10 Reasons to Visit the Roman Colosseum
Some things should never happen: being in Rome and not visiting the Colosseum is one of them.
The Colosseum is the biggest amphitheater ever built in the world and the most visited monument in Italy. But if you think the amphitheater’s popularity relies only on its incredible dimensions and ancient gladiator battles, you are wrong. The mind-blowing and macabre Colosseum went on to influence the lives of Romans and their visitors many centuries after its glory days.
Still wondering why you should absolutely visit the site? Read my 10 reasons to visit the Roman Colosseum and find out!
1. You can see the hypogeum
We all grew up hearing about the gladiator battles that took place at the Colosseum’s arena. What if I told you this arena doesn’t exist anymore? I know, right?! I wouldn’t have believed it either if someone had told me.
But it’s true, and you can have a lot of fun imagining the shock on my face when I entered the Colosseum for the first time and noticed there was no arena floor.
The Colosseum’s arena was completely removed by archaeologists in the 19th century and has never been totally rebuilt. Only a very small part of it was reconstructed in order to allow visitors to have a gladiator-like feeling during special tours.
YOU CAN BUY TICKETS WITH ACCESS TO THE ARENA AT THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE FOR BETWEEN 35€ AND 45€.
I confess I was a little disappointed to learn that. I really wanted to see the arena that I so often pictured in my head. But it took me just a couple of minutes to drop my disappointment and enjoy the positive side of it: I could see the hypogeum!
Hypogeum is the Greek word for underground, and therefore is the underground level below the Colosseum’s bleachers and arena. It was in there that gladiators and animals were kept before the beginning of each battle, and where 36 trap doors for special effects were hidden. Pretty much the Colosseum’s backstage
Since there is no longer an arena, part of the hypogeum is beautifully exposed.
The underground level looks like a labyrinth, and you can actually walk through it by booking a special tour. If you are a history and adventure junkie like me with extra euros to spare, doing this is ideal. The underground tour is available at many travel agencies. But if you want to keep those extra euros in your pocket, now you know you can still lay eyes on the hypogeum with a regular ticket.
2. Naval battles happened inside
Archaeologists were not the first ones to remove the Colosseum’s arena. The wooden floor covered with sand that Romans originally used had already been removed before to have the Colosseum filled with water for mock naval battles.
Amazing, right? Romans actually succeeded in turning the Colosseum into a giant swimming pool AND having sea battles inside!
The battles, called naumachiae, were not that popular, though; and they completely stopped happening in 1 AD when the Romans replaced the arena’s wooden supports with masonry walls, which made it almost impossible to have the Colosseum flooded again.
Sadly for us, there are no visible remains of the naumachiae. However, with a little bit of imagination, you can still picture them while inside of the Colosseum.
3. It’s one of the seven doors to hell
The Colosseum was completely neglected after the fall of the Roman Empire. When the amphitheater was damaged by earthquakes and fires, no one even bothered to restore it, and the tumbled stones were used instead to build other buildings across the city.
Pieces of the Colosseum were taken away without regrets because, in the Middle Ages, the then-called Flavian Amphitheater (named after the Flavian Dynasty of Emperors) was not considered a monument. As a symbol of pagan times, it served as a quarry for the biggest authority of Medieval Rome: the Catholic Church.
Due to its neglected state and the number of people who died inside – nearly 500,000 people, in addition to 1,000,000 animals – macabre stories about the Colosseum rapidly spread.
After each gladiatorial game, a creepy figure would appear in the arena to verify if the gladiator was dead. In the Middle Ages, this figure would have been related to the ferryman who collects the souls after death, leading to the belief that the Colosseum was one of the seven doors to hell.
Medieval Romans also believed that the Colosseum was haunted by the spirits of deceased gladiators, and that wizards and witches used the special plants that grew within the ruins to make magic potions.
Truth or not, the amphitheater had other reasons to be spine-chilling during medieval times. The arena was a cemetery at a certain point in history, and criminals would have used the ruins to hide the bodies of their victims.
4. It was a magical garden
Medieval Romans had a very good reason to believe that wizards and witches used special plants from inside the Colosseum to make magic potions. Back then the monument was a wild garden, and when botanists started studying the plants inside, they discovered that many of those plants were indeed special.
Botanical studies in the Colosseum date back to 1643, when Domenico Panaroli listed 337 species of plants among the ruins. In the 1850’s, English botanist Richard Deakin found around 420 species. Some of them were very common in Italy; others, however, didn’t grow in Europe at all.
A famous theory suggests that, when ancient Romans brought wild animals from Africa for their own entertainment, many of those animals carried seeds in their furs and stomachs. But this theory has never been proved.
Wherever those exotic plants came from, botanists say they were only able to grow in the Colosseum due to the existence of microclimates inside.
Nowadays, the Colosseum no longer looks like a magical garden. In the 19th century, when Italian nationalist forces defeated the Pope, the new Italian government handed the Colosseum to archaeologists. By the 20th century, the arena floor had already been removed, and so had the majority of the plants.
With an attentive eye, you can still spot some small plants on the hypogeum’s floor, though – a souvenir from the Colosseum’s greenest times.
5. It became a sacred site in the 18th century
Despite the bad reputation of the Colosseum as a haunted and demoniac place, its ruins played multiple roles throughout history. During the 16th and the 17th centuries, the Catholic Church took particular interest in the amphitheater and tried hard to repurpose it.
