Beneath the Colosseum

© John Bragg 2008, All Rights Reserved

The Colosseum sits in the view of the entire world, a constant reminder of a gift from Emperor Vespasian to the Roman populace in 80 A.D. Taking nearly 10 years to complete, the Colosseum hosted a number of events. From gladiator battles to fights between wild animals, the Colosseum provided the area to watch the entertainment. But, how did all of the fights happen with animals and men seeming to rise up from the floor like magic? The secret – a hidden labyrinth of tunnels, holding cells, and trap doors were all under the floor of the massive structure and under the eyes of close to 50,000 Roman audience members. Some of these cells held wild animals, such as bears, lions and leopards,

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(Depiction of the hidden doors beneath the Colosseum floor that released animals, such as this lion )

of whom were released through these secret doors. Teams of strong men could lift bears up with a cage by turning capstans through a semi-circular outcrop made into the stone hidden below the sandy floor up into the arena with tens of thousands of onlookers seeing the strange, large animals for the first time. The cage holding the bear would be locked into place and wooden ramps would be lowered to the front of the cage. When the cage was opened, the animal would be allowed to make its way up into the arena. The hatch made in the floor would promptly close, forcing the animal to meet its doom instead of diving back down into the maze of tunnels. The tunnels were dark below the wooden, sand covered floor of the Colosseum. The thin wood was the only thing that separated caged animals and slaves from the onlookers who sat, according to their place in society with the imagesimages

(Pictures of the Colosseum shows the extensive damage caused by the quarrying of its stone after it fell out of use in the 6th century )

women and slaves up at the highest and farthest bleachers, down to the senators, vestal virgins and emperors. The underground complex unseen by the audience was also known as the”hypogeum”or the greek word for “underground.” The fights, staged and unstated, that took place in the Colosseum had many levels. In the mid-day fights, criminals, prisoners of war or the “condemned” would be released into the arena to be slaughtered by animals, or would stage a scene from mythology. During these scenes, the hypogeum would play a vital part. The strong workers hidden below the floor would make the illusion of boulders moving and trees that hid forest nymphs would run. Although these fights and reenactments were entertaining, the real show was the gladiators. Fighting often to the death, the gladiators would take fighting styles. Often, one would be clad with a heavy net and trident while the opponent would be in a full face mask, shield and carrying a heavy sword. Although all of the credit was given to the valiant and bloody fighters above the wooden floor, the real credit should go to the slaves, animals and hard-working people below the floor in the hypogeum that made the Colosseum the spectacle for which it is remembered.