A Fresh Look at the Colosseum

I LOVE traveling in Italy, but in some ways it is much harder to write about famous well-known places than it is to talk about more off the beaten path destinations. I could write basically anything about Colombia (link) and people thought it was fascinating, but how many new things are there left to say about the Duomo, the David or the Trevi Fountain?

Or the Colosseum. Even my 13 year old cousin knows everything about the Colosseum (at least that’s what he told me, with an epic eye roll). It’s one of the most famous and iconic landmarks, not just in Rome, but in Europe.

That doesn’t make it any less amazing to see though! Even though I’ve been in and around the Colosseum on my 2006 visit to Rome, I still gasped in awe when we stumbled upon it on a late night stroll one of our first nights in Rome. It’s not just epic- it’s one of those structures the word epic was invented to describe. Pushing 2000 years old and standing strong: a breath-taking monument to Roman might.

But what are you supposed to WRITE about it?

Luckily for me, my buddies at Walks of Italy (you can probably tell I’m a fan by now), gave me the chance to go on their behind the scenes tour of the Colosseum: VIP Access: Colosseum Underground, Arena and Forum. And just like that, I found my hidden angle.

I won’t go into the tour of Palantine Hill and the Forum- although they are both breath-taking and awesome snapshots of ancient history. Although it’s nice to have a guide give you the history, they are also pretty great to wander on your own. The real attraction here was the bottom level of the Colosseum- the dungeon area where tourists almost never get to go.

First though, we visited the stage, where ancient gladiators once matched wits and courage with each other along with the odd tiger or grizzly bear. This is an area not typically open to tourists- and other visitors stared at us as if we were VIPS, or possibly about to start fighting ourselves.

 Then we proceeded down, down down, into the hypogeum, the area underneath the stage. Here is where sh*t got real: This was the real backstage of the bloody performance above. The area where gladiators, condemned prisoners and every type of animal imaginable waited anxiously for their turn to appear on stage.

They may have lived thousands of years ago but the Romans were a crafty bunch. They had elevators and levers for moving around wild animals (tigers, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, you name it). Dozens of trap doors allowed them to surprise fighters above by springing an angry beast at a moments notice. They could even flood the Colosseum floor if they felt like it.


Although it’s now open air, it’s easy to imagine how cramped and hot it must have been- you would have heard water dripping, fighters thumping overhead and the blood-crazed roar of the crowd. You might have been seated right next to the lion cage where a hungry and angry feline wanted nothing better than to snack on your head.

After the damp dark below I needed some air. Luckily our next stop was the opposite side of the arena- the very top of the stands- again an area the typical tourist can’t access. From the Colosseum’s top floor you could see the entire arena, which once held 50,000 plus people. The very top, the furthest away from the action, would have seated the poorest citizens: slaves, the very poor and women (you know, the unimportant people). At least they had the best views:

Other side of the railing

It’s kind of creepy to think of these tens of thousands of people, packed in, enjoying their day off by watching people and animals get ripped to shreds. Then again, I don’t think their bloodlust is that unusual, nowadays we just get our torture-porn fix from horror films and watching the news.

For me, the craziest realization about the ancient past is that those people were pretty much just people- the same as us. It’s so easy to forget, and exploring ancient places always gives me that tiny glimmer of insight. They sat in the stands, ate their peanuts, watched their spectacles and tried to escape from their everyday lives for just a couple of hours.

To me, that individual experience is so much more interesting to think about, and maybe write about, than the size of the colosseum (massive), the work that went into building it, it’s long history etc. etc. No matter what I put down on paper about the Colosseum, I can’t quite capture that. You have to go there and find it for yourself. It’s the feeling you only really get from visiting: gazing up at the sheer size, sitting in the stands, lurking in the dungeons. It’s what makes history real.

Special thanks to Walks of Italy for providing my tour. All weird historical opinions are my own.


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18 Responses to A Fresh Look at the Colosseum

  1. katie April 23, 2013 at 2:19 PM #

    Beautiful photos! And I liked the different angle of commentary, too. It’s always more interesting to me to think about how people in their day would have experienced something. I love that you got to see the colosseum from top to bottom.

  2. Sam April 23, 2013 at 9:26 PM #

    Your 13 year old cousin sounds awesome! What I found weirdest about the Colosseum was how it appears to be round on the outside, but is oval on the inside. I like your observations better. Much more insightful!

  3. Angela April 23, 2013 at 10:27 PM #

    I always skip blogposts about things that have been written about a million times but I gave it a chance today and I’m glad. I like all of your weird historical opinions!

  4. OCDemon April 24, 2013 at 3:59 AM #

    I was thinking the same thing about my inevitable Machu Picchu post, and have simply decided that I shall title it “My Machu Picchu photos are totally different from all other Machu Picchu photos” and then the opening line will be “HA! No they’re not! But now you’re here anyway!”

  5. eemusings April 24, 2013 at 7:37 AM #

    AMAZING photos. What a view, what a perspective.

  6. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy April 24, 2013 at 11:03 AM #

    You’re so right about the difficulty of finding new angles on old places, but that tour sounds incredible! Being right on the stage and seeing the elevators and trap doors would be an amazing experience, even if it would be slightly creepy to be in a place where death was celebrated.

  7. Chris April 24, 2013 at 11:14 AM #

    Your pictures are fantastic. Looks like you picked a beautiful day for it.

    I can’t even imagine the Colosseum at its peak. It must have been quite the spectacle.

    • Steph April 24, 2013 at 11:47 AM #

      It was pouring rain when we woke up that morning! really lucked out.

  8. Amanda April 24, 2013 at 7:55 PM #

    This looks SO FREAKING COOL!

    I’m a history dork, yet sadly I never made it inside the Colosseum on my first visit to Rome. Will definitely have to remedy that this summer!

    And that photo from very top of the stands? Incredible!

  9. Louise April 25, 2013 at 8:35 AM #

    We did the same Walks of Italy tour about 3 weeks ago and it was superb. The Colosseum is amazing place – you have to pinch yourself to believe you’re actually there! Nice write-up.

  10. Bobby J April 25, 2013 at 1:58 PM #

    These pictures are incredible! I’ve been to Italy 3 times and I never made it to the Colosseum! Next time!

  11. Niobe April 26, 2013 at 4:38 AM #

    So cool! I’ve been to the Colosseum twice before, it’s cool too see what it’s like from some other angles!

  12. Alyssa Levinger April 26, 2013 at 10:45 AM #

    What an awesome experience to be able to explore the Colosseum! I really like your take on trying to look at it from the point of view that these were just people, trying to get away from their everyday lives. Seeing the Colosseum in movies, and viewing it almost as a mythological being, makes it hard to imagine it filled with just your average Joe’s. I try to think of the feeling I get when heading to a sporting event or a concert and wonder if the excitement I feel is how they felt about going to the Colosseum. Was it always filled with the same people? Imagine Colosseum season ticket holders? haha. Either way, great perspective and awesome pictures!

  13. Julio Moreno April 28, 2013 at 12:39 PM #

    You’re absolutely right, it’s hard to write about a famous place. I also recently did the dungeons, and they even had that tour at night time “under the moon.”
    I think writing anything you DIDN’T know before going would be a safe bet that others didnt know that too.
    Great pics 🙂

  14. Gayla May 3, 2013 at 4:53 AM #

    Great article and photos. I like the fresh angle. It is interesting to think of the individual and personal experiences rather than just the glory of the empire.

  15. Scott May 9, 2013 at 7:10 PM #

    I haven’t made it to the colosseum yet but I REALLY want to and those amazing pictures make it even harder not to drop everything right now and leave for Rome. Thanks for the post.

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