When in Rome: The Colosseum… Armchair Travel

I’ve been reading Mary Beard’s history of early Rome, “SPQR,” so I had fun going back and revisiting Rome with my posts from 2015. In fact, I had so much fun, I’ve decided to share them with you as part of my armchair travel series. We will go on a walk-about where Peggy and I barely avoid pickpockets, visit the ancient Forum, stop off at the Vatican, and take a trip to Rome’s grand Colosseum where I met a ghost of the great cats that once fought gladiators.

Rome’s Colosseum is lit up in the evening.

I first viewed Rome’s grand memorial to gladiators in 1967 on my way home from serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. I was as impressed with the number of feral cats living in the ruins as I was with the structure. Massive renovations have taken place since then. Today’s Colosseum is crowded with tourists instead of cats. We joined the throngs.

This is the one cat I found in the Colosseum. I am sure it had aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, kids somewhere. But check out the stance— ears back, paw posed to strike. He was ready to take on a gladiator, or at least a camera toting traveler.

Originally the Colosseum was known as the Flavian Amphitheater, after the family of emperors who built it. Nero, who had a bad case of self-adulation, built a huge statue of himself nearby. It was known as the Colossus. At some point, the name was applied to the Colosseum. A later emperor removed the head from Nero’s statue and affixed his own stone likeness on top. Why pay for a whole statue? It became the custom with each succeeding emperor. So much for everlasting fame…

When completed in 80 AD, the Colosseum could seat 50,000 screaming people. During its 100-day inauguration, some 2000 gladiators killed each other and 9000 animals.

While their taste in entertainment left much to be desired, the Romans’ engineering abilities were superb. The Colosseum is high testament to this. Modern stadiums are still built on a similar model, designed to move large numbers of people in and out quickly. I was amused to learn that the Romans called the entrance/exit passages vomitoria– hence our word, vomit.

Spectators were issued tickets on pottery shards that listed their entrance gate, section, row and seat numbers. The higher your rank, the better your seat. The top rows were saved for slaves, foreigners and women. Some people, such as actors and gravediggers, weren’t allowed in the Colosseum at all. Now actors are idolized and even elected as presidents and governors. Gravediggers still dig graves.

A number of illustrations are found in the Colosseum that reflect what it was like at the Colosseum in Ancient Rome. This one of the nose-bleed section reminded me of a tailgate party. Cooking, eating, drinking, fighting and betting were all part of a typical day. As was carving graffiti on the benches.

The top could be covered for bad weather by a large canvas awning that was put up and taken down by sailors from Rome’s navy. The true gem of engineering was the floor, however, which covered a network of tunnels and cages where wild animals and props were stored. Eighty different elevators operated by pulleys served to bring scenery and wild animals to the surface. You might be in the middle of an African jungle for one scene and a Greek city the next. Imagine the job of being prop master! The floor could even be flooded for sea battles.

Here’s an illustration of what the cover looked like.
This illustration from the Colosseum shows a cutaway of the floor with its elevators, wild animals and gladiators.

You never knew when or where the next wild animal might pop up, which could be bad news for gladiators. Cats at the Colosseum then meant lions and tigers with long claws and sharp teeth. There were also elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and even giraffes— although I can’t imagine why or how you would fight a giraffe. I once chased a herd across the Serengeti Plains in a Volkswagen beetle, however.

Gladiators came from the ranks of slaves, poor people, and criminals. (Contrary to legend, there were very few Christians.) The most successful earned fame, fortune and freedom. Rick Steves, in his book, Mediterranean Ports, reports they even gave endorsements. I can see it in neon lights, “Barbarian Bob eats at Papa’s Pizzeria.”

Looking down into the basement of the Colosseum where wild animals, props and scenery were stored.
I took this photo from the opposite end of the Colosseum. It provides a perspective on what the floor might have looked like. Only about a third of the original Colosseum remains. While earthquakes have done their share of damage, much more was done by Romans taking building blocks and iron supports for use in other construction throughout Rome.
We started our tour on the upper level of the Colosseum. In addition to providing views into the arena, the walkway provided views of the surrounding city and Rome’s ancient Forum area, now covered with trees. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
Peggy took this photo from the lower level looking up at the upper level. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
A closeup view of the basement. Imagine it filled with lions, hippos and giraffes.
A final view of Rome’s Colosseum in the evening. I took this photo when we were seated outside a small restaurant eating the most expensive gelato I have ever eaten. Sock it to the tourists! But it was worth every euro.

NEXT POST: Going on a walk-about in Rome.

24 thoughts on “When in Rome: The Colosseum… Armchair Travel

  1. It is a magnificent building for sure Curt.
    I think the canvas was not for bad weather but shade from the sun. Or perhaps that was bad weather? I wish we had some of that bad weather!

    • Right you are on the roof, Andrew. I went back and checked. Thanks. As for weather, they were predicting sever drought for us this summer so we have been really glad to see what rain we are getting! –Curt

  2. I saw a documentary about the Colosseum one time and was amazed with the engineering involved in the sub-floors. They had such knowledge so long ago, somehow they lost it, or they, according to evolution, should have the capacity to travel to Pluto by now!! The same with so many other civilizations, don’t you think?

    • Agreed, G. An awful lot of ink has been spent pondering the fall of the Roman Empire. There are certainly lessons to be learned. I have always been more surprised by the loss of knowledge that took place than the dissolution of the empire. There were plenty of reasons for the latter ranging internal dissension, to plagues, to the amount of money needed to fight the invading barbarians, to poor leadership, etc. –Curt

  3. We, too, were able to get in to see the Colosseum — the parts remaining below, etc. But today, I’m not sure that’s allowed. I understand why, of course. All of us stomping on those ancient rocks takes its toll. But still, I wish everyone could get inside for a feel for what you’ve described so well. And grave diggers weren’t allowed in?? Really?

  4. Great post Curt. I wish I’d known all this when I was there. I know I know there are sign boards there – but short attention span 🙂
    Wonderful photos, especially the 2 at night.
    Alison

    • Thanks, Kelly. As for chasing giraffes, I’ve written the posts but may pull them forward as part of my Adventure Travel series. 🙂 The short part of the story is that as Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia, we were encouraged to take a month’s vacation during school break our second year. The volunteers Chartered a jet airplane and flew to East Africa. My first wife and I along with another couple rented a VW bug and went on safari! Some 2500 miles worth! 🙂 –Curt

      • WOW, Curt. Your adventures never cease to amaze me. I would love to read more about the giraffes and your VW Bug safari! A trip of a lifetime, no doubt. Reminds me of a book called Dark Star Safari in which Paul Theroux goes by land from Cairo to Capetown.

      • 🙂 I’ll post the VW trip as part of my armchair travel series.
        Theroux is one of my favorite authors. I’ve been reading him since the 70s. BTW, although I wasn’t along, Bone went on a trek in the back of a truck from the Sahara to South Africa. 🙂

      • More than me, Kelly. Now he is all ready for another 2-3 month tour of the US. He even has his face mask. 🙂 This time. Peggy and I are going along! As is his buddy Eeyore, who is also wearing a face mask. –Curt

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