They were once thick with smoke from flickering oil lamps and the smell of sweating gladiators and the panic-stricken wild animals they were about to fight.
Now, the tangled labyrinth of tunnels and chambers that lay hidden beneath the Colosseum’s sandy arena is being opened up to the public in its entirety for the first time.
From Saturday, visitors will be able to descend a metal stairway and wander between the brick and travertine walls where armour-clad gladiators and wild animals such as leopards, lions and bears were corralled.
Gathered in the subterranean gloom, they were hoisted into the arena in a series of wooden cage lifts that were operated with the muscle power of a legion of slaves, emerging via trap doors into the huge amphitheatre, the biggest in the Roman world.
Visitors will be able to see the original bronze fittings, sunk into travertine stone, that housed the capstans which enabled the cages to be raised and lowered.
A walkway in the dungeons
Credit: REMO CASILLI
Green lizards now skitter across brick passages along which gladiators would have passed before emerging into the glare of the arena, cheered and jeered by 60,000 baying Romans.
A small section of the hypogeum, as it is known, was opened about a decade ago, but now visitors can access the entire area, nearly 2,000 years after the Colosseum was inaugurated by the Emperor Titus.
“This is the very heart of the Colosseum. You can imagine how dark it would have been down here, full of men and animals and the people who organised the spectacles in the arena. In many ways, this is the most interesting part of the Colosseum. It’s a monument within the monument,” said Alfonsina Russo, the director of the Colosseum.
“It recounts more than 400 years of history, from when the Colosseum was inaugurated in AD80 until the last spectacles were held in AD523.”
Russell Crowe fights for his life in a scene from Gladiator. He played Maximus, a Roman general sold into slavery and trained as a gladiator
Walkways extending more than 500ft through the bowels of the amphitheatre have been built which allow visitors to see where ramps once allowed props and scenery to be hauled up into the arena.
They can also see a fully-functioning wooden lift, complete with cage and capstans, which was reconstructed in 2015 for a television documentary about ancient Rome.
There were originally 28 such wooden lifts, but after the Colosseum was remodeled following a fire in AD 217, that number increased to 60.
A model of a lift that would once have transported animals into the fighting arena
Credit: Rubens Alarcon / Alamy Stock Photo
… the slave-powered mechanism that was used to hoist the lift up …
Credit: Chris Warde-Jones
… and the trap door at arena level through which the wild animals would have emerged to face the gladiators.
Credit: Chris Warde-Jones
The lifts were used to hoist medium-sized animals such as leopards and wolves, while large animals such as elephants and rhinos entered through ground-level arches.
“Lions, leopards, tigers and bears were among the animals that took part in the spectacles,” said Ms Russo. “They were managed by specially-trained trainers, a bit like a modern day circus.”
Darius Arya, an archeologist, said the tunnels would have been hot, dark and claustrophobic.
“You can imagine the sounds that would have permeated down from the arena above – animals crashing around, the screams of gladiators, the blood and guts. The gladiators were highly trained so they were not meant to be whimpering, but the animals would have been terrified. This would have been an extremely unpleasant place to be,” said Mr Arya, the director of the American Institute of Roman Culture.
“They’ve done a great job with the walkway. It provides an amazing level of access.”
Darius Arya is an American archeologist based in Rome
Credit: Nick Squires
The brickwork has been painstakingly grouted to plug cracks and holes while the travertine marble blocks have been cleaned.
Most of the work was done by hand, with experts using sponges, spatulas and manual drills.
It involved a team of more than 80 technicians, engineers, architects and archeologists.
“We hope this will be seen as a symbol of hope and recovery as Italy emerges from the pandemic,” said Dario Franceschini, the culture minister.
Visitors can glimpse the start of a dank tunnel which once connected the Colosseum with the ludus magnus, the largest of Rome’s gladiator schools.
The tunnel was blocked by the building of a sewage system in the 19th century and for now there are no plans to excavate it.
Another part of the newly renovated Colosseum dungeons and tunnels
Credit: Marco Ravagli/Barcroft Media
The opening up of the tunnels is the second of three stages of a €25-million restoration project that has been funded by Tod’s, the Italian shoe and accessory company.
The first phase was an extensive cleaning of the Colosseum’s façade, while the third phase will concentrate on its second level of seating.
“This project shows that when the public and private sectors decide to do something, things get done,” said Diego Della Valle, the chairman of Tod’s.
The network of tunnels is for now open to the sky, but will be covered up once again if, as planned, a wooden stage is built across the entire arena area. That €18.5 million project was announced earlier this year by the Italian government.