The dark stone tunnels in which gladiators prepared to do battle in the Colosseum are being opened to the public for the first time.
But archeologists are concerned about the impact that millions of tourists will have on the subterranean maze of tunnels and galleries as they seek to experience their very own Gladiator moment, re-enacting scenes from the Ridley Scott blockbuster starring Russell Crowe.
From next week, visitors will be able to venture into the bowels of the amphitheatre, the largest ever built by the Romans, exploring the cells and passageways in which wild animals such as lions, tigers, bears and hyenas were corralled.
They were forced into cages and raised with a system of winches and pulleys to just beneath the floor of the sand-covered arena, emerging from rope-operated trap doors to do battle with other animals or with gladiators.
The largest animals – elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses – were too big for the hoists and would have entered through a gate directly into the arena.
Tourists will be able to see the remains of a sophisticated sewerage system which provided the Colosseum’s enormous crowds with dozens of drinking fountains and lavatories and even enabled the arena to be flooded for mock naval battles involving hundreds of gladiators on ships.
Roman bricks still line the floors of the dungeons and tunnels and stone stairways connect the two underground levels.
An underground passageway, which still exists, linked the Colosseum with a nearby gladiator barracks, the “ludus magnus”, the remains of which are also still visible.
Gladiators – who were mostly common criminals, slaves and prisoners of war – would emerge into the arena to the applause of 50,000 spectators.
Those that were killed in combat were carried out of the amphitheatre through the Porta Libitina – the Gate of Death.
“You can imagine being a gladiator and listening to the roar of those 50,000 people coming through the floorboards – that is what is magnificent about being down here,” said Darius Arya, the director of archaeology of the American Institute for Roman Culture.
“The animals would have been prepared for slaughter, or slaughtering: there were bears, boars, lions, tigers, even crocodiles. People would have been working on hoisting 20ft tall stage sets into the arena – there was more backstage pressure than for a Broadway show. The smell and the heat would have been incredible, especially in summer, and it would all have been done by candlelight.”
Opening up the underground area is intended to relieve crowding at one of Italy’s most popular ancient monuments – an average of 20,000 people converge on the Colosseum each day. Until now, only about 35 per cent of the vast stone-built stadium has been accessible.
The newly opened areas will be open to guided tours of a maximum of 25 people at a time.
“It is the first time people will have the chance to go down into the places where games and shows were organised,” said Rossella Rea, the director of the Colosseum.
However, Dr Arya said: “It’s great that these new areas are open but I’m concerned because there’s going to be a lot more traffic and a lot more wear and tear.
“They need to make sure that it is not trampled on. The conservator in me asks what guarantees are there that the place will still be in good shape in five or 10 years’ time.”
Visitors will also be able to access, for the first time in about 40 years, the third highest of four tiers of seating, which in Roman times was reserved for poor citizens, freed slaves and foreigners.
The Colosseum was started by the emperor Vespasian in AD70 and completed 10 years later by his son, Titus, who held a 100 day inauguration festival in which 9,000 animals were killed.