The Colosseum, Rome
Am ancient amphitheatre in Rome
, and one of the most immediately recognizable buildings in the world and one of the top tourist destinations on the planet.
Some also regard it as one of the oldest dark-tourism sites, because the arena was in Ancient Roman times used for brutal bloodbath “games” such as gladiator fights and throwing people sentenced to death to the lions or other wild animals – all to the public delight of tens of thousands of spectators.
More background info: The blood “games” that the Ancient Romans staged at the Colosseum over the period of a few centuries were without any doubt extremely dark indeed. And the fact that the public went to see these as a kind of spectacle, like a theatre play in modern days or a movie at the cinema, certainly also adds a very dark element.
Some dark-tourism researchers even claim that these “games” at the Colosseum and other such arenas that existed in antiquity in many places were indeed an early form of dark tourism as such.
I am personally a bit reluctant to accept this. First of all, can attending such games really be called “tourism”? It's certainly voyeurism, but that's an aspect I prefer to separate from dark tourism proper (even though the media regularly accuse dark tourists of just that – see this text
in defence of dark tourism).
Moreover, these spectacles took place in Ancient Rome, i.e. well out of the time-frame usually associated with the concept of dark tourism
, which is understood as linked to modern times only (mainly the 20th century).
However, these days much of the appeal of going to see the Colosseum also lies specifically in its dark and bloody history, and not just in the architecture. Guided tours also cater for this dark appeal. The guides' narrative will include plenty of details on how the games were staged, why such evident bloodlust could be an accepted part of Ancient Roman society and even a regular form of entertainment.
Given this modern tourist interest in the dark aspects of the Colosseum, I suppose it can be granted the same exception status as Pompeii
. So I decided to cover it here after all.
As for the history of the building, here's a very brief summary: it was built in only eight years from 72 to 80 AD, and originally it was called “Amphitheatrum Flavium”. But the informal designation “Colosseum”, derived from a colossal statue of Nero that stood nearby, became more established over the years/centuries.
The arena was purpose-built for the kinds of “games” the Ancient Romans excelled at and in which thousands of humans as well as “beasts” lost their lives. These “games” often carried on for whole days, and were attended by up to 50,000 spectators (some sources even say possibly more than 80,000). These were seated by their rank in society, senators and other members of the elite at the bottom and closest to the arena, women and the “plebs” on the top tiers. The emperor would have had his own special box in a privileged position. A canvas roof covering the seating areas would protect the crowd from the sun and rain while still letting in air and daylight.
The cruel “games” continued for about three centuries, until the growing establishment of Christianity put a stop at least to the elements in which humans were killed. Animals were probably “used” for longer. Some forms of games carried on until about the 6th century.
For the next millennium or so the Colosseum served a variety of other purposes, and it was also heavily quarried for stones and looted for the metal clamps used in the structure. It suffered damage from fires and earthquakes too.
It wasn't until the 18th century that the Popes recognized the historical significance of the Colosseum (primarily as a place of martyrdom of early Christians) and sought to protect and partly restore it.
Over the past couple of decades, major further restoration work has been carried out and is still ongoing. Only recently parts that had been inaccessible since the 1970s (for safety concerns) were reopened, including the subterranean level and the third tier, the highest of the levels still in place (there used to be a fourth one at the top, but that's gone). A portion of the arena floor has also been reconstructed at one end of the oval ground level.
What there is to see: There is a range of different ways of visiting the Colosseum, from simply queueing up and exploring independently the first and second tier to fully narrated special “skip-the-line” private guided tours that also include the neighbouring Forum Romanum and Palatine Hill.
I opted for the “underground and third ring” guided tour offered direct by the company running the Colosseum site, called CoopCulture. This seemed to me the best deal overall (see access).
The tour started at the bottom of the intact north façade and then proceeded out onto the reconstructed part of the arena floor. From here you get a marvellous view of the entire oval of the former seating ranks around you. A small section has been reconstructed to resemble the state it would have been in back in Ancient Roman times. But according to our guide this reconstruction wasn't historically accurate.
The guide also had additional laminated sheets with drawings, plans and schematic depictions of the inner workings of the Colosseum to show during the narration. I had the impression that our group was in the good hands of a well trained historian who knew her stuff well.
