Monday, 24 June 2013

Preview: The Colosseum

The Venerable Bede in the 8th Century wrote, as later translated by Lord Byron*:

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall
And when Rome falls – the world.

Good thing it's still around then.

Yes, this is a big one. Not just in terms of size - though it's certainly big - but in prestige. Rome without the Colosseum? It's hardly imaginable. The world without the Colosseum? It's one of the most famous structures out there, not just for being the prototype for most modern stadia around the world but for the events that took place inside. The Colosseum is a monument to the cruelty of imperial Rome, but also its creative genius. Fabulous and despicable, it kind of sums up the Romans. We'd be much poorer today without it; those who spent their last painful moments under the watch of tens of thousands of taunting spectactors would surely disagree.

The Colosseum is more accurately known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, as it was built during the Flavian dynasty of emperors, but back then was often just called the Hunting Theatre. The name we call it today is a "modern" term coined in medieval times, probably simple due its size, but possibly related to the colossal statue of Nero which once stood nearby. It was started in 72AD under Emperor Vesparian, who presumably wanted his ritual slaughter and entertainmeny on a grander scale than before. The Colosseum wasn't the first such amphitheatre to be built by the Romans, but it was the first on such a spectacular scale. And although many others followed across the empire in the decades and centuries after, none ever again matched the might and grandeur of the Colosseum.

It was built following Vesperian and his son and military commander Titus's successful crushing of a Jewish rebellion in 70 AD and the ransacking of Jerusalem. This included the total destruction of the legendary Second Temple of Jerusalem, a devastating loss for the Jews, and arguably mankind. As with all successful victories, they returned to Rome and paraded about triumphantly, roaring about their glorious success and the might of their empire. Well done us, they said, and decided to build something big. Traditionally, amphitheatres had been temporary wooden things, but Rome was big and permanent enough to justify a giant stone one. Direct from the destruction of one wonder of the world, another was built, in a very different flavour.

Usually, monumental structures in antiquity were built with some kind of religious motive in mind. The opening ceremonies of the Colosseum, as recorded by contemporary historians, are quite telling that this was far from the case here. The Colosseum is a monument to bloodlust. It opened in 80 AD, a year after Vesparian had died and Titus had taken over. Whereas today we might have an expensive ceremony with pyrotechnics and choreographed dancing, the Romans went in for a hundred day killing extravaganza. Many thousands of tame and wild animals were killed, some in battle but many in routine slaughter. Lions and tigers, sure, but also ostriches, elephants, deer, pigs, and bears. Even rabbits are recorded as being fair game. Rabbits! As you might imagine, not all these animals, in an arena with 50,000 screaming spectators, were up for fighting, and so the Colosseum was often the scene of the mundane slaughter of small animals. The opening hundred days were a festival of utter carnage, featuring all sorts of combinations of people and animals killing each other, very often in the popular form of re-enacting classic stories and battles. It wasn't always slaughter - the edifying spectacle of bull-on-woman sex was also provided. Further light relief was provided by duels between women, dwarfs, or cripples, with wooden weapons.

So, Imperial Rome wasn't what we'd regard as politically correct in its mass entertainment. Indeed, it may even be regarded as somewhat extreme. For a few hundred years it continued in this way, until the last man-on-man gladiatorial games recorded in 404 AD, a little after Emperor Constantine converted the empire to Christianity. Daily Mail followers, if you're reading, don't worry, this wasn't political correctness gone mad, it was just money. Constantine shifted the Roman capital to his new city of Constantinople, and Rome became poorer. It could no longer afford to stage these expensive extravaganzas. Plus, not being allowed to kill Christians (if indeed this ever happened - there is no official record of it) probably took the edge off. Just over a century later, the last Roman show featuring animals fighting and being killed was staged, and the Colosseum's history as a functioning building was over.

The Colosseum we see now, although considerably ruined, is still a good approximation of what was built. It covers a total of six acres, and is four storeys high with a total height of 48 metres. The actual arena is 85 by 54 metres, surrounded by four tiers of seating. These tiers designated special seating zones, with the first tier closest to the arena for the VIPs, the second tier for the middle classes, the third tier for the slaves and foreigners, and the fourth and final tier for - sorry ladies - the women and the poor. Roman accounts claim that it once held up to 87,000 spectators, but this would have been improbably congested and a figure of about 50,000 is more likely. Basically, in dimensions, it's around what a large sports stadium would be today, but made entirely from stone about 20 centuries ago. It also transcends its function. The Colosseum was designed to be attractive; as a symbol of Rome it was to impress with its sheer size, but also its aesthetics. Modern stadiums often look striking from a distance, but are a bit disappointing, aesthetically, close up. They are not works of art. Unlike the Colosseum. It didn't go overboard in the finery, but using the Roman favourites of arches and columns, peppered with statues, it created something that was architecturally masterful as well as brutally practical. Archways ring the circumfrence, and each level is graced with a different classical style of column - Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian. The fact that it's built from stone - mostly from a local limestone called travertine, about 200,000 tons of it - gives it a tough, high-quality appearance. Plastic and metal might be practical, but I think most people would agree that stone looks better.

