Most people know at least something about the Roman Colosseum, but it’s impossible to gauge the enormous (some might even say “colossal”) size of this structure.

Contrary to popular imagery of cruel emperor Nero presiding over blood sports in this arena, the Colosseum wasn’t even started until after Nero’s death, although it is tangentially connected to him. After the great fire of Rome, Nero had used a newly unoccupied portion of the city not far from the Roman Forum to build a extravagant “Domus Aurea” or Golden House for himself. Not surprisingly, this didn’t exactly improve his standing with the citizens of Rome.

After Nero’s death, there was a brief period of chaos in Rome, as different factions struggled for control (I won’t get into the Year of the Four Emperors here, but you can click on the hyperlinks for some excellent resources about it. Long story short: being emperor during that year was one of the most dangerous jobs in the entire Empire. You were almost certainly safer fighting on the front lines of the most unstable part of the frontier). When the smoke finally cleared, a successful general name Vespasian seized control of the empire. Eager to win the public’s goodwill, Vespesian built a huge public ampitheater near the site of Nero’s Golden House.

Tragically, since both Vespasian and his son and succesor Titus were generals who fought against Jerusalem during the Jewish revolts of the first century, and treasure stolen from the Jews was used to build the Colosseum.

Originally called the Flavian Ampitheater (after the Flavian dynasty started by Vespasian), the structure was later renamed the Colosseum as sort of a nickname, referencing the enormous statue which used to stand near the site (the name of which, in turn, was referencing yet another statue, the Colossus of Rhodes).

During the early years of the Colosseum, it was occasionally filled in with water, and mock naval battles were fought in it. However, Titus’s brother and successor Domitian decided to construct tunnels underneath the arena instead, trading the occasional in-stadium naval battle for the ability to bring fighters, animals and props through trap doors in the floor.

The enormous face of the Colosseum
Today, a modern road runs right alongside the stadium, and a subway entrance emerges about a hundred yards to the right of where I took this picture.
According to our guide, the Colosseum, like many Roman buildings, was covered in beautiful paintings intricate designs. You can see part of this lost decorative face of the building on the top part of this brick arch.
According to our guide, many of those holes in the pillars mark places where pegs once held more decorative facades. These pegs, though, were long ago removed and melted down (most likely during the Middle Ages when resources were scarce and the need for weapons was plentiful).


Since we signed up for a tour instead of just paying admission at the gate, we were taken back to this platform, which was constructed in modern times on a level with the original floor of the stadium.
A look from ground level at the ruins of the ancient network of tunnels, rooms and animal enclosures underneath the stadium floor.
Another shot of the tunnels from ground level.
Above what was the arena, a cross stands in memory of the Christian martyrs who met their end here.


The white marble seats mark the area reserved for important people and senators (much like box seats in a modern sports arena).
A look at the tunnels underneath the stadium floor. Without interior lighting or any natural lighting to speak of, these tunnels would be almost completely dark as gladiators and animals waited down here for what would almost certainly end up being a brutal and bloody end.
The free-standing arches still stand as they did millenia ago. That newer wood above the arch belongs to the platform from some of the earlier pictures.
A view the ancient Romans would never have seen once construction on this amphitheater was complete. With a roof over these stone structures, the only way onto the stadium from this level was through the trap doors.
This modern, wooded platform is situated at the same height as the original floor.
Seen from the nose bleed seats, the Colosseum was nearly as large as a modern sports stadium.
A look at the different levels of seating. From the top row, it’s hard to imagine that anyone sitting this high up could really tell what was going on down in the arena below.
A view of the Arch of Constantine from the top level of the Colosseum.