Jun 11, 2024 10 min read

Ultimate Travel Guide to Rome, Italy - The Colosseum's Story

Colosseum Rome, Italy

I've seen many beautiful things and places in Rome that I liked, but one of them, quite special, the Colosseum, deeply impressed me. I was saying that one evening when I wanted to see the ruins in the lantern light, seagulls were flying above the Colosseum. In the night light, they were silvery and their screams unpleasantly chilled me; there was something macabre in their flight and in their screaming...

Something seemed to weigh on my soul, an inexplicable pity enveloped me as I looked at the arena, and a strange amazement circled me as I viewed the places from which, two thousand years ago, spectators shouted their enthusiasm at the sight of the slaughter.

I was there... I saw the ruin and listened to it, and its story saddened me. It is not a romantic story with a happy ending; it is not a love story; it is the story of several generations of people who had the misfortune to be slaves to the most "civilized" people of ancient Europe. While some citizens were inventing useful and beautiful things, others were using their imagination to create the most bloody, cruel, and bizarre forms of entertainment – the gladiator fights.

I marveled at the immensity of the amphitheater which was for hundreds of years the largest building of the Roman Empire era. I was equally fascinated by the construction itself and by the stories related to those who brought it to life.

So the story begins four years after the death of Emperor Nero, who had shocked Rome with his extravagances. His successor, Emperor Vespasian, decided to erase him from the memory of the people and decided to build the largest arena intended for entertainment not just for the wealthy but also for the common people. Thus was born the greatest construction project of the Roman Empire, the Flavian Amphitheater, named after the emperor's family.

Construction began in the year 72 AD and lasted 10 years. I looked at it and tried to imagine the astonishment of the people 2000 years ago at its sight, when even now, by our standards, it is still magnificent.

Regarding the design, which I find hard to understand how it was done, considering the rudimentary technology of the time, I have only words of praise. An additional concern and the need for precise calculations were due to the chosen construction site: the former artificial lake of Emperor Nero's residence.

That they drained the lake and filled the pit with earth is obvious. But that was a piece of cake compared to what followed: it was a risky business, because on soft ground, to build a massive arena weighing thousands and thousands of tons, which would not settle, crack, and additionally had to support the weight of about 50,000 people. The amphitheater's substructure also has two levels in depth, which required a highly resistant structure. The elliptical arena is 188m long, 156m wide, and as tall as a 9-story building from our area.

Around the arena, the bottom row with the best seats was reserved for the emperor with his family and the Vestal Virgins (very important and respected figures in the empire). Around them sat the senators on chairs brought from home. The next row, known as primum maenianum, was occupied by nobles. A bit higher up were the plebeians – the ordinary people who were themselves of two categories: the wealthy citizens who sat in immum and the middle class who sat in summum. There were also other areas with access limited only to soldiers on leave or to scribes. With the exception of the Vestal Virgins and the women of the emperor's family, other women were allowed in the amphitheater only on the last row (which was added later, made of wood - where visibility was the worst) alongside the poorest citizens.

For about 12 generations of spectators thirsty for blood, for whom violence was elevated to the level of spectacle, thousands of slaves labored for ten years, the first heroes of this great amphitheater.

I stood and looked at the huge stone blocks and wondered what Herculean effort it took to lift them. Who fed those poor souls for ten years? ... who brought them water on the scorching summer days? ... where did they sleep? All these living machines were slaves brought from conquest wars and were obliged to work well, quickly, and with the lowest possible cost of existence.

Nobody cared if they were hungry or cold, if they were in pain or if they would live another day. As long as they gave everything they could until their last breath, that was enough. When they collapsed, they were replaced just as today we replace a broken part in a machine. Without mercy and without regrets.

It is known that at the inauguration of the amphitheater, the "bread and circuses" given to the people stretched over 100 days, during which, besides the 9,000 animals, hundreds of gladiators gave their lives for the pleasure and happiness of the Romans. Can you imagine what more than three months means, during which people continuously filled the amphitheater? Then (and not only then) lions, tigers, and bears confronted humans; elephants with bulls and bulls with rhinoceroses, and many other animals. Scenes of unimaginable cruelty to us delighted the audience. They "played" live scenes from the most macabre.