And that's probably because they are better. How many stadiums today would survive 20 centuries of neglect, and occasional downright vandalism? Most would struggle to survive a single century. Several earthquakes caused damage, and just as dangerously, several popes ordered it dismantled. Pope Nicholas V, in 1452 had over 2500 cartloads of stone taken from it to build the new St Peter's Basilica; in 1500, Pope Alexander VI leased it out as a commerical quarry, for profit; and around 1585, Pope Sixtus V was all set to convert it into a wool factory for the city's prostitutes, until his death halted the plans. In the meantime, thieves stole from it, people lived in it, and it was variously used as a cemetery, a fortress, and a makeshift theatre. A lot of stone was quarried from it - indeed, much of the missing Colosseum is inside the architectural masterpieces of Renaissance Rome. Nonetheless, the Colosseum still stands, it still looks great, and since the 19th Century and the increased awareness of preserving our ancient monuments, it's become widely celebrated as one of the world's greatest buildings. Of course, the Colosseum was just one of many grand buildings from Roman times, and is just one of many great buildings in Italy today. But there's no doubt, it has an edge. It's massive, it's ancient, and it has a terribly interesting history. Temples are terrific and all, but the Colosseum captures the imagination. It might not be nice, but who says nice guys have to win?

No doubt, of my list the Colosseum is one of the big ones. It comes with a ton of expectation, and familiarity even before visiting. What am I expecting? I'm not too sure, to be honest. I've heard a few mixed reports, ranging from "alright" to "tremendous". It's already considered it to be a Wonder of the World by many, and while I think it might be a stretch for it to be in my eventual top Seven, it's certainly a strong contender.

I'll probably be visiting the Colosseum in spring next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, along with my own impressions.

*this is, in fact, a mistranslation. The Venerable Bede was referring to the colossal statue of Nero that was nearby. It seems that Rome and the world have withstood its loss.


  1. I have seen this up close although regretfully didn't go inside. There are quite a few Roman stadia remaining today, some in quite good condition, and the one in Nîmes is used for bullfighting so it's pretty much being used as originally intended.

    By the way Rome is one of the best cities I have ever visited. One building that I was particularly impressed by was the monument to Victor Emanuele, a 19th century wedding cake-like structure. It's not so much a nice looking structure (very pompous), nor does it have any interesting history, but when I set eyes upon it I was dumbstruck for some reason.

    1. I was in the Nimes Arena last year - in remarkable condition. In the evening, David Guetta was playing there, but let's not hold that against it.

      Rome is one of these cities I don't want to rush, and hope I get plenty of time to explore (and somewhere cheap to stay...)

  2. Rome is hardly a city you -can- rush. The two biggest draws, St. Peter's (basilica and museum) and the ruins of Ancient Rome (which are scattered throughout the city, but with many of the most important areas centralized right around the Colosseum) can each take the better part of a day, especially for a person who is focused on these buildings and the history behind them. At least one more full day means you can probably fit in most of the other draws, but if you've got time and money for a week, there are no shortage of amazing places to visit. Even if the city itself gets you down (unlikely), there are local excursions (Ostia Antica, ancient Rome's beach holiday; Tivoli, home of Hadrian's villa and the gardens at Villa d'Este; or even a walk along the Appian Way). If you really want out, a day trip can get you north to Etruscan necropolises (Cerveteri, Tarquinia) or the ridiculous monster park in Bomarzo (google it and blow your mind). A little more time, but still technically a day trip, would get you to Pompeii and back, if you start out good and early. Point being, if you're interest is the structures of antiquity and what it means to be a "world wonder," Rome is a European epicenter, and you will be well rewarded for taking what time you can.

    1. Thanks for the tips. Fortunately, time won't be an issue. A friend is getting married in Rome next year, so it looks like we'll have plenty of opportunity to see the city, a week at least.

      And I just Googled Bomarzo - it looks great.


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