We’ve all heard of the Colosseum. Rome’s most famous attraction and certainly one of the world’s most recognizable monuments, the Colosseum has made countless cameos over the millennia, from movies and paintings, to photographs and daydreams. I, like everyone else who’s had the opportunity to visit, have always thought the Colosseum was magnificent and stunning, a perfect place to spend an afternoon strolling around. What’s more whimsical than getting an espresso from different vantage points around a nearly 2,000 year old amphitheater to create your iconic Roman memory? But going inside, that’s something I hardly ever do, and honestly, I tend to steer our guests away from it.
Now, I hate crowds. You might be thinking, “Hey Blaine, aren’t you a tourism professional? Isn’t weaving through crowds one of the main parts of your job?” And yes, you’re right. Even though I am only a tour guide on occasion and more of the vacation planner, dealing with and instructing people how to deal with crowds is a huge aspect of my work. I’m not a fan, especially in the blazing, suffocating Roman summer, which is when most people tend to visit. I love a good story, but paying attention to dates and names while I’m elbowing a throng of middle schoolers to keep their distance is not my idea of a good time. However, I’m dating a historian, who cannot be bridled in his love for curiosity of antiquity. So, begrudgingly, I sometimes lift the edges of my mouth in what passes for a smile and prepare to be educated, while I strike a defensive pose and put on my RBF.
This year, however, there’s been none of that. As treacherous and overwhelming as our lives have been, one ‘good’ thing as a resident of Rome has been the lack of crowds. We’re living in an ancient city with little to no tourism, which is harrowing and stunningly beautiful at the same time. So, I took advantage of this unusual circumstance and let my historian take me inside the Colosseum for only my 2nd visit, in what can only be identified as a once in a lifetime situation.
There was truly nobody there. In the 2 hours we spent inside, I’d say we saw 40 other people, in total. This is undoubtedly the only way to travel: in cool and sunny weather, with minimal other visitors, and with your own personal nerd. When given this opportunity to viscerally experience something in a way few ever have before, I couldn’t help but be absolutely awed by my encounter. THIS is what I’ve been missing this whole time. I’m so easily distracted and overwhelmed by people and heat and selfies that I’ve never truly allowed myself to be present and aware while observing this ancient and extraordinary location.
Ancient artifacts are always on display
It’s easy to imagine yourself here 2,000 years ago. They have different levels and gates and entrances, much like our modern day stadiums do. There’s graffiti etched into the walls, memorializing superstars and monumental events, and even the random H Roberti was here from the 18th century that somehow hasn’t lost its charm today. On display there’s seeds and bones of discarded goodies, from dates to stuffed mice, which were once a popular snack at sporting events. The most expensive seats are just above stage level, where senators and diplomats would sit, surrounding the Emperor’s Box, with the clearest view of all. The farther up you go, the less expensive and more gaudy the company was. Women, with the exception of the eminent Vestal Virgins, were generally not allowed to these events as the games were seen as too violent for their delicate sensibilities. There were only 2 toilets in the whole arena and they certainly did not have self flushing mechanisms.
H Roberti was here (ironically not as clear now that it’s been cleaned up)
Yet, the fantasy is still there. Looking down at the intricate maze underneath where the sand-covered floor would have been, you can see the ‘backstage’ of the whole spectacle. Hidden out of sight, this is where gladiators would wait for their cue to enter, where animals would be caged in waiting, where a whole circumference of pathway would’ve been used by the slaves to keep the show running. The performances were not necessarily a demonstration of gore, as gladiators were popular sports personalities, and needlessly having them fight to the death wouldn’t have been good for sales or morale. Tales were usually told of gods and epic battles which were then recreated, as theater might do today.
Public executions however, would certainly take place for the most dastardly of criminals or enemies, the most horrifying one I’ve heard of depicting the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. An actor played out the whole scene, but once the chariot rose high above the crowds, supposedly skimming the sky, the criminal was swapped in and left to drop to his death. While these stories and gruesome events are the ones that are most remembered, there was plenty of entertainment for a couple hundred years that wasn’t stomach churning.
The white ring shows where the backstage slaves would have kept the show running
Looking out onto the Palatine Hill
Visiting this magnificent monument in this way was certainly an eye opening experience for me. I have endless pictures of the Colosseum’s facade, with my coffee or Spritz in the foreground, seen as an outsider. But done correctly, and with someone passionate at your side, I’ve become a believer that the Colosseum is truly an unmissable event.
Proof that I’m still a tourist at heart