropes tied to the tops of the pillars were not able to pull it down. You can still see clear markings towards the top where ropes were tied.
The volcanic basalt stones that comprise a good portion of the Sacred Way are the original stones the Romans traveled on. The multi-colored marble on the Flavian Palace floor originated from all over the world, from Egypt to Asia, and large portions of it are still intact today. Multi-colored marble floors with many different types and origins of marble is something consistent throughout many of the sites we visited in Rome, especially the Pantheon.
The tour ended at the Flavian Palace, overlooking the private arena. Lee and I walked down the hill towards the Circus Maximus, which was Rome’s largest entertainment venue (holding 380,000 people) and the site where chariot races, simulated battles, and sporting events were held. This was also the exclusive place for Christians to be executed. Today, it just looks like a big grassy area with a remnants of a Medieval fortification, but you can still fully appreciate the magnitude of it.
After lunch, we walked back to the Colosseum and walked around it a couple times, admiring the exterior at our leisure. It really is a spectacular place.