Exploring the Colosseum in Rome: A Visitor's Guide

The Colosseum in Rome
The Colosseum in Rome
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The Flavian Amphitheatre, better known to the world as the Colosseum, is the most universally recognized icon in Rome. Despite damage by fire, earthquake, and neglect, as well as its conversion into a fortress of the Frangipani family, the pillaging of its stone for construction of palaces, and the constant pollution of modern traffic around it, the Colosseum still creates a powerful impression of its original form. The largest structure surviving from ancient Rome, the Colosseum was begun by Vespasian in AD 72 and eight years later enlarged by his son, Titus, adding the fourth story. The name of the Colosseum derived from the immense statue of Nero - called the colossus after the Colossus of Rhodes - that stood nearby; the entire area was originally within Nero's Domus Aurea, his palace complex in the center of ancient Rome.

Colosseum Outer Wall

Colosseum Outer Wall
Colosseum Outer Wall
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The Colosseum was 186 meters long by 156 meters wide, an oval shape, although it appears to be almost circular. The outer wall, 57 meters in height and built of travertine marble held together by iron clamps instead of mortar, was damaged by several earthquakes, and its entire south side collapsed in the quake of 1349. The fallen stone was used to construct buildings throughout Rome, but you can see the original layers of pilasters and arches in the remaining north side. Those on the ground floor are Doric; the middle, Ionic; and the top, Corinthian. What appears to be the outer wall of the rest of the Colosseum is its original inner wall. Of the four main entrances, only fragments of their original reliefs of painted stucco remain.

Colosseum Interior

Colosseum Interior
Colosseum Interior
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The purpose of the Colosseum and the reason the Flavian emperors constructed it was to satisfy the public enthusiasm for games and spectacles. But the emperors and nobility also attended, each watching from a level determined by rank. The emperor and the Vestal Virgins had the best views from boxes at the north and south ends of the arena, and you can still see the names of senators carved in the stone of the area between these, which was reserved for them. Noble families sat on the second course, and the general public sat in the third and fourth levels. Rows of seating and internal passages and staircases were carefully arranged so the 50,000 spectators could get to their places or leave within a few minutes.

On the top level, there were originally 240 masts set around the walls that supported an awning over the audience. The entire interior was lavishly decorated, but only a few fragments survive to hint at what it must have looked like in the first centuries. A bronze cross at one end of the arena commemorates the Christian martyrs who were believed to have died here during the Roman Imperial period. In fact, there is little evidence that the arena was used for this, and the first mention of it as a place of Christian martyrdom was not until the 16th century.

The Hypogeum

The Hypogeum
The Hypogeum
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The arena floor was 83 by 48 meters, built of wood and covered with sand. It has long since been destroyed, so you can now see the walls of the hypogeum, a vast two-story underground labyrinth of tunnels connecting training rooms for gladiators, cages for exotic wild animals, and store-rooms that were hidden underneath the floor. Elaborate machines lifted scenery and caged animals to the arena, and according to accounts of the period, the arena was sometimes filled with water for mock sea battles.

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine
Arch of Constantine
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Standing beside the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch honoring the Emperor Constantine as "liberator of the city and bringer of peace" after his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. At 21 meters in height, it is the largest and best preserved Roman triumphal arch, despite being incorporated (along with the Colosseum) into the castle of the Frangipani family for centuries. The arch is decorated with reliefs taken from earlier structures, so some of the scenes have little to do with Constantine and victory, and include a boar hunt and a sacrifice to Apollo.

Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Colosseum

  • Comfort: Wear good walking shoes so you can walk easily on the uneven stones and climb for better views of its vast interior.
  • Timing: This is one of the top tourist attractions in the city, so expect to wait in line. The best times to arrive are early morning and around noon, when tour groups go to lunch.
  • Accessibility: An elevator is available for access to the upper floors, as well as a technician to help people with disabilities. Ask at the ticket window.
  • Tickets: The Colosseum is grouped with the Forum and Palatine Hill under one inclusive two-day ticket. You can avoid the inevitable lines at the Colosseum by getting your ticket at the entrance to Palatine Hill, where lines are rare.
  • Hypogeum: The underground area and third tier, neither normally open to the public, are open without a tour at 1:30pm daily by advance reservation.

Getting to the Colosseum

  • Take Linea B, the Blue Line, of the Rome Metro to the Colosseum station, two stops from Termini train station.

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