The historical Colosseum takes on a completely different allure after sunset, discovers Sukanya Ramanujam

The moment had finally arrived. This was to be the crowning point of my entire visit to Italy. It was 9:00 pm in Rome but the last rays of the sun continued to illuminate the monuments on either side of the Via Dei Fori Imperiali (so called because of the public spaces or fora built by different Roman emperors on either side of the road). I made my way anxiously to the Colosseum, afraid I might somehow miss my narrow window of time. I had to be at the gates at exactly 9.05 pm, 15 minutes before my group’s allotted time. We were going to visit the Colosseum, Rome’s most famous and recognised monument, by night.

The Colosseum is a popular tourist spot in Rome with an estimated four million people visiting it each year. Visits during the day to the amphitheatre normally mean long waiting lines and crowded passages inside. However, every year, the Colosseum is opened on a limited number of nights between April and October for tourists to visit in four or five groups, guided by an archaeologist. This is not exactly the world’s best-kept secret but very few tourists plot their itinerary to include a night visit to the Colosseum.

On arrival at the entrance gate, the scene I witnessed was more akin to that outside a popular night club with bouncers. Only people with confirmed reservations are allowed inside directly while those outside are allowed to try their luck with the wardens. A few anxious moments ensued, as there seemed to be a problem with my reservation but this was attributed to an internal error and I was finally allowed to join the 9.20 pm group.

What can I say? To visit the Colosseum at any time of day is an awe-inspiring experience. The skill and the prowess of the Roman engineers who could build an amphitheatre that could accommodate over 50,000 people at one time, and the design of the building, with the three levels of arches, its rows of seats, and the imposing central arena, is a true marvel. Add to this the hush of night and the absence of the crowds, and the experience you get is truly one of a kind.

Place of entertainment

Amelia, our tour guide, was extremely knowledgeable and gave us a brief history of the Colosseum, originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre because of the dynasty of Flavian emperors who built it. The land was originally part of Emperor Nero’s sprawling golden house but the emperor Vespasian, wanting to build some good PR, built a public space of entertainment for the thronging population of Roman citizens. The amphitheatre got the nickname of Colosseum because of the colossal statue of the emperor Nero that used to stand next to it.

Originally, the Amphitheatre could be flooded and naval battles would be re-enacted. We were taken to the Hypogeum or the underground space beneath the Colosseum to show where the water originally came from and how it was a later Flavian emperor who put an end to the practice. We were also shown how trap doors would have been fitted at many points underground just below the central arena. An expert ring master — in some manners a choreographer — could give commands in sequence to the slaves underneath who would open the trapdoors, to release animals or gladiators, all of whom met in bloody combat.

We then moved to the central stage, the arena where we could get a complete view of the amphitheatre. The Colosseum looks skeletal, not because it is old or because it was built that way, but because it was regularly raided for material to be used in constructions elsewhere in Rome. It was only after the consecration of the place as a holy site by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749 did the pilfering of material come to an end.

We were taken to see the seating, the Cavea. Every entrance to the Colosseum is marked with a number in Roman numerals (can be seen to this day) and people could enter their seating area according to the number on their tickets, which were pottery fragments. The seating was dictated by social hierarchy, with the wealthiest and most important people getting the lower seats while the poorer ones sat higher up. Women and children sat right at the top of the amphitheatre.

None of us spoke during the tour. The solemn nature of the monument and the wonderful history that we had soaked in during the past hour had somehow made us quiet. It was only the appearance of Nero, the Colosseum’s very own feline, which finally brought the laughter back to the group. Apparently, the black cat is not frightened by the thousands of daily visitors and prowls the grounds day and night.

I made my way back from the Colosseum to the bus stop to return to my hotel. The area was still crowded with tourists taking pictures and people selling souvenirs. I imagined that the scene nearly 2000 years ago in 80 AD may not have been too different — people lingering around the amphitheatre after a full day of spectacle and entertainment. Some things never change.

Quick Tips

The Colosseum is open for night tours on Thursdays and Saturdays from 5 May to 6 Oct. Tours depart regularly from 8:20 pm to 10:45 pm, but the English tours are at 8:40 pm, 9:20 pm, and 9:45 pm (the last one is an extended tour that includes a visit to the subterranean passages). You can reserve the tour ahead of time at www.selectitaly.com.

Arm yourself with a Roma Pass (30 euros from any tourist office in Rome). It gives access to the first two monuments free of charge. The Colosseum has a separate entry for Roma Pass holders (if it is the first or second monument you are visiting), which means you avoid the long queues. The Roma Pass also gives access to free public transport in Rome for three days.

Tourist information booths or PITs are to be found in Rome’s main tourist hubs. They have multilingual staff and they distribute promotional and informative material. At the PIT booths, you can reserve tickets and tourist passes, book walking tours and so on.

You can choose to do all of Rome by night. Start with an Italian aperitivo (wine and hors d’oevres) and combine walks with bus rides to the popular spots through a calmer but also more dazzling city. Check out sites such as www.darkrome.com for more info.

Keywords: The ColosseumRome