The Colosseum ★★★

The Colosseum at sunrise, The Colosseum, Rome, Italy (Photo by picmasta)
The Colosseum at sunrise

Rome's Colosseo still ranks as the world's most famous sports arena, site of gladiator combat and the wholesale slaughter of wild beasts to amuse the public

This wide majestic oval with the broken-tooth profile is the world's most famous sports arena.

Started in AD 70 on the filled-in site of one of Nero's artificial fish ponds (see the "Why is it called The Colosseum?" section below), this grand amphitheater was the "bread and circus" of the Roman Empire, an arena of blood and gore to amuse 50,000 of the masses at a time.

The inaugural contest in AD 80 lasted 100 days and killed off 5,000 beasts—these contests eventually drove to extinction several species, including the Middle Eastern lion and North African elephant—and countless gladiators.

Visiting the Colosseum

The most impressive aspect of the Colosseum is viewing it from afar, admiring that unmistakable silhouette, the symbol of Rome itself.

The interior is, frankly, a bit disappointing, although visits have improved dramatically with the recent reopening of the upper levels and the lower-level "dungeons" to visitors (thogh you can visit only in small groups and with a required guide).

"While the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall." 
—AD 7th century Anglo-Saxon pilgrims' proverb, quoted by the Venerable Bede

The Colosseum fell into disuse as the empire waned.

Earthquakes caused considerable damage, and later generations recycled its stone building blocks and marble cladding as a mine of precut building materials for their medieval buildings, Renaissance churches, and baroque palaces.

Gladiator lessons

Train to be a gladiator

Cheesy? Yes. Fun? Undoubtedly. Besides, this is not just a chance to dress up in silly Imperial costumes and learn to wield a net and shield or spear and rudas (practice sword) or gladius (the short Roman sword from which gladiators got their name). It's also a hands-on history lesson—how better to learn a bit about daily life (and grisly death) in ancient Rome than being trained in the gladiatorial arts?... » more

The seats are gone, as is the wooden floor—though one-fifth of it has recently been replaced so you can get an idea of how it once appeared.

The overall impression, though, is that of a series of nested broken eggshells of crumbling brick, littered with lazing cats and cupping a maze of walls in the center.

These walls mark the corridors and holding pens for the animals, equipment, and gladiators—an area until recently tantalizingly visible, yet closed to the public. Now, however, you can get down there to explore the gladiatorial warren, but if you book the special Coloseseum dungeons and upper tiers tour.

The Arch of Constantine

You'll notice as you're waiting in line (though you should book tickets ahead of time; see "Tips" below) a huge marble arch standing alone between the Colosseum and the back entrance to the Roman Forum.

This is the Arch of Constantine, one of the largest of Rome's ancient triumphal arches.

How to Build a Colosseum

Architecturally, the Colosseum is a poster child for the classical orders of architecture: Three levels of 80 arcades each, set with niches once filled by statues and supported by columns that became more ornate with each level, following the Greek orders of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, respectively. 

A fourth level—plainer in design, alternating small windows and large bronze plaques—supported a forest of some 240 wooden beams and their accompanying apparati of pulleys, beams, and canvas that togather created a retractable roof,winched out by a specially trained troupe of sailors to shade the seats from sun and rain. (Astrodome, eat your heart out.)

This massive stadium was nearly 49m (160 feet) high, with an inner arena measuring 76m by 44m (249 x 144 feet).

Fun fact: The very word "Arena" actually dervices from harina, the Latin term for the kind of very fine sand that was strewn over the Colosseum's wooden floor. it had one purpose: To soak up all the blood.

(This word for a super-fine granular substance lives on in several Romance languages. The Spanish word for "flour" is still "harina;" in Italian, it's close: farina.)

Why is it called The Colosseum?

The official name for this giant sports arena is the Anfiteatro Flavio, or Flavian Amphitheater, because it was started by the Emperor Vespasian in AD 70 and finished by his son Titus in AD 80, and their family name was Flavian.

