On entering, we see the arena straight ahead of us. The stage for shows, whose floor was once made from a mixture of bricks and wood, has now disappeared altogether. In its place you can see the cellars which housed equipment used to prepare and carry out the games. The two underground floors housed the lifts and hoists with their counter weights, of which we can still see the rails today; they were the special effects of the time, used to hoist up animals and gladiators who burst into the arena through trapdoors, suddenly appearing in a burst of white dust giving the audience great surprise effects. A complex system of hinges and lifts also allowed them to hoist up set-designed backdrops, used for the hunt events.
The shows taking place in the Coliseum were both symbolic and concrete and created a link between citizens and their leader through common participation at important public events with the not unimportant function of giving the people some fun to distract them from political problems.
So, what happened inside the Coliseum?
Lots of different shows were put on in the amphitheatre, at different times, following a specific time schedule: in the morning the "Venationes" - fights between exotic animals, or between men and animals. But also less cruel and definitely more unique events took place like the famous exhibition of an elephant who knew how to write words in the sand with its trunk.
The event the audience enjoyed most was definitely the gladiators. Towards midday there was a break during which they removed the bodies and spread more sand on the arena floor. A deafening noise arose from the audience; to the blaring of trumpets, the gladiators paraded into the packed arena triumphantly. They came from an underground passageway linked directly to the Gladiators' barracks, the Ludus Magnus and were welcomed by fans like real heroes.
After a brief walk around the arena, the gladiators paid homage to the Emperor's stage saluting with the famous words "Ave Cesare morituri te salutant" (Ave Caesar, those who are about to die salute you).
But who were the gladiators?
The term gladiator comes from Gladius, the short sword used by legionaries. Rarely were they people who had to fight against their will. Normally, gladiators were prisoners of war who were given the choice to be slaves or to fight in the arena for a limited period of time at the end of which they would be free, often after having put aside a discrete sum of money. The profession gave them great popularity, especially with the women, who even paid out large sums of money just to spend a night of passion with one of them.
There were twelve gladiator types; there was the "Retiarius" armed with a net, a trident and a knife; or those who fought with a shield and a sickle, others wore a crested helmet, strong armour and carried a javelin. The duellers were chosen from different categories for dramatic effect.
If the defeated gladiator was wounded, he could ask for merci by raising an arm; then the audience shouted to the emperor present on his stage to save him or put him to death; the emperor decided the poor man's fate: thumbs up saved him, thumbs down put the gladiator to death.
The winners received golden palms and large amounts of money. After each battle, servants dressed like Charon, the Ferryman of the Underworld, made sure that the wounded were really dead and where necessary finished them off.
The gladiator's blood was much in demand; people thought it had healing powers and could heal you from epilepsy and give you greater sexual vigour.
Roman spectators loved cruel shows, those that we consider violent to say the least. Their passion for these events can be compared to what some people nowadays feel for the so-called "splatter" cinema. With one basic difference: the crudeness of reality. Just think that during mass battles and in the hunts, the smell of blood and burnt flesh and that of wild animals became unbearable and the effort to mask it with incense and perfumes had no effect whatsoever.