My love affair with the Colosseum began in 2006, coincidentally the same year that I left my birth country and visited Italy (and thus, Rome) for the first time. I was in awe with the city: its antiquity was strikingly evident in every corner and yet the vivacity of the Roman people was so in the here and now. And of the places in the Eternal City, I was most in awe of the Colosseum, which was the pinnacle of that trait of being so old yet so alive. I remember my first time seeing it, left gawking at the colossal structure whose famous form was as familiar to me as any building in my hometown, but whose affect on me was something entirely new and magical.
The Colosseum continued to touch me during this time, powerfully drawing me into its mystery, and I would route my walks through Rome past this structure, pulled by a unsatisfied curiosity. I couldn’t get it off of my mind, and as these were during the days that I was still drawing and painting, I even went home and made a quick sketch of the amphitheater in chalk pastels (a piece that is framed and hangs in every apartment I have lived in since). The place was an enigma, and one that I couldn’t help but continue to return to often but never quite figured out.
And how could one figure it out? The layers upon layers of history and stories of the people who laughed, cried, and (most significantly) died in that theater were far too thick for me to even begin to feel like I understood what this large stone mass in front of me was. I never took a tour or read a guidebook about the building during my first visit there, and left Rome in 2006 still wondering. However, I returned to Italy often in the following years, this time doing my research, and one by one, the layers of the onion of history that is the Colosseum began to slowly peel away.
In 2012 found myself back in my favorite city giving tours of the Italian capital, my favorite part of which being leading groups through the Colosseum, helping the people who felt the same magnetic pull that I did to peel the layers from the structure’s profound past.
Construction for the Flavian Amphiteatre (as the building is officially named) began in 72 AD by the emperor Vespasian, in attempts to raise moral and build loyalty among the Romans, whose recent experience with the former emperor Nero bulldozing their public space to build his famous golden house had left a sour taste in their mouths. Built on the back of over 12,000 Jewish slaves and financed by spoils of Vespasian’s sacking of Jerusalem a few years before, the Colosseum was finished in 80 AD and stood at 160 feet, the tallest ancient Roman structure to ever be built.
As Vespasian had died before the finishing of the amphitheater, his son Titus took over and inaugurated the masterpiece by throwing 100 days straight of games, during which over thousands upon thousands of animals, gladiators, and prisoners were slaughtered for the enjoyment of others. The years to follow held games for 50,000-70,000 Roman spectators at a time, financed on by the emperor or different members of the state in hopes of winning the votes of the electorate. These were usually full-day events, usually beginning with beast hunts in the morning, followed by a lunch break of public executions, and finishing with the main event, whether it be gladiatorial fights or spectacles such as naval battles, during which an intricate network of canals flooded the arena. The spectacles were the place to be in Rome at the time, and remained so right up until the fall of the Roman empire, when the city itself turned to ruins for a period of time….
But I’m not going to divulge all the Colosseum’s secrets. I’ll let you go on your own tour, being in its presence and feeling its effect first hand. My favorite tour is the Dungeon’s and Upper Tiers tour during which a representative from the Colosseum leads you and group through not only the main area open to the public space, but also the highest and lowest areas closed to the general public, revealing the deepest and darkest secrets of the museum. For those visiting during the summer months, it is possible to opt for the Night at the Colosseum from May 2 – November 2, a refreshingly cool nighttime tour of the main areas and the dungeons that stuns visitors with an ethereal beauty that only the nighttime can emit.
What did you feel or experience when you were in the Colosseum? What tidbits of history were your favorite?