In the shadow of the Colosseum

I rarely write about Rome. She gets rather overshadowed, I’m afraid, by her flashy younger sister Venice. When in Rome, I even tend to take pictures of anything connected to Venice. Not, I’m afraid, what the romans do. It’s a shame, since I actually know Rome almost as well as I know Venice, so starting today I am going to put that right and write more about Rome. Right now.

Like Venice—this is the last comparison, I promise—Rome has so much history, art, and architecture to offer, that it would take a lifetime to learn even half of it. Every time you wander down a street you discover something new, often a piece of history that in any other town would be the main attraction. But in Rome, it just sits there, overshadowed by other, flashy things.

I’m going to start you off with one of those things: a set of spectacular archeological remains that are, unfortunately for them, neighbour to one of Rome’s most important landmarks. You rarely see anyone paying them any attention and often see people with their backs to them while photographing the Colosseum. Yet, for me at least, these remains are spectacular.

The Ludus Magnus (literally ‘the big sport’) was one of four barracks which housed gladiators for the Colosseum. Its remains, which were discovered in 1937, are half located between the Via Labicana and Via San Giovanni Laterano, and half under the block of bars and buildings between Via San Giovanni and Via SS Quatro Coronati. It was a large, symmetrical building, so we can imagine (and this is backed up by another piece of spectacular evidence I will write about on another day) what is under the buildings.

Ludus Magnus near Colosseum, Rome
The Ludus Magnus seen from Via San Giovanni Laterano with the Colosseum in the background.

Built by the Emperor Domitian (81–96 AD), the Ludus Magnus consisted of three storeys around a large courtyard. At the centre of the courtyard was a mini version of the Colosseum, used for training. The presence of a VIP box in the amphitheatre suggests that important people (sponsors, politicians, perhaps even the emperor himself) came here to watch practice sessions.

Looking at the remains from the Via San Giovanni Laterano, you find yourself above the middle of the amphitheatre. Beyond the amphitheatre, in front of you, are the remains of the ground floor of the barracks. You can see that this is divided into fourteen individual rooms with an entrance leading out to the Via Labicana in the middle. These are the rooms where the gladiators would have slept and once went all around the courtyard.

Ludus Magnus near Colosseum, Rome
The remains of the northern side of the amphitheatre with the gladiator’s bedrooms behind. The steps leading up to the Via Labicana are in line with the main entrance which is in turn in line with the VIP box in the amphitheatre, which you can see top right.

Evidence shows that the amphitheatre had at least one storey of seating accessible from stone staircases on the outside. Perhaps the amphitheatre was also used for public shows or previews of what was coming at the Colosseum itself. The floor of the arena was accessible from ground level.

Ludus Magnus near Colosseum, Rome
The gladiator’s bedrooms o the northern side of the courtyard.

If you look to the left, in the corner of the excavated area, you will see the top of the entrance to a tunnel. This leads directly to the underground area of the Colosseum and is how the gladiators would have accessed it on show day.

I think the Ludus Magnus is fascinating as it gives us a glimpse into the Colosseum’s backstage. It also shows us the relatively luxurious conditions in which the gladiators lived and trained. But I can’t help imagining the dread that the entrance to that tunnel would have inspired in many, leading, as it did, to the huge, towering death factory.

Morituros vos salutamus miseremusque!

5 thoughts on “In the shadow of the Colosseum”

  1. This is so interesting and thought provoking! I wish I would have known this before I went years ago.Thank you Luca for sharing and for the insight.

  2. There’s a pretty good restaurant that overlooks the Ludus. I try to go whenever I’m in Rome…

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