Next we went to the underground level. This is where the gladiators would have prepared for their part in the “show” and where the wild animals were kept too. The latter would have been winched up to the arena level where they'd emerge from special hatches to the cheers and cries of the crowd. For this a complex system of block-and-tackle winches were operated underneath the arena floor.
By the way, the animals used by the Romans were not just lions but also included bears, leopards, wolves and even boar and ostriches.
After a good while at the bottom underneath the edge of the reconstructed arena floorboards we were then led upstairs, all the way to the topmost level that is accessible today, the “third tier
”. There were quite a few steps to negotiate, but the views from up there were well worth the effort. Not only do you get the absolute best view down into the whole arena, you can also get a good view of the outside, over the Forum Romanum and the surrounding cityscape of modern Rome
At the end of the tour we were allowed to stay behind and explore the regularly accessible second and first levels on our own.
The views of the Colosseum may not be quite as spectacular from these levels, but inside the passage under the north tiers, there is a small museum part that provides some added value.
On display here are not only various statues, busts and other original Roman artworks, but also models and diagrams that explain how the Colosseum was operated back in its heyday.
There was even a small “forensic” section with animal bones found in the bottom of the Colosseum, including the skull of a bear.
Also interesting were the models of the bear winches and a large picture that gave an impression of what the crowd's behaviour would have been like at these games (“quite “boisterous” in many ways, apparently).
Obviously there's also a large shop in the museum selling historical tomes and coffee-table books as well as more regular souvenirs.
All in all, I did not regret investing in the longer “underground and third level” tour, as the added access to the bowels of the Colosseum, as well as the views from the reconstructed arena floor and from the top tier were indeed excellent additions.
As a dark-tourism attraction, the Colosseum is less outstanding, though the guide and the museum do their best in trying to bring the ruins to life to a degree through narrative and images. But ultimately you have to rely on your imagination to get the dark vibes of this place.
There can be no doubt, though, that seeing the Colosseum is probably the number one must-do when in Rome
in any case.
about mile to the south-east of Rome
's Centro Storico and just east of the Forum Romanum.
Access and costs: easy to locate, but not so cheap to see from the inside. Some guided tours on offer are quite pricey.
Details: Getting to the Colosseum is as easy as can be. It has its own metro station (Colosseo) on line B. Several bus lines as well as tram line 3 also stop nearby. From the heart of Rome it is also easily walkable; it's just a bit over a mile (1.7km) from the Pantheon, for example. The huge hulk of the Colosseum at the bottom end of Via dei Fori Imperiali is impossible to overlook.
The entrance and guided tours meeting points are on the western side of the Colosseum. Most of the time the queues outside are just as impossible to miss as the building as a whole.
Opening times: daily from 8:30 a.m. to between 4:30 p.m. in winter to 7:15 p.m. in summer. Last admission an hour before closing. Shorter opening times apply on Good Friday and 2 June. Closed on 1 January, 1 May and 25 December. (Exact seasonal times can be checked at coopculture.it)
Admission: There are various ticket options. The simplest is to just queue up and wait in line until you get to the ticket booth and pay the basic 12 EUR. Various concessions apply, e.g. to citizens of the EU under 25/18 years of age (7.50 EUR/free) or pensioners. Entrance is free for everyone on the first Sunday each month.
Tickets can be pre-booked online (at coopculture.it) for an additional reservation fee of 2 EUR. You may still have to wait in line quite a bit even if you have a reservation, as only up to 3000 visitors are allowed in at any one time. Guided tours meet 10-15 minutes before the scheduled time (see below).
The ticket to the Colosseum is valid for two days and also includes entry to the Forum Romanum and Palatine Hill. So you can split your visit over two separate days if you find doing both in one single day is too much. For those really into their Ancient Roman archaeology this is probably a very good idea.
The regular ticket gives visitors access to only the first and second levels in the Colosseum (including the museum parts), but not to the underground, third level or the partially reconstructed arena floor. These can only be accessed on a guided tour.
There's a range of guided tours offered by the site itself as well as by various outside tour operators.
The most basic guided tour of just the parts regularly accessible lasts ca. 45 minutes and costs an extra 5 EUR on top of the ticket/reservation price. Check the coopculture.it website for exact schedules and language options (in English there are at least 6 or 7 tours spread over the day).
Audio and video guide devices are also available for hire in a range of languages and cost 5.50 EUR and 6 EUR, respectively.
