There is no more enduring symbol of Rome than the Flavian Amphitheater, aka the Roman Colosseum. It was built by the Flavian Dynasty – Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domition – over the course of some 25 years in the first century AD. Almost 2,000 years ago it served the same purpose that amphitheaters do today – showcasing large public spectacles. If its purpose was modern, so too was its size and architecture. It could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, making it comparable in size to the Mile High Stadium in Denver and Manchester United’s Old Trafford. It featured well-designed exits that could empty the entire venue in a manner of minutes, trapdoors in the arena floor that allowed for “special effects”, and a giant awning that protected spectators from rain. Visiting the Ancient Roman Colosseum today is to be reminded of just how “modern” people were in Ancient Rome.
Visiting the Roman Colosseum: What to See
The Facade of the Roman Colosseum
The Amphitheater’s outer wall is constructed of over 100,000 cubic meters of travertine without a single drip of concrete. Instead the stones were bound by 300 tons of iron clamps. Today you won’t see any iron or other metals holding the Colosseum together because it was all plundered at various points in the city’s history when metal was expensive or scarce and used to construct other buildings. Stones were also removed and repurposed from the Colosseum after it had fallen into disuse. In its heyday it had 80 entrances/exits that allowed huge groups of people to get in and out quickly. Although the grandest arches were reserved for emperors and nobility, most people would have come in and left through passages called “vomitoria” which refers in latin, to rapid discharge. Unsurprisingly, it’s also where we the english word “vomit”.
The Colosseum Underground
The first thing you’ll notice when you walk out to the floor of the Colosseum is that there is no floor. No, really. The floor was made from wooden planks probably covered with sand for traction, and nothing of it remains today. Instead, a network of cells and tunnels are exposed. They are known officially as the hypogeum, but most people just call them the Colosseum underground.
The Colosseum Underground is where gladiators were kept before their battles and also where wild animals – trapped and imported from as far away as North Africa – were imprisoned before being let out to be hunted during the shows known as venationes. Keep an eye out for areas that would have housed trap doors through which the arena floor could be raised and lowered to create crowd-pleasing effects. The exact nature of these effects have been lost to history, but they seem to have played an immensely important role in the games. Tickets to the Colosseum Underground have to be purchased separately from general-access tickets.
The ancient Roman Colosseum is actually named for Rome’s most famous monument that no-one has ever seen. “Colosseum” literally means “Place of the Colossus.” But who or what was this Colossus?
It was an enormous bronze statue of the emperor Nero that originally stood at the entrance of his Domus Aurea, a 300-room pleasure complex that once dominated a large swathe of the Roman Forum. Although the statue (which rose anywhere from 30 to 35 meters and required a team of elephants to move) never sat within the Colosseum itself, it eventually sat near it and apparently transferred its name to the building. The statue was demolished at some point during the 8th century but it was the original inspiration for the phrase: “As long as the Colossus stands, Rome will stand; when it falls, Rome will fall, too.” Originally coined by an early English writer named The Venerable Bede, the phrase was later repurposed by Lord Byron in his famous poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in order to fit the Colosseum.
Tips for Visiting the Colosseum
The Colosseum (Like the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill) opens at 8:30am every day and always closes one hour before sunset, which means that the closing times vary throughout the year. It is closed on December 25 and January 1. 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 – 5:00pm from February 16 to March 15
8:30am – 5:30pm from March 16 to last Saturday of March
8:30am – 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
Like many of the other famous Roman attractions, visitors with Colosseum tickets can enter 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 to the Colosseum.
The Roman 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 amphitheater.
There isn’t much in the way of plaques or supplementary info at the Ancient Roman Colosseum so if you want to really appreciate what you’re seeing, read up before hand, rent an audio guide, or go with a guided tour.
How To Buy Tickets for the Colosseum
You can buy tickets for the Colosseum in five different ways.
- At the ticket office of the Colosseum or any of the ticket offices nearby on the Via di San Gregorio, Largo Salara Vecchia, Piazza del Colosseo, or Via Sacra. Given the large crowds that tend to visit the Colosseum during the high season, we recommend that if you attend any time from May through October that you avoid buying your ticket at the ticket office on the day of your visit – it will just increase the aggregate time you spend waiting in line. On the other hand tickets are valid for 2 days so you can always stop by one day and then go the next. Insiders’ Tip: If you want to visit the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill together, the ticket office of the Roman Forum usually has the smallest lines, so avoid the crowds at the Colosseum and buy your ticket for all three attractions there.
- By telephone at +39 (0)6 399 677 00. The lines are open Monday to Saturday 9:00am to 1:30pm and 2:30pm to 5:00pm.
- On the website.
- Buy a Roma Pass. These little cards give you entrance into many of Rome’s most visited attractions and are a perennial favorite of history and archeology buffs who are visiting the city. If you plan to fill your days with sightseeing, the 3-day pass for €36.00 or the 2-day pass for €28.00 are probably the best way to go. Pick one up here
- Take a Tour. If you want to skip the lines – which can be long – though nowhere near as bad as the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica – the best way is to reserve a guided Roman Colosseum tour. Not only will your guide take you right into the Colosseum, they will give you all the stories, facts and legends that really bring the Colosseum to life.
The Best Time to Visit the Colosseum
The off-season, November through April, is the least crowded time to visit the Colosseum but you risk the occasional storm. A normal rain won’t close the Colosseum but because it’s an outdoor attraction (that has suffered more than a few bad lightning strikes in its nearly 2,000 years) adverse weather can and will close it for the day. You can generally count on good weather and larger crowds in the high season. For this reason booking your ticket in advance is especially important if you’re planning to visit between May and October.
Read More on our Blog
December 10, 2015
Editors' Note: We like to think that the guides we work with know Rome better than anyone else in the business so when we heard that teacher, author, and Walks Colosseum guide, Mauro Poma had written a new book on the history and lore behind the Colosseum we had get ...More Info
June 8, 2013
The only thing better than the Colosseum underground... is the Colosseum underground at night! That's when the Colosseum and its hypogeum—the tunnels beneath the arena where gladiators and animals waited for their turn to fight—are at their quietest and most atmospheric. (Not to mention spooky). So that's why ...More Info
January 14, 2013
Starting this summer, visitors to the Colosseum will be able to see something really special: Original, painted decorations... and graffiti. Like other ancient Roman buildings, the Colosseum wasn't just plain white (or gray). It was painted. Even though archaeologists always knew this, they were only recently able to determine the ...More Info