The emperors never really got their due, though, because, even in antiquity, the stadium quickly earned the nickname "colosseum" (in Italian, colosseo).

See, before there was an arena here, there was a giant artificial fish pond built by Nero as part of his imperial pleasure gardens connected to the famed Domus Aurea, or Golden House.

Nero being Nero, his palatial complex (most of which lies buried under the hill just NNW of the Colosseum) included an enormous statue of himself as the god of the sun in gilded bronze.

At 35m (115 ft), this was the largest bronze statue ever constructed, and the idea was to outdo the famed Wonder of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes.

The statue was known as the Colossus of Nero, or simply "The Colossus," and when Hadrian moved the thing (it took 24 elephants) to stand beside the Flavian Amphitheater in the early 1st century AD, the nickname spread to the arena as well. (Which, incidentally, is why it's properly spelled "Colosseum" and not "Coliseum.)"

The last remnants of the statue were destroyed in 1936, though you can still see its raised base, 7m (23 ft) to a side and planted with an ilex grove, at the end of Via dei Fori Imperiali between the road and the Colosseum.

Photo gallery
  • The Colosseum at sunrise, The Colosseum, Italy (Photo by picmasta)
  • The interior of the Colosseum, The Colosseum, Italy (Photo by Emilio Santacoloma)
  • Now that the sand-covered wooden floor is gone, you can see the basement corridors—or
  • A modern drawing depicting sailors unfurling sections of the Colosseum roof along its rigging, The Colosseum, Italy (Photo by kmaschke)
  • The Colosseum as it used to look: A modern, painted reconstruction showing the roof poles ringing the top and the Colossus of Nero to one side, The Colosseum, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The Colosseum as it used to look: A coin from the reign of Titus (ca. AD 80), with the Meta Sudans (a fountain destroyed by Mussolini in 1934) on the left; the Colosseum would have been behind that, The Colosseum, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The gladiators salute the emperor in the classic
  • An architectural plan of the Colosseum, The Colosseum, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The seating plan of the Colosseum, The Colosseum, Italy (Photo by ChrisO)
  • This 4th century mosaic, now in the Galleria Borghese, was like having a poster of sports heros on your wall: Pictures of 33 famous gladiators, with the names of those who died in the arena labelled with a ϴ [Greek theta] next to them., The Colosseum, Italy (Photo by Unknown)
The Colosseum tours
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Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into The Colosseum for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

» more on discounts & passes
How long does the Colosseum take?

Expect to spend about 60–90 minutes here (longer if you have to wait in line—though you can avoid that; see the next tip).

The ticket office closes (and last entry allowed) one hour before the site does.

Book Colosseum tickets ahead of time

Lines at the Colosseum can last up to an hour in summer. To save your precious vacation time, it's well-worth paying the €1.50 fee to book your entry ahead of time (tel. -06-3996-7700, or at Select Italy)—though if you're visiting in off-season, the wait is usually more like 15 minutes so booking might not be necessary.

If you don't book ahead and there's a long line right at the Colosseum, you can also buy tickets at three other places:

  • At the main Forum entrance (on Via della Salaria Vecchia 5/6, on the east side of the Forum just off Via dei Fori Imperiali/Via del Foro Romano).
  • At the base of the Palatine Hill at Via San Gregorio 30 (just south of the Colosseum along that wide, busy road),
  • At Piazza Santa Maria Nova 53 (inside the south end of the Forum, 200m from the Colosseum)
Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).



Gladiators duke it out (Photo courtesy of Viator)
Gladiator lessons
Rome: Outside the walls

Learn what it took to do battle in the Colosseum with a half-day Roman gladiator school

The octagonal room was once a banqueting hall (Photo by Andy Montgomery)
Domus Aurea
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

The Domus Aurea—Nero's personal pleasure palace across from the Colosseum—offers a rare glimpse into the privileged world of a Roman emperor

Arco di Constantino (Photo by Mike)
Arch of Constantine
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

This triumphal arch celebrates the battle that made Christianity the religion of Rome


What was it really like being a gladiator?