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Ancient Rome Photograph by Marianna Safronova

Photograph by Marianna Safronova

The arena

The arena itself was probably covered by a good 15cm of sand (harena), sometimes dyed red to disguise blood. And, as is evident in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000), the arena was dotted with trap-doors designed to let animals leap dramatically into the fray. The arena was also sometimes decorated with elaborate stage scenery, so that the ritual murder could be varied with theatrical tales.

The Colosseum’s partial destruction allows us to see into the bowels of the amphitheatre, in a way that no ancient could. But when the Colosseum opened in AD 80, Titus staged a sea-fight there (in about one metre of water), and recent research has shown convincingly that the amphitheatre had no basement at this time.

But the rivalrous brother of Titus, Domitian (emperor 81-96), was quick to have a basement built – with ring-formed walls and narrow passages. In this confined space, animals and their keepers, fighters, slaves and stage-hands toiled in the almost total darkness to bring pleasure to Romans.

A series of winches and the capstans would have allowed teams of slaves to pull in unison and hoist heavy animals from the basement to the main arena, and this machinery has been reconstructed, in part, from ancient drawings – aided by the bronze fittings that still survive in the basement’s floor. The rope-burns of the hoists are still visible in the stone of the lift-shafts.

Read more: BBC – History – The Colosseum: Emblem of Rome