Gladiator City

Author: Josephine McKenna
Photography: KATIE KAARS

Exciting news for fans of ancient blood sports: now, for the first time ever, it is possible to walk in the footsteps of Rome's legendary gladiators by visiting the underground area of the Colosseum where they prepared for their battles.

Italy's most popular monument, which attracts more than six million visitors a year, has a whole new dimension following the painstaking restoration of the underground pits where the gladiators and the wild animals they were pitted against were kept before being winched to their fate in the arena above.

Over the next three years, the nearly 2000-year-old monument will be completely restored in an ambitious $34-million project to be financed by Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle, founder of the Tod's shoe empire. There are also plans for permanent illumination of the amphitheatre and a new adjacent museum.

Tourists can now join small groups on guided tours of the subterranean labyrinth - and also climb to the 33-metre third storey for the first time in more than 30 years, for a breathtaking view of the city's ancient gems. After a successful trial last year, tours recently resumed and will run until November before closing for winter.

Colosseum director Rossella Rea is thrilled about opening the underground area, particularly as it was completely buried in the fifth century. "These corridors have never been opened to the public," she says. "They are really fascinating because this is where the shows were rolled out - all the actors, animals and stage sets."

Only a quarter of the vast underground has so far been restored, but archaeologists plan to eventually open all of it to visitors. It's a welcome public relations boost for the monument, which suffered a blow when chunks of masonry fell off the amphitheatre's wall last year.

The underground visit starts at the Porta Libitinaria, through which the gladiators marched from their adjacent barracks - and where the corpses of the unfortunate losers were carried out. Visitors stroll through stark corridors constructed in bricks and tufa and past the water source once used to flood the arena for fake naval battles, which still runs through the site.

"It is an emotional thing for me to see this area tidied up, cleaned and illuminated," says Rea. She hopes the tour also captures some of the excitement that preceded the games as armed gladiators and ferocious animals, including lions and tigers, were raised on 80 individual lifts and revealed to crowds of up to 80,000 people.

Rome's archaeological commissioner, Roberto Cecchi, believes interest in the underground area will boost ticket sales and encourage visitors to the House of the Vestal Virgins and the Temple of Venus in the nearby Roman Forum, which have recently reopened after 20 years of restoration. Revered in ancient Rome, the virgins have become part of modern mythology; they took a vow of chastity for 30 years in exchange for keeping the empire's perpetual flame alive in the temple next door to their residence.

"The cult is one of the most ancient in the history of Rome," says Maria Antonietta Tomei, director of the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. "There were no men here and these women played a key role as custodians of the empire. The House of the Vestal Virgins is important not only because of the religious role that the virgins played but also because of the beauty of this place."

Now you can step inside the remains of the bedrooms, dining rooms and kitchen - part of a 50-room palace constructed around a rectangular landscaped courtyard with two pools of water and a rose garden dotted with statues of the virgins. "It has been closed for more than 20 years and if you come in spring it is particularly beautiful to see the roses in bloom," adds Tomei.

The residence, rebuilt after the famous fire that devastated the city in 64 AD, is flanked by Via Nova, where you can now see traces of mosaics and a stunning marble-striped alabaster tiger, recovered from recent excavations of the palace of Emperor Tiberius.

The Colosseum, Piazza del Colosseo, Rome; open daily, 48-hour pass $16.50, including entry to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum; bookings +39 06 3996 7700.

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