Secrets Of The Roman Coliseum

The Roman Coliseum has awed, thrilled and inspired visitors from the day it opened in 80 AD right up until the present day…The sheer massive construction of the Coliseum itself, as high as a 12 story building and seating 50, 000 people in marked numbered aisles and seats, not to mention the drinking fountains and latrines inside are amazing details in themselves…What happened on the “playing field” is pretty common knowledge, which I have explored in my first two blogs on the Coliseum and the gladiators who performed there in their life and death struggle for fame, glory and sometimes for mere existence…

But there was another, hidden part of the Coliseum that the crowds who thronged there every chance that they got were mostly unaware of…I am talking about the area UNDERNEATH the Coliseum floor, called the hypogeum; how it was divided, subdivided and utilized for a variety of functions…Modern day visitors to this still existing relic marvel at the ingenuity, engineering skill and the efficiency on display, and how it all fit together to make for a seamless, glitch free extravagant production…Ironically, because of the state of decay and disrepair of the facility today, it is easier than ever to uncover and observe some of the “secrets of the Coliseum.”


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Beneath the sandy floor of the Roman Coliseum was an amazing underground labyrinth…..According to my Google sources: “During gladiatorial games in the arena, a vast network of man-powered machinery made animals and scenery appear from beneath a wooden floor as if by magic…..The floor of the Colosseum, where you might expect to see a smooth ellipse of sand, is instead a bewildering array of masonry walls shaped in concentric rings, whorls and chambers, like a huge thumbprint.

The guesswork ends when you meet Heinz-Jürgen Beste of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, the leading authority on the hypogeum, the extraordinary, long-neglected ruins beneath the Colosseum… There was a cross-shaped, vertical winch called a capstan, which men would push as they walked in a circle. “A team of workmen at the capstan could raise a cage with a bear, leopard or lion inside into position just below the level of the arena. Nothing bigger than a lion would have fit.” A wooden ramp slid into that slot, allowing the animal to climb from the cage straight into the arena.”

Reconstructing the complex machinery that once existed under the Colosseum floor by examining the hypogeum’s  skeletal remains, he has demonstrated the system’s creativity and precision, as well as its central role in the grandiose spectacles of imperial Rome. Its complexity was downright horrifying.”

.At the peak of its operation, he concluded, the hypogeum contained 60 capstans, each two stories tall and turned by four men per level. Forty of these capstans lifted animal cages throughout the arena, while the remaining 20 were used to raise scenery sitting on hinged platforms measuring 12 by 15 feet.

He even discovered traces of runoff canals that he believes were used to drain the Colosseum after it was flooded from a nearby aqueduct, in order to stage mock sea battles.

The Romans re-enacted these naval engagements with scaled-down warships maneuvering in water three to five feet deep. To create this artificial lake, Colosseum stagehands first removed the arena floor and its underlying wood supports—vertical posts and horizontal beams that left imprints still visible in the retaining wall around the arena floor. (The soggy spectacles ended in the late first century A.D., when the Romans replaced the wood supports with masonry walls, making flooding the arena impossible.)



All that ingenuity served a single purpose: to delight spectators and ensure the success of shows that both celebrated and embodied the grandeur of Rome. The first major phase of the games was the wild beast hunt, which occupied most of the morning: creatures from across the empire appeared in the arena, sometimes as part of a bloodless parade, more often to be slaughtered. They might be pitted against each other in savage fights or dispatched by highly trained hunters wearing light body armor and carrying long spears.

Literary accounts of these spectacles dwell on the exotic menagerie involved, including African herbivores such as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and giraffes, bears and elk from the northern forests, as well as strange creatures like onagers, ostriches and cranes. Most popular of all were the leopards, lions and tigers—whose leaping abilities necessitated that spectators be shielded by barriers, some apparently fitted with ivory rollers to prevent agitated cats from climbing. The number of animals displayed and butchered in an upscale spectacle is astonishing: up to 11,000 animals were slaughtered by the Emperor Trajan in a single day!…

The hypogeum played a vital role in these staged hunts, allowing animals and hunters to enter the arena in countless ways. Eyewitnesses describe how animals appeared suddenly from below, as if by magic, sometimes apparently launched high into the air. “The hypogeum allowed the organizers of the games to create surprises and build suspense,” Beste says. “A hunter in the arena wouldn’t know where the next lion would appear, or whether two or three lions might emerge instead of just one.”




