Under the arena
Every year millions of people flock to see the Colosseum
and are awed by its magnificent scale and design. But a view from the outside only tells half the story. While gladiators fought to the death in the arena to the cheers of up to 80,000 spectators, beneath the sand-covered wooden floor was a huge network of underground tunnels, rooms and cages in which the condemned would wait to face death. This set of chambers was called the hypogeum
, which means 'underground.'
The hypogeum of the Colosseum is so large that it actually has two levels, which were filled with gladiators and animals ready to be slaughtered for Roman entertainment. It would have been busy with slaves, animal keepers (called bestiarii) and stagehands, who operated an elaborate system of elevators and pulleys; most fighters would be marched out, but the animals would be hoisted up vertical shafts from their pens and out through trapdoors into the arena. Sometimes scenery and props would be winched up for extra theatrical effect, and there were even larger hinged platforms which allowed the transport of larger animals like elephants.
Tunnels of death
The tunnels not only connected to the chambers of the hypogeum, but also ran to certain points outside the Colosseum, including stables and weapon stores. They connected to the gladiatorial barracks where the fighters lived and trained, and also to the grim spoliarium, where the armour and weapons of the dead were removed.
In order to access the tunnels you must pre-book a tour. The tour is about an hour and a half and provides you with all the information you will need to understand the entire Colosseum. The tour ends with a climb to the third ring, which you cannot access without a guide, and provides some stunning panoramic views of the Roman Forum
and other ruins surrounding the Colosseum. Don’t miss the chance to experience the dark underbelly of the world’s most famous amphitheatre.