The Colosseum was one of our favorite sites in Rome. Here are 10 fun facts about the ancient world’s largest amphitheater and some tips for your visit. 

If you don’t care about fun facts, click here to skip straight to the tips.

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1. When it first opened, ancient Romans wouldn’t have called it “the Colosseum.” 

It would have been the “Flavian Amphitheater” to them, named after the Emperor who built it in 72 AD.

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2. But, they did call it the Colosseum eventually.

The Emperor Nero erected a mammoth statue of himself, known as Nero’s Colossus, next to the amphitheater. After Nero died, the next emperor simply replaced the statue’s head with a new one in his image and changed the statue’s name to honor himself. Other emperors did the same. The amphitheater next door eventually became known as the Colosseum, due to its proximity to the colossus-with-the-ever-changing-name-and-heads.

The site of the ancient statue of Nero, from which the Colossus got its name

The site of the ancient statue of Nero, from which the Colossus got its name

3. The first games at the Colosseum were held in 80AD. They lasted for 100 days, and featured over 3000 gladiator fights.

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4. Gladiator fights were relatively rare, and a special treat.

Gladiators were expensive.  So they were often saved for the last day of a multi-day festival.  The other days would feature animal-on-animal violence, plays, or fights between humans and wild beasts.

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5. Romans used to treat the Colosseum like a one-stop shop for their stone and masonry needs.

When St. Peter’s Basilica was being constructed, Romans raided the Colosseum for its marble facade and other stones. Fortunately, a Pope put a stop to that and saved the building, although it took a little white lie to do so.

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6. No Christians were martyred in the Colosseum.

This surprised me: Everyone knows that Christians were fed to the lions in ancient Rome! But it turns out not to be true. In the 1750s, fed up with the quarrying of stones from the Colosseum, Pope Benedict XIV declared it to be a sacred site and claimed it was due to the martyrdom there of early Christians. The stone-stealing stopped, the grounds were protected, and the myth of martyrdom was born.

This was the view gladiators had just before entering the arena

This was the view gladiators had just before entering the arena

 7. The Colosseum is a symbol for the death penalty abolition movement. The local government in Rome changes the color of the Colosseum’s night time lights from white to gold whenever a condemned prisoner somewhere in the world has has their sentence commuted, or a state abolishes the death penalty. 

View from the Roman Forum

View from the Roman Forum

8. Ancient Romans could enjoy the mass slaughter in the shade. The Colosseum was originally constructed with a retractable awning to keep off the sun and rain.

Ancient graffiti showing where Roman senators would sit

Ancient graffiti showing where Roman senators would sit

9. Roman Senators had their own seating section. You can still see the names of some 5th century Roman senators carved into the stones, reserving the seats for their use.  This is so cool. 

Modern graffiti: if you're the kind of person who feels the need to carve your name into an ancient building, just punch yourself in the face and save the rest of us the trouble

Modern graffiti: if you’re the kind of person who feels the need to carve your name into an ancient building, just punch yourself in the face and save the rest of us the trouble

10. The Colosseum had a two stories of underground storage. The hypogeum, or underground, was a network of tunnels and cages underneath the arena floor, with 80 elevator shafts that allowed the organizers of the games to make animals or combatants appear as if out of nowhere in the middle of the arena. Special tours of the underground and the 3rd floor are available, and totally worth it.

The underground levels of the Colosseum are clearly visible here

The underground levels of the Colosseum are clearly visible here

Tips for your trip to the Colosseum

Tickets to the Colosseum are 12 Euro. You can buy them online, or by walking up to the ticket office on-site. The tickets are good for two days and allow you one entrance to the Colosseum and one entrance to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, next door.

You can rent an audio guide for 5.5 Euro, or use one of the millions of tour guides who will flock to you as soon as you exit the Metro station across the street.

A tree grows on Palatine Hill

A tree grows on Palatine Hill

The tour of the underground and the second floor, both of which are only accessible via a tour, cost an additional 9 Euro.  The tour, which takes about 90 minutes, runs several times a day and was well worth it.

After you’ve arrived at the Colosseum and successfully dodged the legions of tour guides, you’ll see a looooong line at the entrance to the Colosseum.  This is the line of people who are waiting to buy their entrance tickets.  Skip this line. You are going to walk to the ticket gate for the Roman Forum/Palatine Hill and buy exactly the same ticket with no waiting in line.  The Palatine Hill ticket gate is 4 minutes down Via di San Gregorio that runs from the Colosseum along the base of Palatine Hill.
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Entry tickets are €16.50 per person. Tickets are valid for 2 days, though you can only enter once. The ticket is good for entry to both the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum.
 
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Once you’ve got your ticket in-hand, go back to the Colosseum.  Right next to the line of people who are waiting to buy their tickets is a path for people who already have their tickets. Flash your ticket at the guard and you can walk inside the Colosseum to the window that sells tickets for the guided tour of the underground. You can do this without technically entering the Colosseum and using your ticket; in other words, flashing your ticket at the guard and then reserving your guided tour does not count as the one entrance to the Colosseum that you are permitted with your ticket.

In short: go early, avoid the lines, pay a bit extra for a tour of the parts that everyone else doesn’t get to see, and you’ll find it well-worth it.