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The Colosseum Underground

Putting on the greatest shows of antiquity in the Roman Colosseum required some pretty mind-blowing logistics. Gladiators needed to be trained, animals needed to be brought in from as far away as Africa, and on the days of the games, everything needed to go off without a hitch. If they didn’t, a displeased emperor might decide to make the organizers pay for it, with their heads. That’s why the architects of the Colosseum built in one of the greatest “backstages” that has ever existed – the hypogeum, or Colosseum Underground. This network of cells and tunnels beneath the wooden floor of the Colosseum held trap doors, elevators, and holding pens for both man and beast that ensured all the action overhead took place seamlessly. Since 2010 visitors have been able to enjoy Colosseum Underground tours that take them into the belly of the beast and give them a taste of the brutality and sheer terror experienced by the men and women who fought and died in the Colosseum. They also learn what little we know about the ingenious stage devices of those whose job it was to make the spectacles larger than life.

Visiting the Colosseum Underground: What to See

The Hypogeum

After the 6th-century heyday of the Colosseum, the Hypogeum fell into disuse. Stones were quarried from it to use in other buildings and it was eventually filled in with dirt and planted with crops by people squatting in the disused amphitheater. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when Benito Mussolini decided to rehabilitate the image of ancient Rome, (and bolster his own in the process) that the Colosseum Underground was fully excavated and archaeologists began to study it in earnest.

What they found was astonishing. By comparing what was left of the hypogeum with ancient eye-witness accounts of gladiator spectacles, they pieced together an image of a highly-sophisticated operation that was basically dedicated to creating special effects on the floor of the arena above. Using a complicated system of ropes and pulleys, along with a considerable amount of elbow grease in the form of slaves, all manner of stage effects were created. Scenery was raised, lowered, and moved this way and that on mobile wooden platforms, animals in cages were raised up from their cells using giant winches called capstans, and in between it all, pens full of gladiators awaited their fates.

The archaeologist Heinz-Jurgen Beste once described the entire operation as resembling the galley of a huge sailing ship. The only difference was that sailors weren’t usually executed if they made mistakes. Those working in the Colosseum weren’t so lucky. According to the Roman historian, Suetonius, emperors would often put to death any workmen who accidentally botched a spectacle in the Colosseum.

Today, the wooden apparatuses are long gone and all that’s left are the markings of where they might have fit in and functioned. Still, taking a Colosseum Underground tour puts you into history in a way that is rarely possible to achieve and gives you a deeper appreciation for the sport and spectacle of days long past.

Tips for Visiting the Colosseum Underground

Hours

The Colosseum Underground is open 7 days a week but can only be visited with a certified tour guide. The Colosseum opens at 8:30am every day and closes one hour before sunset, meaning the closing time changes throughout the years.  It’s closed on December 25th and January 1st. Below is the list of closing times according to the time of year as well as special holiday times:

8:30am – 4:30pm from January 2 to February 15

8:30am – 5pm from February 16 to March 15

8:30 am – 5:30pm from March 16 to last Saturday of March

8:30 am – 7:15pm from last Sunday of March to August 31

8:30am – 7:00pm from September 1 to September 30

8:30am – 6:30pm from October 1 to last Sunday of October

8:30am – 4:30pm from the last Sunday of October to December 31

Tickets for the Colosseum Underground

You can only visit the Colosseum Underground on a guided tour like Walks of Italy’s VIP Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. As this is a very popular attraction in Rome, It’s best to book early – think 3 months in advance for the high season (May – September) – to ensure that you secure a spot.

Rules

Like many of the other famous places to see in Rome, visitors can enter the Colosseum with small bags and medium sized backpacks. But any luggage, large backpacks, or bulky bags are strictly prohibited. In order to enter with a bag you must open it and allow security to inspect it. Because of the security at the entrance, you should always arrive 30 minutes before the reservation time specified on your ticket.

The Colosseum doesn’t have particularly good elevator access. Visitors in wheelchairs should be aware of this as their visit will probably only include the ground floor of the amphitheatre.

The Best Time to Visit the Colosseum Underground

Since you can only access the Colosseum Underground on special guided tours, it does not become overrun with visitors like the rest of the Colosseum during the high season. In fact, it’s probably the best way to visit the Colosseum if you go between the months of April and September. While the rest of the crowds mill around on the general-access tiers you will enjoy the relative calm of the underground, and afterwards, the third tier. Just remember, as mentioned above, tickets can sell out quickly for the peak months so reserve yours as soon as you know your trip dates.

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