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The gladiator’s bloody circus stands; A noble wreck in ruinous perfection! – Lord Byron, Manfred (1816)

A scorching summer’s morning in Rome. The sun blazed through the car windscreen with blinding fervour as we veered onto the Piazza del Colosseo. Within seconds, an astonishing construction appeared in the muggy distance; pockets of clear blue sky winked cheekily through the infinite hollows of archways embedded in rows along its grand grey walls.

We’d reached the Colosseum.

All other thoughts vanished from my mind in that solitary moment of recognition. The Colosseum, in all its rotund, dilapidated glory, loomed large and profoundly palpable: a living, breathing relic of human antiquity. Appreciating the structure required no zest for history, or architecture, or classical civilisation. The Colosseum’s sheer size could make even the most dispirited tourist raise their head, widen their eyes, and draw from their lips a singular remark: “Wow.”

(Secrets of The Colosseum story continues below!)


5 Top Tips for Visiting the Colosseum

1. Buy tickets in advance:

First off, I highly recommend buying tickets in advance. Unless you enjoy standing in long lines, it’s best to plan ahead and get your tickets online or from a ticket office. The Colosseum is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions and it can get very crowded, especially during peak tourist season.

2. Consider a guided tour:

Now, let’s talk tours. As someone who’s passionate about history, I usually opt for a guided tour. Not only do you get to skip the line with most guided tours, but you also gain fascinating insights into the Colosseum’s bloodthirsty past. Trust me, it’s worth it. There are various tour options available, including group tours, private tours, and audio tours. Check out some of these:

3. Wear comfortable shoes:

Don’t forget to wear comfy shoes! The Colosseum is a massive structure that involves a lot of walking, and those ancient stone stairs can be quite unforgiving. There are uneven surfaces and stairs, so be prepared for some steep climbs. So, my friends, leave those high heels at home and opt for practical footwear.

4. Bring water and sunscreen:

When it comes to staying hydrated and protected from the sun, I’m all about being proactive. Rome can get quite hot during the summer months. If you’re not used to the heat, you’ll get a dehydration headache. Bring a water bottle and sunscreen with you, and you’ll thank yourself later.

5. Respect the rules and regulations:

Most importantly, let’s show some respect to this historical wonder! The Colosseum deserves our admiration, not our litter. Be mindful of the Colosseum’s surroundings and follow the rules and regulations. And please don’t be rowdy – nothing worse than a disruptive, obnoxious tourist!

Secrets of The Colosseum (continued)

(Trigger warning: mentions of violence)

We parked the car and approached the Colosseum by foot. Wow, indeed. We stood for half an hour admiring its exterior on the Piazza, marvelling eternally at its magnitude, at its implied history, at its grandeur.

The Colosseum’s winding circularity, along with the faultless curve of every numerous arch, is architectural perfection. It made me briefly depressed to consider today’s reliance on technological design software for new buildings and constructions – but the thought was immediately replaced by my exhilaration at the skill, ingenuity, and technical precision of our human ancestors.

As we ventured inside after landing ourselves an independent tour guide – a cheery, boisterous Italian woman with a very entertaining flair for dramatics – a sudden flood of pure and radiant sunlight dazzled our vision.

Round, crumbled walls majestically rose up around us, 50 metres tall; cavernous arches and caves framed by the remnants of weathered marble pillars proffered a glimmer of its former self.

Intricate subterranean labyrinths of marble and stone that had once been hidden crouched low and exposed in the heart of the arena (Latin for ‘sand’). Earth tones shimmered around us in the light: burnt sienna, rustic orange, sun-bleached white.

Even with its decaying marble arches and ruinous interior, my imagination filled in the blanks, allowing me to glimpse, just for a moment, the Colosseum in its prime, in its newly-built glory, blurring a vision of the past and present combined in one.

I felt so small, so insignificant, and yet exquisitely bound to the human lives that had once inhabited the space.

Thousands of tourists were visible on every level of the structure, and for a day, we were all united in awe.

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How brutal was the history of Rome’s Colosseum?

The building was Rome’s first permanent amphitheatre, able to hold almost 80,000 people. Vespasian, Nero the Emperor’s successor, funded its construction by using the plunder from Rome’s victory in Judaea (AD 72). Nero had initially privatised its land for the creation of his royal palace, so Vespasian wisely built the Colosseum as a demagogic token, demonstrating to Rome’s citizens that his political stock was of an entirely different brand to Nero’s oppressive tyranny.

For five long centuries emperors splurged on magnificent spectacles for their citizens. These spectacles included hundreds of thousands of gladiatorial contests, animal combats, mock sea battles, Classical dramas, live executions and suicides. Some emperors like Hadrian and Commodus even participated in events. The Colosseum fast became the greatest place in the empire for public games and spectacles.

