Illustrations by Jeff Mangiat; Katsumi Murouchi/Getty Images (Background)


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions


Secrets of an Ancient Arena

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

The year is 80 A.D. An excited crowd of 50,000 people packs into a new amphitheater in ancient Rome. Suddenly, two men wearing armor and carrying swords rise up from beneath the arena. Gladiators! The main event has begun at what will become one of history’s most legendary arenas—the Colosseum.

At the time, amphitheaters were common in the Roman Empire. But the Colosseum stood out. “It is the largest, most important Roman amphitheater ever built,” says historian Steven Tuck.

The Colosseum was like a modern sports stadium. Underneath the arena lay a series of hidden chambers and passageways called the hypogeum, where gladiators and wild animals prepared for battle. This past June, the underground world beneath the Colosseum opened to the public for the first time. Read on for a tour.

Still Standing

The Colosseum was built over a span of about eight years nearly 2,000 years ago. Experts consider it one of the most remarkable examples of Roman architecture. Arches and columns supported the weight of the arena, which was made of limestone, volcanic rock, and concrete.

Over the centuries, more than two-thirds of the Colosseum crumbled. Yet the remains have been preserved. Typically, more than 7 million people tour the ruins each year.

Evan Reinheimer/Getty Images

Stars of the Show

Gladiators were the great athletes of the Roman Empire. Most were enslaved men or prisoners, but some people volunteered to fight in the hopes of achieving superstar status. “You could become rich and famous,” Tuck says. “If you worked hard, if you succeeded, you could improve your life.”

Most gladiators fought only a few times a year, like today’s professional boxers. Tuck says most gladiators didn’t die in battle. But if one was too injured to continue fighting during a match, the emperor could have him killed.

Illustration by Jeff Mangiat

Backstage Pass

There was a lot going on under the arena, in the hypogeum. “The underground tunnels are the equivalent of the backstage of a theater,” Tuck says.

Sets and costumes were housed there. In some rooms, gladiators prepared to fight, while in others, doctors treated competitors’ bloody wounds.

Lions, tigers, and elephants were also kept there, to fight men or each other. The animals were raised up in elevators pulled by ropes. They would burst into the arena from trapdoors, surprising the crowd.

Illustration by Jeff Mangiat


Seating at the arena was based on class. “The higher your status, the closer you were to the good floor seats,” Tuck says. The emperor sat in a special area near the arena floor. Women, enslaved people, and those who were poor sat at the highest level.

Other Events

In addition to gladiator fights, the Colosseum hosted reenactments of naval battles. During those shows, the arena floor was flooded with water and ships were brought in.

Skills Sheets (2)
Skills Sheets (2)