Roman Colosseum's Underground Revealed

Come this summer, visitors to Rome will be able to see parts of the Roman Colosseum never before open to the public. They will descend to the dank depths under the world's biggest ancient amphitheater, and climb the steep steps to its highest (existing) level to admire the majestic views over the arena and the magnificent ruins of the Roman Forum and Arch of Constantine next door.

Thanks to special government funds, conservation projects are underway at what is arguably the world's most famous monument to shore up areas that have been closed for decades, and allow access to visitors. Particularly fascinating is the warren of underground chambers and passageways that housed the animals, gladiators, machines and scenery that made up the greatest show on earth two-thousand years ago.

VIDEO: Architect Barbara Nazzaro on opening the Colosseums underground to tourists.Play
Down Under at the Roman Colosseum

Soon, small groups of visitors with a guide will enter the Colosseum through the back entrance known as the Porta Libidinaria -- where in Roman times the gladiators made their grand entrance into the arena -- and take a glass elevator down into the bowels of the arena. There, with some imagination, you can picture the noisy, smelly chaos of animals and men preparing for showy battle.

The area opening to the public is under a modern reconstruction of the floor of the Colosseum that was built with steel beams in the year 2000. The original was built of wood, and covered with sand. Under this roof visitors get a feel for what it was like to be in the underground area where wild animals and gladiators waited their turn in what was the backstage of the biggest spectacle in the world at the time.

"The public will be able to visit this area for the first time in August or September," says Barbara Nazzaro, the architect in charge of the still-to-be completed restoration under the Colosseum, "and they will see the area under the arena where people worked all day to put on the show."

Lions, tigers, buffalo, gazelles, ostriches and more were brought into the Colosseum through an underground tunnel and locked in cells before being hoisted up in one of the 80 elevators to the stage above, appearing as if by magic in different corners of the arena (elephants used the ground-level entrance) .

"They were very appreciated by the public," says Nazzaro,"but many wild animals disappeared in this period" to satisfy the Roman audience. She shows you the holes in the cells through which the animals were poked so they would enter the elevator cages. Gladiators and scenery were also lifted to the surface with pulleys.

In its early days the Colosseum was even flooded with water and naval battles were re-enacted for an excited public, according to Rosella Rea, the archeologist in charge of the monument. She says the long vaulted galleries you see underground housed the ships. The water that was used for the naval battles -- and, more gruesomely, to wash away the blood and dirt of battle -- came from an underground stream that was channeled by the Romans and still flows through the site.

Colosseum shows, with as many as 80,000 spectators, were all-day events featuring hunts and battles, and were offered free to the people by the Roman emperor. At the end of the day, the emperor would distribute the meat from the dead animals to the public according to precise rules, says Rea.

The emperor himself would always get the elephant tusks, the senators and officials the choice meats, and the leftovers were left for the plebes.

Much as in a modern baseball stadium, there were merchants selling food and drink, and archeologists have even found small cooking stoves that must have been used to prepare meals, says Rea.

Also being opened to visitors this summer is a section of the third tier of the amphitheater, the highest section still standing. It offers a different perspective on the cavea, or pit of the arena, as well as spectacular views over the Palatine and the Forum all the way down to Piazza Venezia, where, with construction materials quarried for the Colosseum, the Palazzo Venezia was built in the 15th century.

This is where the middle class sat, says Rea, with the emperors and senators in the best ground-level seats and the plebeians in the peanut gallery on top. On the way to the third level visitors will be able to admire the only original vaulted passageway leading to the seats that is still standing.

Rome's Ancient Monuments

In June 2009 the Italian government named a special commissioner and provided him with emergency funds for urgent repair to the ancient monuments in Rome, many of which are in a sorry state of conservation. A part of Nero's famed Golden House caved in at Easter, and most recently a chunk of ceiling plaster fell from one of the galleries in Colosseum, dragging protective netting with it.

The equivalent of just under $2 million were alotted to the Colosseum, which is a small windfall for a monument with an annual budget of only $900,000 and a technical staff of just three people. They are spending the funds to "accelerate" a series of essential restorations they had already planned, says Rea. "If we could always work at this pace, it would be ideal," she says.

Restorers have been hard at work since January cleaning and restoring travertine columns and ancient bricks. "All old things can use a face-lift," says Nazzaro with a smile, "and this monument is particularly old, with a lot of problems." They will be finished by the end of July.

Now the government is looking for outside sponsors willing to contribute the $25 million it would cost to fully restore and clean the whole monument.