On the wooden arena covered with sand (harena means sand in Latin), one could reach from the hypogeum through one of the 24 shafts equipped with lifts operated by pulleys and ropes, naturally pulled by slaves. The hypogeum is a two-level basement, where both animals and gladiators stayed in extremely small stone rooms. From the hypogeum, one could also reach through several tunnels under the amphitheater to the gladiators' barracks or the nearby animal stables.

Now, the hypogeum has nothing in common with the darkness of two millennia ago. The crumbled walls and the absence of the wooden floor that covered the arena make the air breathable. The sunlight was unseen by the unfortunate who lived their lives like in tombs for days on end. Certainly, unbearable smells were part of the daily menu: the animals with their food and excrement, alongside those of humans, with the smell of sweaty bodies and the smoke of torches that lit the place.

From there, the gladiators went to the arena to fight and most often returned without energy. Sometimes they could be treated, other times they breathed their last. Looking at the Colosseum, I felt as if I was looking at a huge open vault, from which the ghosts of gladiators seemed about to emerge at any moment. I seemed to hear the weary breaths from the fight and the last moans of the dying. Who were these heroes of long-gone times?

The gladiators: these war prisoners turned slaves were the heroes of the Flavian Amphitheater for five centuries. Heroes without rights, without freedom, without a future, without much hope. Around them, a true industry (what we would call entertainment today) developed. Around the amphitheater, there were five gladiator schools (ludus). Their patrons (lanista) were always present at the markets where slaves were sold as precious goods. They chose the most robust men whom they later trained in their schools. There, alongside the exhausting training, one thing was deeply ingrained in their minds: the pride of dying like heroes in the arena, to the delight of the public. Their mentality was so altered that their sole purpose in life was the honor of dying "for the emperor and for the audience." One of the slogans found on the walls of a gladiator school reads, "Embrace death. Become one with it. Overcome it, conquer it and the crowd will love you. Bring honor to your school and to the emperor. Die with dignity, do not beg for mercy, do not complain, fight to the death." (quoted from a brochure).

If in the early years, gladiators were viewed as mere fighting machines, over time their value increased: they had become luxury fighting machines. To gain the necessary strength, to be capable of offering a prolonged spectacle, and to repeatedly draw the crowd to the amphitheater, their masters began to invest in them. They were well-fed, attended by doctors who treated their wounds, and the fights became more extravagant. Their owners began to desire to keep them alive as long as possible, in peak condition, as it was difficult and costly to obtain a perfect human machine, all muscle and strength.

Fights between gladiators existed long before the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater.

This nation, which once dominated almost all of today's Europe (and beyond), had tastes and pleasures unimaginably harsh, bloody, and violent for our mindset. Year by year, spectators wanted something even more grandiose, more violent, and more dangerous, and their emperors and event organizers rose to the demand. A historian of the time recorded, “We despise the gladiators who do anything to stay alive; we appreciate them if they prove to us that they defy death.”

I tried to imagine some scenes, as I guess (helped mostly by movies) they happened two thousand years ago. Few things can compare to the beautiful, athletic body of a gladiator, appearing in the middle of the arena with his muscles on display. But just as well, nothing can compare to the butchery of that body: months, maybe even years of work, physical preparation, and exhausting training gone in a few minutes of a fight to the death. Such a waste.

Whipped by the chains of their opponents, slashed all over with swords or knives, or stabbed with spears during the fights, these men were for many women the ideal of masculinity: and for many men... a model of bravery.

Gladiators were categorized based on each one's abilities and training. For example, murmillo were Roman citizens who, desiring fame and to earn a lot of money, would relinquish their status as free citizens and become gladiators. They signed a contract for a few years and if they managed to survive, they could accumulate some money by the end. They represented the Gallic fighters who faced off against the Thracians. They had the simplest fighting equipment: a pointed helmet, a large shield like those of legionnaires, a short sword, and metal protectors for hands and feet, relying solely on their strength and skill in battle.

Their opponents, the Thracians (traches), also had a helmet adorned with a griffon, a small round shield, and a curved knife. The fight was clearly unequal but this did not impress the crowd much. The point was for the two to cut each other as much as possible, to roll around in the fight, to cover themselves with blood and sand. In the end, when only one remained standing, the final verdict was given by the watching crowd and sealed by the emperor with a gesture of the palm facing up (sparing the opponent's life) or palm facing down (death of the opponent).