The most curious attempt came from Pope Sixtus V, who planned to transform the Colosseum into a wool factory to provide prostitutes with a job. The factory was never created though, as Sixtus V died in 1590, just five years after being nominated Pope.
In the 18th century, the Church recognized the amphitheater as a sacred place. Although there is no evidence of the execution of early Christians in the Colosseum by the Roman Empire, Pope Benedict XIV claimed that the arena was sanctified by the blood of Christian martyrs. He then installed religious stations in the arena, and the Colosseum became a place of pilgrimage and cult.
The religious stations were removed in the 19th century. When fascist leader Benito Mussolini took over Italy, he tried to impress the Catholic Church by placing a new cross in the Colosseum. The cross is a replacement for the one that was removed in the 1870’s and can still be seen on the northeast side of the amphitheater.
Three centuries later, the site remains sacred for Christians. Every year, the amphitheater is closed to tourists on Good Friday and the Pope leads the traditional Via Crucis ceremony at the monument.
6. You can stand were the statue of Nero stood
After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, the polemic Emperor Nero built an enormous palace for himself: the Golden House. Inside, there was a giant artificial lake with a colossal bronze statue of Nero right next to it. The lake was buried after Nero’s death to make room for the Colosseum; the statue remained.
When Emperor Vespasian started building the Flavian Amphitheater, he didn’t remove Nero’s statue. Instead, he replaced the head for that of Apollo, god of the sun, naming the statue Colossus Solis.
Historians believe it is because of the ‘colossus’ – which means big statue – that the Flavian Amphitheater started being called Colosseum in the Middle Ages.
The statue continued to have the head changed by different leaders throughout history. At an unknown point, it disappeared leaving no traces behind. The last mention of the Colossus was found in a manuscript from the 4th century AD. No evidence of what actually happened to it or when has ever been found.
Some believe it was broken by an earthquake; others, that it was stolen. Whatever the case is, nothing is left from the statue, except for the concrete base where it once stood.
The base is literally beside the Colosseum, near the entrance, in a little square where many travel agencies’ representatives stand and assemble visitors who book a private tour with them.
There is a tree next to it and many tourists waiting for their tours to start seek refuge from the sun under its shadow. Most of them don’t even know they are laying their feet on the very location of the statue of Nero.
Now that you know about it, make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to pass by and feel like a Colossus yourself!
7. The Arch of Constantine is its neighbor
As you can see, some of the good reasons to visit the Colosseum are actually outside its walls. The Arch of Constantine, the largest and best preserved Roman triumphal arch, is one of those.
The Arch of Constantine was most likely built by the Roman Senate in 315 AD to celebrate Emperor Constantine I’s victory in the battle of Milvian Bridge. Controversial beliefs, however, suggest that the arch might have been built earlier for other purposes.
The structure of the arch is not original. It is actually composed of parts of other imperial monuments, with just few parts made exclusively for it. Historians say architects at the time reused existing materials to speed up the construction and meet the delivery deadline.
The arch is beautiful, full of details, and stands right between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, few meters away from the Colosseum’s exit – an amazing bonus for those visiting the amphitheater.
8. You can also see the Ludus Magnus
Speaking of bonuses… Just like people are oblivious to the Colossus’s base when visiting the Colosseum, they are also oblivious to the Ludus Magnus on the opposite side. And believe me, no one should be.
The Ludus Magnus, also known as Great Gladiatorial Training School, was the largest training center for gladiators in Ancient Rome!
Unfortunately, just a small part of it is visible. The majority of it is still hidden underground. But that doesn’t make it any less cool.
The Ludus Magnus is located few meters north of the Colosseum, between via Labicana and via di S. Giovanni in Laterano. My favorite way of admiring it is with a beer in hand. There are very cozy bars at via di S. Giovanni in Laterano where you can grab a good Italian beer to drink by the gladiatorial school.
9. It has a little museum
Once you enter the Colosseum, the first floor you visit is all about admiring the amphitheater itself. On the second floor, however, you have much more to see.
There is a little museum inside dedicated to Eros, the Greek god of love, with a number of artifacts that were found during the excavations at the Colosseum, in addition to remains of the Church’s activities inside.
The museum also has some photos and models that show how the monument was during different periods of time. Best part of it? You don’t need extra tickets to visit!
10. You get three attractions for the price of one
Do you know that feeling of entering a store and buying two items you love for the price of one? Now imagine a combo with three items. No, no… more than that. Imagine that these three items are actually the three biggest sites of Ancient Rome!
Oh, yes! I was thrilled when I first got my tickets to the Colosseum and found out that it also gave me access to the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum for two consecutive days.
The Colosseum itself already has pretty good reasons to be part of any itinerary; having the chance to visit other two sites for the same price makes it even more exciting.
REGULAR TICKETS COST 12€, OR 2€ IF YOU ARE A EUROPEAN UNION MEMBER OF BETWEEN 18 AND 25 YEARS OLD.
IF YOU ARE HANDICAPPED OR UNDER 18 YEARS OLD, ENTRANCE IS FOR FREE.
THE THREE HISTORICAL SITES OPEN AT 8:30 AND CLOSE ONE HOUR BEFORE SUNSET (VARYING DURING THE YEAR).
After those 10 reasons to visit the Roman Colosseum, what are you still waiting for?!