Rome, Italy: The Colosseum

During our 2019 summer trip to Rome, the Colosseum was a highlight of our stay. If you are in town, don’t miss this iconic destination!

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Getting Tickets

We ended up going on our first full day, but this was not as easy of a decision as you might think.  When you see the Colosseum, your ticket will also include the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.  Seeing all three in a single day requires a ton of walking and significant energy.  Coming from the United States the day before, we knew jet lag was going to be an issue.  Given that I was traveling with both my children and my parents, I was unsure how they would feel and didn’t know if either of them would be able to push through a strenuous day while thoroughly exhausted.  As I dithered, I held off on buying advance tickets.  By the time I decided what I wanted, the tickets were gone.

This was unfortunate since the line to buy tickets at the Colosseum is notoriously long.  We ended up arriving about 40 minutes before opening and got into a relatively short line, although my kids seemed to think it was long, it really wasn’t.  20 minutes after opening, we had our tickets and were able to go in.

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Note that if you arrive later in the day, your wait will be much longer.  There is a cap of 3,000 people in the Colosseum at any given time.  People with pre-purchased tickets have priority, so the line we were in had potential to come to a complete standstill.  Even the priority line can come to a complete standstill.  Get there early!

Failing this, you may want to consider getting your ticket at the Roman Forum, which has a much shorter line.  You can then see the Roman Forum, then decide if you want to wait in the priority line at the Colosseum (remember that you now already have your ticket), or whether you want to come back the following day and get in the priority line early (your tickets are good for a single entry to each site over two consecutive days).

You also have the option to decide whether you want to make time for Palatine Hill on one of those days.  We have visited it on previous trips, but on this trip, we simply ran out of energy.  If you are going to cut one of the sights, Palatine Hill should be the one you cut.

Despite having to stand in the longer ticket line, the good news was that we were able to decide on-the-fly whether to go on our first full day, or our third.  We had reserved Vatican tickets for our second.  As it turns out, on our first night we were able to stay awake until an appropriate bedtime, wake at a normal hour, and have plenty of energy for the Colosseum!

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In retrospect, with 4 nights, 3.5 days in Rome, we really should have reserved Vatican Tickets for our first full day (it was closed Sunday on our third day).  This would have freed us up to reserve Colosseum tickets for the second day, and optionally use them again on the third day.  We could have visited the Colosseum when we woke up (or the Roman Forum if the line was too long), then decided if we had energy for anything else.  If not, it would have been easy to come back the next day.  But with Vatican reservations on the second day, this was not possible.

Tour or Self-Guided?

We debated getting a tour vs. seeing things on our own.  On the one hand, it is always nice to get extra information from the tour, but on the other, you are tied to the tour schedule, you will always have a mass of people around you, and you are tied to other people’s questions and personalities.

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If anyone in your party is slow, they might not be able to keep up.  Or if you are fast, but another tour member is slow, you might not get to see everything you hoped for.  Another drawback is that if anyone in your group has hearing problems or trouble understanding accented English, you really won’t get the value of a tour guide anyway.  In addition, for regular admission, the kids were free, but with a tour, we would need to buy them a ticket.

Given the combination of these factors, we opted to simply go with the regular admission and read Rick Steves’ summary of the Colosseum.  That said, I didn’t realize how interested my dad was in seeing the lower levels, which is only accessible with the purchase of a specific guided tour.  But, these tickets were already gone online, so by the time I figured this is something he wanted, it was too late.  If you want this type of tour, plan on reserving at least 2 months ahead of time, or whenever these tickets go on sale (currently first Monday of the month, 9am Rome time).

Note that there will be a lot of companies that try to sell you tours while standing in line.  The prices are likely to be high, times may not be what you expect, and quality may or may not be great.  The person selling you the ticket is not likely to be your guide, so there is no way to check the quality of the English for your guide.  If you do decide to go this route, make sure you ask a lot of questions to avoid getting ripped off, and even then realize that you still might be getting ripped off.

Inside the Colosseum

As you go inside, expect to be wowed!  It is amazing to think of this entire stadium being filled with ancient Romans.  Commissioned around 70 AD, tens of thousands of slaves worked until it opened until 80 AD.  This is the building that modern day football stadiums were based on.  The structure is a huge oval that measures 189×156 meters (620×513 feet) and reaches 50 meters (164 feet) high.  Sounds like a football stadium to me!  It had 80 exits and could hold up to 50,000-80,000 people.  More amazingly, it could be evacuated in 15 minutes.  Good thing if a hungry lion got loose.

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Another cool feature was the retractable awning (velarium) that provided shade from the sun.  Kind of interesting to think about the effort that hundreds of Roman sailors put into operating this piece of machinery.  Now, we just push a button.

There were also the animal and gladiator cages on the lowest floor.  In a single day, up to 10,000 animals might be killed.  In contrast to the belief that Christians were martyred here (most people think this is not the case), there were often huge hunts that were staged here.  Other popular activities included gladiator fights, executions, and mock or re-enacted battles, including naval battles!?!

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The second tier houses a mini-museum that gives a lot of interesting information about the Colosseum and had some neat mosaics showing some of the events.

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When thinking about the gladiators, it is interesting to think about being forced to fight rather than choosing it.  We really have a glamorized version of life back then.  Things were quite bloodthirsty.  Earlier this year, there was a simple fight on my kids’ school campus, and it caused some parental angst.  I wonder what the Romans would have thought about our society given the fights-to-the-death glamorized in theirs?

To prevent uprising, the rulers allowed the masses to come to the Colosseum for free!  Think about all that gore that helped the people forget about their miserable lives.  This is where the thumbs-up/thumbs-down system originated.  If a gladiator was about to lose, the people could give a signal to indicate whether he should live or die.  Thumbs up and he would die, thumbs down and swords would be dropped.  The average person apparently felt a lot of power by being able to participate in this decision and didn’t grumble as much about the lack of power in other areas of his life.

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One interesting note is in the seating arrangement.  The most powerful people – the emperor, vestal virgins, senators, and the like – got to sit on the ground floor.  While the emperor had a great view from his podium, the rest of the seats were close to the action, but they really didn’t have all that great of a view.

The second tier was reserved for the nobles.  Much better view.  The women likely had their own section.  Most sources seem to say that only the vestal virgins were allowed to sit with the emperor and senators.

The third tier was for regular men, or plebeians.  The lower seats on this floor indicated higher status, while the upper seats indicated lower status.

The 4th floor was reserved for the plebeian women.  Some sources indicate that slaves were not allowed in the Colosseum at all, other say that they were able to sit with the women on the 4th tier.  Most sources agree that actors, gravediggers, and former gladiators were completely banned from the Colosseum.

All floors have really nice views.

If you didn’t get a ticket in advance, you still might be able to see the games, but you would likely end up standing on the top tier or in the aisles.  Tickets were usually made of clay or bone.

What Happened to the Colosseum?

The Colosseum was used for its original intent until about the 6th century.  After that, it was used as a cemetery (?!?), then for housing and workshops.  Then it was fortified and used as a castle.  In a cemetery?

In the 14th century, there was an earthquake that caused the south side to mostly collapse.  The stones were reused for other purposes around the city.  But people came back in and used the rest of it for housing until the 19th century.

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Today, it is an impressive tourist site that should definitely be visited if you can make it to Rome!

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