Other gladiators were the retiarius, who symbolized fishermen in their battle with the god of the seas, using a metal trident and a net to bring their opponent to the ground. They were said to be the fiercest of gladiators. They did not fight similar adversaries but secutores: equipped with helmets covering their faces (except for a small slit through which they could see) and protectors on their hands and feet (like very wide bracelets). For a secutor gladiator, just being able to turn their head to see from which side they were being attacked was a challenge. Through the small crack of the helmet, they could barely see well in front of them.

Another category was the Laquear gladiators, who symbolized the ancient hunters. Their fighting equipment was a type of lasso with which they captured and brought down their opponent, whom they then killed with a spear. These two categories of gladiators were considered inferior, and their fights served more as filler, so to speak, between other more spectacular battles.

The reconstruction of these equipments was possible through images of gladiators that adorned the walls of corridors in the amphitheater, gladiator schools, or on many mosaics found in praetorian villas.

Other gladiators were demachareus, who wore a guard on one hand and fought with two swords, one in each hand.

The most challenging must have been for the andabatae gladiators who fought mounted with their faces completely covered by a helmet. They could see nothing, and their chance at life was given by their other senses sharpened to the maximum, with which they could hear and feel their opponent.

These gladiators, however, had the chance for training in which they could get to know their opponent, which could be called luck. A terribly bitter, humiliating, and undesired by anyone kind of luck.

The pinnacle of ferocity in the arena was marked by the bestiarii, gladiators who fought to the death with wild animals. In many ways, they were the most esteemed: all their senses and abilities were at their peak, and fighting such an unpredictable opponent was the hardest battle to win. I wondered what it was like to see a man against an elephant. When the several-ton animal was wounded... I believe hell was unleashed on earth. The first to fight animals in the arena were not professional gladiators, but death row inmates. They were simply thrown into the arena, unarmed and unprotected with equipment. The scenes where wild beasts tore those unfortunate apart must have been of unimaginable cruelty (for us) but were highly appreciated by the audience since they created a separate category of gladiators. To prolong the "show," these were armed with spears and had shields.

A day of fights in the amphitheater followed a well-established schedule and a specific order of entry onto the stage. Initially, all the gladiators who were to fight that day paraded in the arena, wrapped in cloaks, then went in front of the imperial box and saluted the emperor with "Ave Caesar morituri te salutant!" ("Hail, Caesar, those who are about to die salute you"), then they saluted the guests of honor and finally the audience.

The first part of the show was called venatio, meaning the beast hunters' fights with animals, followed by the murena gladiators in the arena. The fights were accompanied by the music of fanfares, which marked the dramatic moments with drum and wind instrument sounds. To me, everything seems dramatic.

In all this madness, who benefited? The emperor gained the people's sympathy and ensured their support for his throne, as no Roman emperor was ever removed by the will of the people... others undermined him... until they buried him. With these fights, the citizens' attention was diverted from their often unhappy lives. Secondly, the owners of the gladiator schools made huge sums of money, as for each gladiator killed in battle they received up to a hundred times his value.

Fighting to the death was not the ultimate pride for everyone. Some aimed and managed to be victorious a sufficient number of times (according to some historians 5 times, according to others 10 times) to be freed from this slavery. They became free citizens but were poor. Some remained as instructors in gladiator schools. They were not very well paid, but at least they no longer risked dying for the public's amusement.

Others, the most incomprehensible to me, became rudiari: those who, although they had earned their freedom, gave it up and remained gladiators.

Gladiators who were no longer given any chance of recovery after a fight were spared from prolonged agony in a special room of the hypogeum. There, a man embodying the God Pluto – the god of the underworld, would end their suffering in the only "humane" way accepted by the Romans: with a strong blow to the temple with a hammer.

It was only at the beginning of the 5th century that gladiator fights were banned by Emperor Honorius. Perhaps because the barbarians had conquered more and more of the empire, reaching the gates of Rome and no one was in the mood for entertainment... or because the official religion was already Christianity, which did not permit such brutal displays.

I think I have not visited any place in the world where, within such a confined perimeter, so many horrors, so many "amusement" murders, so many deaths in the name and honor of emperors have occurred. Nowhere else have I felt such sadness and inexplicable pity, for some poor people who gave up their spirits two thousand years ago, simple people without rights, but who for many, were the heroes of the Colosseum; the gladiators.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to The Traveler.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.