Remember that scene from Gladiator? When Maximus and his men first step out onto the sands of the arena? Armed with spears and whatever helmets and shields were to hand, they ascend from the dark depths of the Colosseum Underground, with no idea who (or what) they’re about to face.
Ruthless gladiators? Baited ravenous lions? Camped out in the center of the enormous amphitheater, Maximus and his men soon find themselves prey to a unit of scythed chariots, whose unfortunate riders they slaughter. Much to the emperor’s ire.
Colosseum scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
Where Maximus and his comrades ascended from was the hypogeum, part of a vast network of hidden tunnels running beneath the Roman Colosseum. Now, with Walks Inside Rome, you can visit the Colosseum Underground for yourself – during the day or by night, when the crowds have dispersed, and follow in the footsteps of the ancients.
A labyrinth of men, beasts and props
To put it simply, the Colosseum Underground consists of the vast network of rooms, tunnels, and elevators (yes, elevators) which led up to the main arena floor.
Over the centuries, the arena's sand floor was subjected to fires, earthquakes, and even lightning strikes, all of which took their weathering toll on the colossal monument. But not on the Colosseum Underground, which remains remarkably intact.
The Colosseum Underground originally spanned two levels. One was home to a complex water and drainage system. Designed by the best Roman engineers of the time, its purpose was to wash away the blood and excrement of the dead human and animal participants above. Grim, right?
The stench would have been appalling, and the darkness would have only amplified it. Because little natural light filtered through from above, so its workers had to light their rooms and tunnels with lamps.
Reconstruction of the Colosseum's many layers
The Colosseum Underground's main area was the hypogeum, which essentially served as a holding pen for man and beast alike. Ready to entertain the 50,000 - 80,000 spectators above, the Romans constructed 32 animal pens below, the remains of which you can still see.
At any given moment, these animals could appear anywhere on the arena floor, winched up on elevators pulled by the slaves working below. We're not talking about the odd tiger, bear, leopard, or even elephant. We're talking about thousands of animals - 9,000 just for the Colosseum's inaugural games.
Animals of the Arena: 'Venationes' and 'Condemnatio ad bestias'
Typically, after the imperial pomp and ceremony at the beginning of the day's events, the games would start with a display of the wild and exotic animals sourced from all across the empire. Released from their holding pens in the Colosseum Underground and winched up on the elevators built beneath the stage, they would appear on the sands to be paraded in front of an awe-struck populace.
Then came the venatio - the hunt. Trained gladiators would put these animals to the sword - bears, lions, tigers, goats, leopards. Whatever exotic beasts the Romans could capture. The scale was sickening. Even before the Colosseum was built, during the Age of Augustus (31 BC - 14 AD), some 3,500 elephants were slaughtered in the circus. The Roman Empire's further reach after the completion of the Colosseum served only to amplify the bloodshed.
The next part of the matinee performance of the Colosseum would be given over to the executions of slaves, criminals, and anyone else condemned in the law-courts of the Roman Forum. Some were burnt at the stake; others crucified for the mob's pleasure. But the crowd's favourite mode of execution was condemnatio ad bestias: the pitting of unarmed men against wild beasts.
Mosaic showing condemnatio ad bestias (3rd century AD Tunisia)
The mosaic above shows a man being executed in precisely this way. His condemnatio ad bestias has pitted him against a leap of leopards, a couple of which circle him while another mauls his face and gouges his torso.
We don't know how the beasts would have been brought into this particular Tunisian amphitheater. In the Colosseum, however, they and their victim would have been brought from the depths of the Colosseum Underground.
The element of surprise for appearing on stage was not only restricted to animals. The Roman Colosseum was home to entire stage sets: trees, buildings, even manmade mountains.
Reconstruction of the Colosseum stage floor
Stored in the labyrinthine corridors and cells of the Colosseum Underground, such props were hoisted from the depths and erected on the arena floor, ready to surprise and delight the masses watching on from above.
Daily 08:30 AM - one hour before sunset.
You cannot visit the Colosseum Underground alone and unaccompanied. You can only visit as part of a tour. Fortunately, we offer a range of tours for you to explore the Colosseum Underground.
How big was the Colosseum Underground?
The short answer is huge! In fact, it even ran beyond the Colosseum. Among the several tunnels charged with contributing men, beasts, and machinery to the violent carnage above were tunnels leading outside the Colosseum itself.
One led directly to the imperial palace all the way over on the Palatine Hill. Another led to the Ludus Magnus (Gladiator School) just outside the Colosseum.
The Ludus Magnus
You can still see the Ludus Magnus' ruins today, and even with the passing traffic it's a much calmer scene than it would have been 2,000 years ago. Wounds would have been agonising, untreatable, and therefore often fatal. Gladiators who lost their lives in the arena were taken to the spoliarium, where they were stripped of their armor and weapons and their bodies washed and prepared for their journey to the afterlife.
What happened to the Colosseum floor?
When the Western Roman Empire fell, the Colosseum slowly fell with it. Languishing in disrepair, its gladiatorial combats gradually faded out. During the Middle Ages the Colosseum was used as a religious site. This was because of the Christian martyrs who were executed in its arena during the pagan period.
With its one God, Christianity posed a threat to the polytheism of paganism. That's why the Romans were at pains to stop it spreading. But when Constantine converted in the 4th century AD, the rest of the Empire soon converted with him. And the rest is history
Christians praying at a shrine in the Colosseum
How can I visit the Colosseum Underground?
The Colosseum Underground is a recent addition to any ancient itinerary, only opening in 2010. Unlike the rest of the Colosseum, you cannot visit the Colosseum Underground alone. So it's essential you find a tour to take you there. Luckily for you, you've come to the right place!