During the intermezzos between hunts, spectators were treated to a range of sensory delights. Handsome stewards passed through the crowd carrying trays of cakes, pastries, dates and other sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine. Snacks also fell from the sky as abundantly as hail, one observer noted, along with wooden balls containing tokens for prizes—food, money or even the title to an apartment—which sometimes set off violent scuffles among spectators struggling to grab them.

No such relief was provided for those working (down below) in the hypogeum. “It was as hot as a boiler room in the summer, humid and cold in winter, and filled all year round with strong smells, from the smoke, the sweating workmen packed in the narrow corridors, the reek of the wild animals,” says Beste. “The noise was overwhelming—creaking machinery, people shouting and animals growling, the signals made by organs, horns or drums to coordinate the complex series of tasks people had to carry out, and, of course, the din of the fighting going on just overhead, with the roaring crowd.”



At the midday games, criminals, barbarians, prisoners of war and other unfortunates, called damnati, or “condemned,” were executed. Some damnati were released in the arena to be slaughtered by fierce animals such as lions, and some were forced to fight one another with swords. Here, too, the hypogeum’s powerful lifts, hidden ramps and other mechanisms were critical to the illusion-making. “Rocks have crept along,” Martial wrote, “and, marvelous sight! A forest  is believed to have   run.”

Following the executions came the main event: the gladiators. While attendants prepared the ritual whips, fire and rods to punish poor or unwilling fighters, the combatants warmed up until the Emperor gave the signal for the actual battle to begin.



Contestants adhered to rules enforced by a referee; if a warrior conceded defeat, typically by raising his left index finger, his fate was decided by the Emperor, with the vociferous help of the crowd, who shouted “Dismissal!” at those who had fought bravely, and “Slit his throat, beat, burn!” at those they thought deserved death. Gladiators who received a literal thumbs down were expected to take a finishing blow from their opponents unflinchingly.

The winning gladiator collected prizes that might include a palm of victory, cash and a crown for special valor.Because the Emperor himself was often the host of the games, everything had to run smoothly. The Roman historian and biographer Suetonius wrote that if technicians botched a spectacle, the emperor Claudius might send them into the arena: “[He] would for trivial and hasty reasons match others, even of the carpenters, the assistants and men of that class, if any automatic device or pageant, or anything else of the kind, had not worked well.” Or, as Beste puts it, “The emperor threw this big party, and wanted the catering to go smoothly. If it did not, the caterers sometimes had to pay the price.”

To spectators, the stadium was a microcosm of the empire, and its games a re-enactment of their foundation myths. The killed wild animals symbolized how Rome had conquered wild, far-flung lands and subjugated Nature itself. The executions dramatized the remorseless force of justice that annihilated enemies of the state.The gladiator embodied the cardinal Roman quality of virtues, or manliness, whether as victor or as vanquished awaiting the deathblow with Stoic dignity.

“We know that it was horrible,” says Mary Beard, a classical historian at Cambridge University, “but at the same time people were watching myth re-enacted in a way that was vivid, in your face and terribly affecting. This was theater, cinema, illusion and reality, all bound into one.”

This was the way it was, back then, and nobody dared challenge the authority of the Emperor, who held absolute life and death power over all of his people…The astoundingly clever Roman ingenuity that put together the mechanical engineering that went on unseen and unnoticed beneath the surface of the Coliseum was a crucial and integral part of all these spectacles and insured that the pageantry and symbolism and violence and glory of the shows were presented seamlessly…

As they say, the devil is in the details….

For more information on the secret labyrinth, the hypogeum below the floor of  the Coliseum, visit: “, “Secrets of the Colosseum”

For more articles by John Whye, click on

5 thoughts on “Secrets Of The Roman Coliseum

    1. Hi Sisvida! I am happy you like my blog “secrets of the Roman Coliseum” and that you took the time to let me know…Please keep reading and tell your friends, i am at OR…Word Press does not appreciate my efforts,or compensate me in any way, even though I tried to get onto their Ad Sense program….. So I am glad that YOU appreciate my work do…Thanks again, Sincerely, john whye


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