Nearly two thousand years ago, men at their physical peak would have been readying themselves backstage in Rome for physical combat. They’d have walked from their gym and training areas, through a tunnel into the backstage, and then, when the moment was right, rise via elevator onto the arena floor, where the roar of up to 70,000 spectators, each screaming for their favorite athlete, would greet them.
So far, it's rather modern-sounding—especially at this moment, with Europe in the grip of soccer fever and Italy set to play England at Wembley in the final of the Euro 2020 tournament on July 11. But this arena, with its 80 elevators, is none other than the Colosseum of Rome, inaugurated in 80CE by the emperor Titus. Its opening celebrations involved 100 days of games, featuring the gladiators so beloved by the Roman public, wild beasts, and possibly, archaeologists say, even life-sized naval sea battles.
Now, after 1,941 years, that underground area where the gladiators readied for combat is open to the public. After a 10-year renovation of the Colosseum, funded by the Italian fashion house Tod’s, the private area—which was only ever accessible to fighters, animal handlers, and the slaves operating backstage in execrable conditions—is open for guided tours.
Visitors can stroll on wooden walkways, above the original herringbone paving, through the corridors where fighters used to make their entrance into the arena; peek into niches that were used as storage spaces for caged animals such as wild boars and tigers; and even see the remains of the 80 travertine elevators which, powered by slaves, raised gladiators and beasts to the arena floor.
It’s at once jaw-dropping, thrilling, and sickening. But what strikes me on my tour, winding along the dimly lit corridors in the footsteps of the gladiators—usually prisoners of war who were fighting for their lives—is how little things have changed.
The night before my tour, I’d been in Rome’s second-most-famous arena—the Stadio Olimpico, home to Italy’s infamous soccer team, AS Roma—watching the quarter-finals of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament. Like the Colosseum, the stadium can hold around 70,000 guests (at full capacity; though due to social-distancing regulations, it’s currently operating at 25 percent). Like the Colosseum, there are various numbered entrances and gates within them to get you to your section safely (at the Colosseum you can still see some of these, chiseled onto the arches, pointed out our guide Lucia, an archaeologist). And like the Colosseum, the Stadio Olimpico racks up the spectators in order of importance. For the match, in which I watched my England beat Ukraine 4-0, I’d sat facing the “premium area,” where high rollers watch the game from white couches.
The next morning while touring the Colosseum, Lucia points out the gleaming white-marble seats for the Roman senators, closest to the arena floor for the best views. Even the lighting is the same—the Colosseum had a retractable sunshade for spectators, Lucia tells us, while the sun blazed down on the fighters; in the Stadio Olimpico, the seating is covered, with floodlights on the pitch. Floodlights because it’s evening—the match is being played after most people finish work. They did the same in ancient Rome, Lucia says—since many people only worked mornings, the games took place in the afternoon.
The games in Rome started almost as an apology to the people—the emperor Nero had appropriated swathes of the city for his outrageously opulent villa, the Domus Aurea, and he’d flooded this valley at the foot of the Esquiline, Caelian, and Palatine hills to make himself a lake. Keen to curry favor with the public, the Flavian dynasty, who took power following Nero’s death, wanted to give the land back to the city—so they drained the lake, and vowed to build the empire’s largest amphitheater as a present to the people. Around 5,000 animals were killed in the inaugural games—a bid to appease a public angry about inequality. It was a propaganda move that worked for four centuries, until the fall of the Roman empire.
Spectator sports may have become less bloody over the past two millennia, but I can’t imagine the roar of the crowd in the Colosseum being louder than that in the Stadio Olimpico. Like us, they snacked—and 1,700-year-old chicken bones and fruit stones that were found in the Colosseum are on display on the second floor. Women did their makeup (again, their tools are displayed on-site) just like the woman perfecting her lipgloss next to me at the soccer game. Musicians staved off boredom between exciting bits in Roman times—just like the DJ who took to the decks at the Stadio Olimpico at half-time.
Some things have changed for the better, of course. As anyone who’s watched the movie “Gladiator” can tell you, fighters were usually prisoners of war “with nothing to lose,” Lucia says. Gladiators usually signed 10-year contracts with managers, on the condition that if they survived to the end, they’d win their freedom.
That rarely happened, she says, as we duck and dive through the low-ceilinged maze that connects the underground rooms. Fewer gladiators died in combat than you’d think—the emperors liked to perform a show of clemency, sparing the beaten combatants’ lives. Instead, it was infected wounds that usually killed them, after the games. If they survived, they’d be back for the next round—their routes around the underground passageways accompanied by guards to stop them from escaping. There were two or three “seasons” of games a year, Lucia says, each running for up to 10 days, with different fights—man versus man, man versus beast, animals tearing each other apart—morning and night. The most popular games, however, were always the straight gladiatorial combat.
Did the top gladiators become heroes? I wondered this back in the Stadio Olimpico, when a classical-style bust of “man of the match” Harry Kane is flashed up on giant screens. What we do know, according to Lucia, is that originally the Colosseum was dotted with sculptures of gods, demi-gods, and mythical heroes. Upstairs, alongside those ancient chicken bones, are oil lamps with gladiators sculpted on them, some in combat, some flexing by themselves, like the prints of England striker Raheem Sterling I see on Etsy the next day.
An initial part of the Colosseum’s underground was opened earlier in the Tod’s renovations, but walking through the backstage today—weaving through corridor after corridor, navigating the never-ending, Escher-like spaces between elevators—is an experience that was last had by the gladiators themselves. A challengingly humanizing look inside a global icon, it brings the Colosseum’s real horrors home. But it's the links between ancient Rome and today—and the foundations the Colosseum laid for all our favorite sports—that hit hardest.
The Full Experience Undergrounds and Arena ticket costs €22,00 + € 2,00 booking fee. Tours in Italian and English take 75 minutes. Book at coopculture.it.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler