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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. (Dave Yoder)

Secrets of the Colosseum

A German archaeologist has finally deciphered the Roman amphitheater's amazing underground labyrinth

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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 confusion is compounded as you descend a long stairway at the eastern end of the stadium and enter ruins that were hidden beneath a wooden floor during the nearly five centuries the arena was in use, beginning with its inauguration in A.D. 80. Weeds grow waist-high between flagstones; caper and fig trees sprout from dank walls, which are a patchwork of travertine slabs, tufa blocks and brickwork. The walls and the floor bear numerous slots, grooves and abrasions, obviously made with great care, but for purposes that you can only guess.

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 floor. Beste has spent much of the past 14 years deciphering the hypogeum—from the Greek word for “underground”—and this past September I stood with him in the heart of the great labyrinth.

“See where a semicircular slice has been chipped out of the wall?” he said, resting a hand on the brickwork. The groove, he added, created room for the four arms of a cross-shaped, vertical winch called a capstan, which men would push as they walked in a circle. The capstan post rested in a hole that Beste indicated with his toe. “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.” He pointed out a diagonal slot angling down from the top of the wall to where the cage would have hung. “A wooden ramp slid into that slot, allowing the animal to climb from the cage straight into the arena,” he said.

Just then, a workman walked above our heads, across a section of the arena floor that Colosseum officials reconstructed a decade ago to give some sense of how the stadium looked in its heyday, when gladiators fought to their death for the public’s entertainment. The footfalls were surprisingly loud. Beste glanced up, then smiled. “Can you imagine how a few elephants must have sounded?”

Today, many people can imagine this for themselves. Following a $1.4 million renovation project, the hypogeum was opened to the public this past October.

Trained as an architect specializing in historic buildings and knowledgeable about Greek and Roman archaeology, Beste might be best described as a forensic engineer. 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.

When Beste and a team of German and Italian archaeolgists first began exploring the hypogeum, in 1996, he was baffled by the intricacy and sheer size of its structures: “I understood why this site had never been properly analyzed before then. Its complexity was downright horrifying.”

The disarray reflected some 1,500 years of neglect and haphazard construction projects, layered one upon another. After the last gladiatorial spectacles were held in the sixth century, Romans quarried stones from the Colosseum, which slowly succumbed to earthquakes and gravity. Down through the centuries, people filled the hypogeum with dirt and rubble, planted vegetable gardens, stored hay and dumped animal dung. In the amphitheater above, the enormous vaulted passages sheltered cobblers, blacksmiths, priests, glue-makers and money-changers, not to mention a fortress of the Frangipane, 12th-century warlords. By then, local legends and pilgrim guidebooks described the crumbling ring of the amphitheater’s walls as a former temple to the sun. Necromancers went there at night to summon demons.

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