The best deal is their “colosseum, underground and third ring tour” (as described in detail above), led by a local guide who is typically a historian. These tours last about 75 minutes and cost an extra 9 EUR, i.e. a total of 25 EUR with admission ticket and reservation fees (applicable to both the tour and the admission reservation).
When I visited in November 2014, the tickets for these tours could only be reserved by ringing up the call centre (+39 06 399 67 700), but when I last looked at their website they appeared to be available via the online booking engine as well, as of 18 April 2015 (Note: you also have to purchase the regular admission ticket!). That's a cool improvement. Either way, you have to pay by credit card and will be given a reservation code. On the day you have to be at the reservation desk at least 15 minutes before the start of the tour to register and collect your ticket. (There is a separate queue for reserved tickets.)
In season (ca. April to October) there is the extra option of visiting the Colosseum after dark, on night openings (ca. 20 EUR).
In addition to the tours offered by the Colosseum itself (i.e. by CoopCulture) most tour operators in Rome also offer guided private tours. Some of these offer little more than the same ticket that you could just as well purchase direct for less; they just get it for you and meet you outside to greet you, but the tour itself will be the same as with CoopCulture direct.
Other tour operators, however, do offer genuine added value, in particular a personal private guide just for you who will accompany you in the Colosseum and will also guide you around the Forum Romanum before or afterwards.
As far as I can see all such tours still have to join a local (i.e. CoopCulture-run) group tour inside the Colosseum, at least as long as this is to include the underground, arena floor and third level. But your personal guide will be at hand to provide additional narration or to answer questions.
Whether that is worth the extra costs is something everybody will have to decide for themselves. Prices for such tours vary greatly, with some operators charging over 100 EUR per person for this. I'd personally find that too steep, but I've heard of many people who considered it money well invested.
The extra added value mostly comes into its own at the Forum Romanum, where you'd otherwise be on your own (and there is little commodification for independent visitors of these ancient ruins). But if you can do without a personal guide at the Forum, then you will probably be better off just doing the tour as offered direct by CoopCulture.
Time required: between one and three to four hours, depending on tour/ticket type and how long you may want to linger in the museum part. Combined guided tours of the Colosseum and Forum Romanum offered by outside operators typically last about 4 hours in total.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Rome
Two sites that are within easy walking distance (ca. 15 minutes) are the National Monument on Piazza Venezia (see under Rome
) to the north-west and the Resistance Museum
to the east. The latter can also be reached by hopping on a tram (line 3, stops just east of the Colosseum, get out at Manzoni).
From near that museum you can also get a bus all the way down to the Ardeatine caves
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The Colosseum is primarily a non-dark tourist sight itself, and one of the world's foremost ones at that. It is indeed one of the prime icons of tourism overall, perhaps on a par with the Eiffel Tower in Paris
, Big Ben in London
or the Taj Mahal in India
In addition, another one of Rome's absolute top attractions, the Forum Romanum
, is not only right next door to the Colosseum, but it's included in the same ticket (see above
). So the two make an almost required combination!
Yet more Roman rubble is scattered all over the city, including the nearby Circo Massimo (aka Circus Maximus), although that particular sight hardly lives up to its fame, quite unlike the Colosseum. More worthwhile archaeological sites include the the ruins of the Roman baths on the hill just to the north-east of the Colosseum (Terme di Traiano) or the massive Terme di Caracalla further south.
See also under Rome
- Colosseum 01 - seen from the Foro Romanum
- Colosseum 02 - rear
- Colosseum 03 - scaffolding
- Colosseum 04 - stepping onto the reconstructed arena floor
- Colosseum 05 - basement remains below the arena
- Colosseum 06 - under the reconstructed arena
- Colosseum 07 - heavy stones held together by weight and clever angles alone
- Colosseum 08 - deep in the bowels of the building
- Colosseum 09 - drain
- Colosseum 10 - passage under the arena
- Colosseum 11 - model of a winch lifting a bear into the arena
- Colosseum 12 - view from the second tier
- Colosseum 13 - en route to the third tier
- Colosseum 14 - third tier
- Colosseum 15 - wide view of the arena from the third tier
- Colosseum 16 - looking down into the arena basement
- Colosseum 17 - looking out towards the Foro Romanum
- Colosseum 18 - looking out towards Palatine Hill behind the Arco di Constantino
- Colosseum 19 - in the museum part
- Colosseum 20 - astute ancient Roman reader
- Colosseum 21 - depiction of life in ancient Rome