Even before I had a bucket list, the Coliseum was on my bucket list. The most iconic symbol of Rome screamed out at me to visit since I was a child. Movies with gladiators and other bloody events taking place in front of the emperor and thousands of Romans made me commit to see the place. I was not disappointed.
After eight years of slave labor went into building the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, it opened in 80 AD with a hundred days of games. Over 9000 wild animals were killed in these inaugural games, besides the gladiators. The floor of the amphitheatre was covered in sand, and is the origin of the word arena, which many of you recognize as the word for sand in Latin based languages. The sand was to make it easy to clean up the blood. Imagine how much blood was shed…
We signed up with a very reputable tour agency called Rome Dark Tours. In fact we took three tours with this group. The guides all have university degrees in either history or archeology, and then must pass a rigorous examination before the government will issue them a guide license. This is actually true all over Italy, and in fact most everywhere we have travelled.
Using a sanctioned, licensed tour agency has one other great advantage. You skip the queue. In fact, you enter the facility earlier than it opens for those who choose to go it alone. I saw the lines of people waiting to get into the Coliseum and other sites as we sauntered by and realized that our enjoyment was about to be enhanced. Also, the guided tours usually allow patrons access to areas where the do-it-yourself folks are simply not allowed. This was the case with the Coliseum, and it made the experience complete.
Our tour took us from the hypogeum, a series of underground tunnels to hold the animals and slaves, up into the nose bleed sets where the poor people sat to watch the carnage. Neither of these areas are accessible to people who do not believe in paying for a tour.
The Coliseum saw gladiator fights until the year 484 and animal slaughters until 523. Since then it has suffered from earthquakes and stone robbing to build other edifices in Rome. When you look at the building today what you see is the travertine skeleton. When constructed it was covered in white marble. Most of that was lost to the barbarians or the church who used it in Vatican City. It is currently under a restoration of a type. Paid for by a wealthy man, his efforts have squashed an earlier plan to sell advertising in the form of big billboards inside the amphitheater in order to finance much needed safety and esoteric improvements.
Our tour included a visit to a very historic site next door to the Coliseum, the Roman Forum. The Forum is the ancient roman gathering spot, market area and home to the Senate It is located in a valley between two hills. The first is called Palatine hill. This hill was originally occupied by the first king of Rome, Romulus. The other hill by his rival. Over time the area now known as the Forum was the very center of Roman life, with historical figures such as Cicero, and Nero roaming the cobblestone streets. The cobblestones are still there, and are an invitation to a sprained ankle!
There is so much more to say about the Forum, but I fiddle while my blog burns…get it?
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Next post, the Vatican and the Sistine chapel. After that, the best five hours in Rome, stay tuned.