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Rome has many highlights with the city’s famous Colosseum and Roman Forum taking centre stage. On our last trip to Rome, we made the mistake of trying to explore the Forum independently using a free audio tour we downloaded from the internet. After our family of three spent almost two hours walking around in circles getting more tired, confused and frustrated by the minute, we vowed that next time we would book a professional tour and see the Colosseum and Roman Forum sites properly.

This time around we chose an Ancient Rome: Archaeological Discovery Tour with Urban Adventures as we had previously done some great city walking tours with them in Beijing and Xi’an in China. Our guide Francesca, whom we met at the Arch of Constantine near the entry of the Colosseum, was friendly and enthusiastic. It was also immediately apparent that she was comfortable leading a family tour.

She won our 14 year old son over immediately with her lively stories and brief yet entertaining Roman Empire history lesson as we strolled towards the Colosseum. Being able to walk past the long, long queue of other travellers waiting to get into the site as we were on an official tour was reason enough to book this experience. If you are visiting Rome anytime other than during the low-season, you should consider doing a tour or be prepared to wait (and wait, and wait) to get into major sites.

Colosseum
Ready to explore the Colosseum

Francesca explained the Colosseum was built in only nine years, largely due to Rome’s victory in Jerusalem where it not only obtained immense wealth, but also a large quantity of slaves who worked tirelessly to create the Colosseum for Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the Roman people. As we walked inside, it was amazing to realise that a structure so old was not only still standing but it could also accommodate millions of tourists a year thanks to the brilliance of Roman architecture. Francesca informed us that the Colosseum is still the blueprint for today’s modern arenas thanks to Rome’s ancient architectural geniuses.

Colosseum
Can you see the Emperor’s seating at the back?

It wasn’t long before we were ascending the steps to the first floor of the Colosseum, stopping briefly at some points of interest along the way. There were lots of things we had missed on our previous visit. We didn’t even notice the large blocks of stone located outside the Colosseum that were used as anchor points for ropes that attached a sail system which could be used to cover the entire arena in case it rained. Francesca whipped out an illustration of the Colosseum covered with canvas sails and explained hundreds of sailors were used to erect and maintain the unique covering whenever it was needed.

We hadn’t even noticed these large stone blocks on our first visit or when we were walking around outside taking photos. Learning about the sails and how the decision was made to use them was one of my favourite parts of the tour. Even on busy days the Colosseum is still easy to get around thanks to its massive size, but this is especially true when you are with a guide. Francesca suggested we move on at one point as the area had become congested and, as if by magic, about 10 metres away there was a viewing area with virtually no one there. In the photo above, you can see the spot she found which offered a prime view of where the Emperor would have sat.

As we moved around the Colosseum, Francesca constantly pointed out fascinating details about the structure, such as the fact that woman from all levels of Roman society were only allowed in the top levels of the Colosseum. This wasn’t necessarily because they were second class citizens but because the Emperor and those watching the games didn’t want the gladiators to be distracted. We settled into a shady location with a good view of the internal structure that seated an estimated 50 to 80 thousand spectators and looked out over the subterranean floor of the arena.

Colosseum
The entire floor of the Colosseum used to be covered

Francesca explained how life worked in the Colosseum, from the many slaves toiling away in near darkness under the floor to the seating for the senators and emperors who participated in the highly prized and contested battle of Roman politics. This was followed by the fascinating story of the gladiators who were akin to modern rock stars or sporting heroes. So prized where these gladiators that elaborate measures were taken to preserve their health and well being to give the crowd the greatest show in Rome.

We also learned that the Hollywood version of a gladiator, like a muscle bound Russell Crowe, was pleasing to the eye but nothing even close to reality. Francesca used our 14 year old son to demonstrate. “He would be valuable as a gladiator because he’s young and fit,” she said, “plus he’s still got all his teeth which is extremely rare.” Francesca explained that gladiators didn’t have many teeth because they either fell out or got knocked out in fights, a true fact that is understandably left out for the Hollywood pics.

“I would need to have him examined by the official gladiator doctor to check his health before we sent him to gladiator training school but it looks like he’ll pass the check with no problems. However, he’s too skinny.” It turns out real gladiators didn’t have six packs like they do in the movies. Instead they had plenty of fat around the middle to protect them if they got struck with a weapon during a fight. It was much harder for a competitor to strike a fatal blow if they had to push their sword through lots of abdominal fat first.

The Forum
Francesca and her happy travellers

Another interesting fact about the Colosseum was that it was free for all Roman citizens, with tickets allocated at the nearby Forum. On the day the tickets were due to be handed out, there was a huge crush as Romans tried to get their hands on one. Not only did those who had a ticket get to watch the games at the Colosseum for free, they also got free drinks and food, including meat which was highly prized. It was a clever way to keep the people happy with Rome’s leadership. 

As we made our way out of the Colosseum, Francesca pointed out another unique feature of its design: the stairs. When the Colosseum was designed so it was possible to evacuate the structure in around 30 minutes in case of an emergency. Throughout the Colosseum, all of the stairs slope downwards to accelerate the passage of people. Even today you must be cautious when walking as the marble areas can be notoriously slippery and the sloping stairs are tricky to walk down slowly.

The Forum
The Colosseum and Forum are close to each other
The Forum
Francesca pointed out an original Roman drinking fountain (you can still drink from it)

Our next point of call was the vast Roman Forum. As we made our way past our meeting point of the Arch of Constantine, Francesca pointed out the large grooves in the marble pathway and explained that these where from all of the Roman chariots taking people two and from the Colosseum. The Forum itself was a stunning architectural marvel covering a vast area all under one roof. Housing a vast area of temples, markets and public spaces plus many government offices, this was the ancient equivalent of a mega mall.

The Forum
This door at the Forum dates back to AD 309

There was also a school so even the poorest Romans could educate themselves. As many Romans had poor housing conditions, the Forum was provided as a place for them to come to socialise, learn about the latest political happenings and go shopping. One of the main reasons the Forum is still around today is due to the fact it was built on a flood plain that filled the Forum with mud. This constant flooding and damage caused the Forum to be abandoned and largely left forgotten until historians started to excavate the vast site.

Some sites throughout Rome were picked clean for building materials for other projects, but the Forum remained largely intact. As we settled into another comfy spot overlooking the Forum, Francesca brought out her fascinating folder and made the area come alive with more stories. Our tour with Francesca was a world away from the self-guided disaster we attempted on our previous trip. Our only regret about booking this tour was that we didn’t do it first time around.

Disclosure: The writer was a guest of Urban Adventures. Her son paid for his tour and was equally impressed. This post contains affiliate links which you can use to book the same tour at no additional cost to you.

If you are heading to Rome and looking for some other things to do, we really enjoyed touring the Colosseum and also the food tours we did. One focussed on the area around Campo di Fiore and the other explored Trasevere.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.