Weird History

What It Was Like To Be A Spectator In The Roman Colosseum

Ancient Romans loved their sports and entertainment, and the Colosseum put on the grandest games in all of ancient Rome. With its gladiators, interchangeable arenas, exotic animals, and the rare naval reenactment, being a spectator in the Roman Colosseum would have indeed been a spectacle.

Crowds of 50,000 people, spanning every region and socioeconomic class of the empire, gathered at the stadium to watch shows and get away from the disgusting life of everyday Rome. They enjoyed food, wine, music, and theatrics in a large venue, all paid for by the emperor himself. 

At the Colosseum, the audience could munch on chickpeas while waiting for the mid-day execution, watch for lions and other exotic animals released through the arena's hidden trap doors from their cramped seats, or see Roman elites collecting sweat from a gladiator (they thought it was an aphrodisiac). Events held at the Colosseum were so varied and elaborate that onlookers never knew what to expect.

  • Tickets Were Free, But The Seating Was Divided By Class

    Admission into the Colosseum was free; it was one of the many perks of being a Roman citizen. Some historians believe, however, the tickets were paid through some other means, possibly with membership to certain clubs. Regardless, tickets weren't sold directly, though evidence suggests attendees still had assigned seating.

    There were 76 public doors which led to four different sections of the Colosseum, each for a different socioeconomic class. The best seats at the Colosseum were in the front row, located upon a podium raised 6.5 feet above the arena floor. Along the same podium sat the emperor in his box.

    The podium and another few rows of seats made up the first tier, where about 2,000 Roman elites watched the show. The second tier held around 12,000 people and was primarily made up of Rome's wealthy and upper classes, including merchants and government officials. Higher up, the third tier was reserved for Roman citizens. The last tier, farthest from the action, was typically for women and the poor.

    Tickets from other venues show people were given a specific entranceway number and row to help navigate them to their correct seat. 

  • Spectators Would Probably Get Concessions And Keepsakes On The Way In

    On festival days, the Colosseum attracted 50,000 spectators, and a crowd that size drew many vendors. Outside the Colosseum, traders and street sellers offered food and trinkets to visitors. They might also sell programs with stats on the gladiators. As for street food, the Romans enjoyed sausages, chickpeas, and pastries. Once inside the Colosseum, spectators consumed sweets, wine, and other snacks.

    Visitors could also get a wooden ball with a special token inside. The tokens could be cashed in for special prizes, from food or money to the title for an apartment.

  • Attendees Used Separate Staircases Depending On Their Class
    Photo: Jaakko Luttinen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Attendees Used Separate Staircases Depending On Their Class

    Once visitors made it inside the massive elliptical amphitheater, they had to find their seats. Dependent on one's socioeconomic class, a person could easily find their position on the lowest level, climb 12 to 15 stories to the top, or go anywhere in between through a series of interior staircases.

    Both the entrances and the staircases, however, were kept separate by iron and marble dividers. Similar to the seating areas, the passageways were divided by one's class.

  • The Seats Were Probably Extremely Cramped
    Photo: Jean-Léon Gérôme / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Seats Were Probably Extremely Cramped

    The Colosseum is a massive structure covering about six acres of land, rising somewhere between 12 to 15 modern stories tall, and seating 50,000 people. Though the building itself was grand, the majority of the audience was cramped tightly into the area.

    As evidenced from other Roman amphitheaters, the Colosseum had small seats that gave each person, save those in the front row, the smallest necessary amount of room. Individuals had a 15-inch-wide seat and 27.5 inches worth of leg room.