The last treat I had pre-booked for myself was a guided “moonlight” tour of the Colosseum, conducted in very small groups under the light of our own “private” moon designed to recreate as closely as possible the experience of the Colosseum under the light of a full moon of ancient Rome.
The tour was to include the arena floor and the hypogeum, the area under the Colosseum that you can see but not reach from most of the daytime tours and which has only recently been reopened to the public, and any tour that promises me glimpses of restricted or previously-closed areas will have me whipping out the credit card faster than you can say ciao.
At around 8:45pm, a small group of twenty-five of us were led into the center of the amphitheater, onto the partially-restored floor of the arena. I stood in the center of the arena and turned slowly in place, struck not by the size of the structure, but by the intimacy of the space. From the floor of the arena, you could have easily spotted individual faces in the crowd, even in the highest seats to which slaves and women were consigned – seating was based on social status – and I realized that the same would be true from those seats; you would have had a very clear view of the faces of the men who died there.
We filed down and into what was once the working heart of the Colosseum, passing through stone corridors that must have once been lit with the flickering flames of rude torches and the smell of all the men and animals whose sole purpose was to entertain the Roman crowds above them. The theory as to how the animals, gods and landscapes magically appear in the arena is that there was an intricate network of capstans, ropes and pulleys in these tunnels, the evidence of which today remains as the lead-lined holes in the stone floors that once held the wooden poles turned by slaves to raise and lower cages and platforms on command.
Did you know that an ancient river runs under the Colosseum, and the reason the south side of the Colosseum has collapsed over the centuries – while the north side remained much more intact – is due to this river and the associated instability of the ground there? Did you know that there is no historical record whatsoever that Christians were ever sacrificed in the Colosseum? And that, perhaps finally, the question of whether naval battles were fought in the Colosseum has been put to bed? (The answer is no, by the way.)
As darkness fell, the success of the lighting scheme became apparent in the soft yellow glow of our “private moon” shining through the rounded arches cut into the deep shadow of the stone walls – this is an experience that I won’t soon forget.