Strangest question to hear at the Colosseum
‘What’s a gladiator?’ the lady asked her daughter as she sat to take a break.
We watched stunned as the daughter replied that a gladiator may have been a warrior. She then read a display nearby and elaborated that a gladiator was a captured warrior in ancient Rome that was forced to fight to the death, with the faint hope of freedom.
Okay. So a lot of people don’t know what a gladiator is. But those people aren’t travelling in Italy, or for that matter Rome. And hopefully, those people aren’t at the Colosseum, walking on the first level and taking a break sitting on one of those ancient stones that you’re really not allowed to sit on.
But per chance some people may not know what the Colosseum is all about, here’s a list of the things you must know before visiting the Colosseum.
1. It was a place of Death
Blood flowing down his spliced shoulder, the Thrax warrior reaches out with one last fell swoop of his sica to slice off of the arm of the Retaritus holding the hasta. Breathing shallow, he then lunges forward to push the Retaritus down with his shield. ‘Mitte! Let him go!’ some cried. ‘Iugula! Kill him!’ rang more strongly. A thumb goes down somewhere in the distance. And with one strong swing of the sica, the Retaritus’s head bobbed down to the floor and blood watered the sand as he joined his fallen brothers in the afterlife. The crowd cheers; and a victor is crowned. The Thracian will live to fight another day. Or he will succumb to his wounds and meet his fellow gladiators in the next world.
Maybe it didn’t happen just that way. But one must know that the Colosseum is not just a magnificent marvel of architecture and engineering. It is a silent reminder of the thirst for power and the shedding of so much blood, to the many lives lost for the entertainment of some. It is not a place one can visit flippantly.
Yes, it is beautiful, and awe inspiring and magnificent, but it is also sombre and macabre. The Colosseum must be respected for what it is, a reminder of what a few blood-thirsty men can do to entire civilizations.
2. History and Architecture of the Colosseum
The Colosseum was built by the Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD and took only 10 years to complete. Vespasian used booty from his 70 AD conquest of Jerusalem to build the Colosseum on the site of Nero’s artificial lake that had been filled in after his suicide in 68 AD, and called the Ampitheatrum Flavium after the Flavian Emperors ruling Rome at the time. The name Colosseum was inspired by the bronze statue of Nero standing nearby that was 103 feet tall and called the Colossus Neronis, that’s almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty.
The Colosseum that took only 10 years to build and was the largest amphitheatre ever built. And as opposed to the other concurrent amphitheatres that were built into hills for support, the Colosseum was a self-supporting structure. Just think of the architectural genius. Add to that the sections for class wise segregation and detailed seating charts, it really was a marvel.
Many Christians were slaughtered in the Colosseum by the Emperors before Constantine. Emperor Nero would hold twilight executions where Christians were nailed to crosses and burned alive as torches to light up the arena. The cross is placed where the Emperors used to sit.
3. The Games
The Colosseum opened in AD with the Emperor Titus staging a sear fight there. That must have been a spectacle! The arena could be filled with upto a metre of water, before the Emperor Domitian built a basement to house the fighters, slaves and animals.
It was opened by Emperor Titus with a celebration of 100 days of games. Most times the games went on for days and were free to the people. The cost of the games was borne by an ‘editor’ who was usually a magistrate, and most times for the city of Rome it was the Emperor. The editor paid for the shows, the gladiators, and the animals used.
The routine followed included hunting and punishment by exposure to animals in the mornings, other types of executions in the breaks, and gladiatorial games in the afternoon. On the night before that, the gladiators last wishes were fulfilled by a coena libera.
Some of the imperial punishments involved the tunica molesta where the condemned wore clothes filled with inflammable liquids. When the others started dancing, their clothes were set alight transforming the dance into striking contortions.
Hunts or venationes were started in 186 AD. They involved men and women dressed up in rich clothing and armed with weapons would hunt domesticated rhinos, elephants and hippos and slaughter them. The dead animals were butchered and their meat distributed to the people for free.
Famous hunts included the inauguration day hunt by Titus in 80 AD that involved 9000 wild beasts, and Trajans 107 AD show that involved 11000 gladiators and 10000 animals. What a world that must have been!
4. A heap of ruins that now has a Green Thumb
The Colosseum lay in ruins for centuries after the dawn of the 5th century. Its stones were later used as building materials for Il Palazzo di Venezia, San Marco (Basilica of Saint Mark), La Scala Santa, the tribune of San Giovanni di Laterano (Saint John’s Cathedral in Rome), Palazzo Farnese and more.
The unusual micro-climate at the base of the Colosseum has led to growth of some rare plants in the ruins, with over 350 species having been identified (including the exotic plants). These plants are being studied since the 18th century.
Also, there’s a tour of the underground, the last one being at 3 pm. We missed it by 15 minutes. But it shows you the dark side and the green thumb of the Colosseum.
5. A backdrop for parades and movies
Mussolini used the Colosseum to hold Fascist rallies in the 1930s. But on a different note, the Colosseum starred in the heartrendingly sad movie ‘Roman Holiday’ in 1953, where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn fall in love only to part. Isn’t that how all good love stories end? Sniff sniff. Where’s the box of tissues?
And then in 1972 Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris star in the action packed comedy movie ‘Way of the Dragon’ or ‘Return of the Dragon. And guess where the final fight takes place? Ah, you’re smart. Yes, it was in the Colosseum.
After that, Russell Crowe followed them and decided to die in the Colosseum fighting for the ‘vision that once was Rome’ in the movie ‘Gladiator’. Only thing, he didn’t. The fight scenes at the Colosseum were filmed at a reconstructed set in Malta.
6. Green Thumb and Tourist Attraction
After the Vatican and the Pantheon, it is the most visited tourist attraction in Italy, drawing well over 6 million visitors a year. So whenever you visit, expect it to be really crowded. The lines are really long, but with the efficient staff they tend to move quickly. It only took us about 45 minutes of standing in a regular line to get in.
You have the option of buying your tickets in advance and skipping the lines, but those ‘skip the line’ lines didn’t seem that much shorter to us. There are a few different combinations of tickets available as well, in combination with other attractions like the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and some museums. So we’ll leave it up to you to decide which grouping of tickets you prefer.
7. Beware of the small vendors outside the Colosseum
Once you exit the Colosseum, you hardly travel a few metres when you’re approached by Indian, Italian, African and Bangladeshi sellers with trinkets and souvenirs. But there’s another type of seller that you need to be careful about. These guys make a habit of selling bracelets and chains of copper or other metals to unsuspecting tourists.
Okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the middle of your conversation, they start telling you how happy they are today because they just got the news that their wife had a baby boy. They even go to the extent of showing you a picture of a newborn. And once you congratulate them and try to walk away, they ask for some gift for their new son. You look at them dumbfounded, and they tell you, even 20 dollars is okay. Seriously? We watched this happen with a couple of tourists before they tried it on us. There are quite a few of them too. So try not to fall for that trick.
Have a wonderful tour of the Colosseum when you get to Italy, and when you get back let me know if I’ve left something out. 😉 Or if you’ve already been, comment below to let me know what else I should have added in.