For those who follow my Facebook and Twitter feeds this latest blog post will come as no surprise. I recently took some time off work to return to my most favourite place in the world, and setting of my second novel, Rome.
Rome is a special place to me, having studied Roman history all my life, the city is something of a holy grail type place. It is where huge turning points in history occurred, so much history came from, a place that essentially began life as a small tribal village on the edge of a boggy swamp and river. In fact, I once read a text book that described the founding of Rome as “seven hills and one big sewer”. But the city is special for another reason, it happens to be where my husband proposed to me 10 years ago, and no, he didn’t queue up to do it at the Trevi Fountain like everyone else, he took me to the Colosseum.
I love the Colosseum. It is a place steeped quite literally in blood, sweat and tears. I’ve seen it before, but never like this: this time it was midnight, there were only 20 people there and we were exploring the lower levels. But a little background first.
The Colosseum stands in the very heart of Rome and was built by the Emperor Vespasian who assumed the purple (became emperor) following a short civil war after the death of the unpopular Nero. Nero, perhaps most famous for burning half of Rome and blaming it on the Christians, built a huge palace for himself in the centre of Rome complete with a boating lake where the Colosseum now stands. Needless to say Vespasian tore down Nero’s golden palace and built a public monument in its place thus making him far more popular with the people of Rome than Nero had ever been. (side note: you can tell Vespasian is one of the good emperors as he’s one of only a handful not to have been murdered!). At the time the Colosseum was referred to as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the name Colosseum actually comes from a colossal statue of Nero (later, the god Helios) which stood only meters from one of the Colosseum entrances until the medieval period when the metal was stolen and melted down for other uses.
The building’s survival is also somewhat of an accident. It has long been held that this was the site of the martyrdom and murder of thousands of Christians. Actually this is incorrect – executions usually happened at the Circus Maximus. However it was due to this belief that Christian executions occurred there that the building was initially denounced and later saved thanks to the Church believing its own propaganda. As it was Papal compassion that saved the Colosseum, those of us who love Ancient Rome have to be grateful to religion for preserving such a fantastic monument, even if their reasoning was somewhat incorrect. As a side note it is not impossible that executions were carried out at the Colosseum, however there are no surviving records whilst there are a number of records survive for the executions of Christians in the Circus Maximus.
Anyhow on to my own adventure and entering the Colosseum after hours when all the tourists have gone, just like my fictional team of teenage archaeologists. Whilst they broke in through the gladiator school, I entered via a far more legal means as a small tour group.
During the day when full of tourists the Colosseum is almost as it was, alive with the sound of people talking, laughing, selling things and going about their day. At night, it is a silent, imposing building, filled with an almost hallowed hush of expectation. An empty theatre after the show. Shadows dance across the stage in the moonlight, swords and tridents appear as shadows on the walls, the battle of the gladiators can almost be heard. Yes, from the upper tiers it is an overwhelming experience as the vast expanse of the place becomes clear. We had the benefit of a full moon, which gave some of our photos the haunting feeling that outside the walls of the Colosseum Nero’s fire was raging.
The upper levels of the Colosseum though were not our final destination, we were headed where few can currently go. Into the lower levels. We were walked down some wide stairs, around the inner encircling wall and down more stairs below the losing (read dead) gladiators exit from the arena. Down we went into the darkened tunnels below. There are electric lights there now but the slaves who worked down here and gladiators waiting to go on would have been in near darkness as lamps would have been dangerous with all those wooden beams around.
We reached the base of the stairs, as chance would have it right where the passage from the gladiator school joins the underground chambers of the Colosseum. Essentially right where my team of teenagers also entered the Colosseum (although they entered onto the stage for a more dramatic literary effect). It was quiet down there and oddly cold, there was not much open for us to wander around but we were ushered forward below to a portion of the stage that currently indicates the location of the arena floor. Here was a lift. A timber framed lift exactly as described in Echoes of the Eternal City. Here before me was the spot where my characters climbed down into the lower levels where they awoke the ghastly gladiators. There would have been over 40 of these lifts below the floor of the arena for transporting scenery, gladiators and animals – those scenes with the tigers in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were not wrong!
The animal pens down there were tiny, imagine the poor giraffes and elephants stored down there in the dark. Romans had no real qualms about animal cruelty so tiny pens did not bother them. In all honesty the gladiators did not have much better accommodation anyway. Whilst below ground we could also see the channels created to deal with the latrines, the arena had thousands to cater to its immense audience, and its drains run deep, linking eventually with the sewer system and then to the Tiber via the massive Cloaca Maxima.
Finally, we were taken back upstairs, but there was one last thing to do. At midnight I stepped out onto the deserted arena floor and I believe I have never felt so tiny or closed in. To be a gladiator and walk out to a braying crowd must have been terrifying, to walk out below a full moon was moving and intimidating. It is an awe-inspiring building for all the blood soaked into its stones, a symbol of a long dead power with an infinite belief in its own hubris. Whilst it is of course physically impossible to touch and feel the past, standing on the Colosseum floor at midnight with an overactive imagination is the closest I have ever felt to the veil of time being lifted.
These later night tours of the Colosseum are expensive, but should you be going to Rome I wholeheartedly recommend it, the guides are both historians and archaeologists who really know their subject. The earlier part of the evening takes a tour around the ancient centre of Rome starting from Trajan’s Column, circling around past the Emmanuel Monument (the Wedding Cake) to show visitors the surviving remains of Roman tenement blocks, up past the Capitoline Museum (another location from Echoes) and back down past the Forum, via the arch of Constantine and Temple of Julius Caesar before heading up the main road towards the Colosseum. Our tour began at 9:30 and we left the Colosseum shortly after midnight.
We booked our tour with Viatour, see their website for info.
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.