Upon closer inspection of Colosseum, however, a brutally dark history emerges, drenched in cruelty and bloodshed. What began as athletic “games” warped into unthinkably barbaric, grotesque brutalities against a number of victims (including prisoners of war, exiled citizens, criminals, and women).

The amphitheatre became, in essence, a glorified viewing platform upon which lives were brutally tortured and extinguished for mere human entertainment.

How were human rights violated at the Colosseum in Rome?

Basic human rights were utterly violated at the Colosseum.

According to Daniel P. Mannix, author of The Way of the Gladiator (or Those About to Die), public rapes of women by men and animals alike were displayed onstage for all to see. Chimps were plied with wine and “encouraged to rape girls tied to stakes.” Women were tied to bulls or chariots and dragged mercilessly towards death. Young boys were molested by men parading as satyrs. Christians in particular were allegedly tortured.

One horrifying instance is of Antipas, a man who was placed into a bronze hollow bull with a fire lit beneath its belly. Out of the bull’s open mouth came his screams of agony which animated the bronze beast as he suffered, much to the orgiastic delight of the bloodthirsty crowd.

Condemned slaves and prisoners who were kept in cages below the arena lived in fear. Arena workers could apparently be bribed by gangs of sexual sadists who molested these caged victims whilst cruelly mocking their impending demise.

When the slave was eventually brought out into the arena to fight, sometimes they would beg for mercy. The emperor would then rise and tell the citizens to vote. If the majority of the crowd voted to spare them, the slave would be spared. If not… the slave was killed there and then.

The cruelty did not stop at human lives. The primal, instinctive savageness of wild animals was fully exploited by animal trainers.

Violence was tantamount to a great show. Damnatio ad bestias (“condemnation by wild beasts”) became wildly popular with the crowds – a bleak spectacle whereby criminals would be attacked to death by animals in the arena.

All manner of animals were thrown together into tiny rooms and cages, often on purpose in order to increase their beastliness. Bears, tigers, lions, panthers, elephants, and crocodiles were but several of the creatures recorded to have been slaughtered there.

The ancient Roman hunting practices utterly devastated North African and Mediterranean wildlife, undoubtedly causing the extinction of many exotic animal species as they slaughtered what probably amounted to millions of species for fun, often during a single festival.

Curiously, very few ancient Romans were noted to have any moral or ethical concerns about the Colosseum’s inhumane activities. Most Roman emperors (apart from some, notably Marcus Aurelius) and intellectuals were keen to keep the torture coming, viewing the “games” as a convenient device for controlling the masses, and even as a helpful demonstration of pain, sex, and death.

After learning of the Colosseum’s sickening history, I stared hazily across its interior. A hallucination seized my imagination. I heard the rumbling, tumultuous roar of a hundred thousand keen Roman citizens.

Enflamed by the dry, baking heat of a Mediterranean summer, and incited by the damp, jostling heave of bodies crowded around, they made their dark decisions… odiferous sweat trickled in a constant stream from their bronzed pores, wet salt glistened above their trembling upper lips. An excited shade of sadism twinkled in their aroused eyes as they settled the terrible fate of the wretched soul before them: Show them no mercy.

The Colosseum’s history is unthinkably barbaric. Humanity has come a long way since, but there’s no end to the horrors that human beings are capable of inflicting upon their own kind.

Take today’s global-scale version of the ancient Roman “games” which have escalated to wars: Gaza and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine; ongoing civil wars in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan. Human versus human brutality continues millennia later, in spite of all the incredible technological and emotional advancements the human race appears to have achieved. Where there is light, darkness too exists.

In Lord Byron’s Manfred (1816), the Colosseum is most aptly described: “The gladiator’s bloody circus stands. A noble wreck in ruinous perfection.”

Indeed, the Colosseum is ruinous – but by no means is the landmark ruined. Its spherical, skeletal structure infinitely teems with antiquity, with glory, with the brutal bloodshed of countless lives, both human and animal.

It is paradoxical, for the technological advancement and longevity of such a remarkable human monument is belied by its cruel nature.

But therein lies its beauty.

Heading to the Eternal City soon? Check out my guide: 17+ Incredible Things To Do In Rome

Mel Legarda

Melissa Legarda is the founder of illumelation. She has worked as a travel blogger, creator and writer since 2015, and has collaborated with well-known brands worldwide. She has helped over 1,100+ students improve their travel photography skills since launching her creative courses. Her mission is to encourage and empower others to travel and create more. Find her on Instagram.

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