Friday, 4 July 2014

53. Wonder: The Colosseum

(For the Colosseum preview, please click here.)

I'll admit that I was wary. Only a handful of days earlier, I'd seen the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre, in Pompeii. A week before that, Verona Arena. A couple of years before, the Arena of Nimes. And over a decade before that, I saw the Roman amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia. These four Roman arenas are all regarded as some of the finest and largest Roman arenas in existence. All are impressive, but none of them I would consider as a Wonder of the World. Too plain, too straightforward, too small, and too similar to one another. What chance, therefore, did the Colosseum have? Sure, it was the biggest of all, but how different could it really be? But then I saw it.

The Colosseum is more than just size. It is more raw, more powerful, and more spectacular than any other Roman arena. I think I'm safe to say moreso than any other stadium from any era. Approaching it from the Via dei Fori Imperiali, it made the first impression I hope for from all the best Wonders – wow. Part of the outer ring, only half of which has survived the 2000 years, was covered in scaffolding, but it didn't matter. The Colosseum's qualities were clear. It may not be pretty – indeed, it looks as battle-torn as the gladiators that fought within must have been – but it is mighty.

It was built from 72 to 80 AD; if I live to 102 I'll see its 2000th birthday. It began with a war victory. In 70 AD, the Roman Emperor Vespasian's son, Titus, crushed a Jewish rebellion, ransacked Jerusalem, destroyed the sacred Jewish temple, and in 71 AD he returned triumphantly to Rome. With the spoils of victory, Vespasian decided to build a grand amphitheatre for the city, replacing what had likely been a more temporary wooden structure. The site chosen was the private lake of the former emperor Nero. Nero hadn't exactly been popular - tyrannical and paranoid, he oversaw the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD (some say he started it, others say he stopped it), and pulled weird stunts like castrating and marrying a young boy he fancied (Sporus, if you want to look him up). Eventually he killed himself, to prevent an imminent assassination. Vespasian probably thought it best everybody tried to forget about Nero, so building a monument to public entertainment over something of Nero's would have seemed like a good move. Vespasian died of fever a year before opening day, but Titus saw it through, getting the glory. Titus didn't live much longer though, also dying of fever in 81 AD after a rule of just 27 months. His brother Domitian took over, and was responsible for the underground network of rooms and tunnels beneath the arena. He managed to not die of fever – he was assassinated by court officials in 96 AD. Being a Roman emperor wasn't the safest of career moves.

The Colosseum was the biggest ever amphitheatre by some measure, and became the model for all future Roman amphitheatres – over 200 such followed. It was never bettered: only Rome was allowed to have the biggest and best. 48 metres high and 189 metres long, the Colosseum was built from a mixture of materials: travertine, a soft volcanic rock called tuff, brick, and concrete, among others. Travertine is probably the most significant one. A creamy-white form of limestone, pitted with naturally-occurring holes that give it a look of age, it was a popular Roman building material, with a ready supply in quarries about 20 miles from Rome. It was used as the structural skeleton of the Colosseum, and most of the outer ring is built from it. It's an attractive material, with a marble-like appearance. Originally, metal clamps helped the blocks together, but they have long been stolen, torn out to leave scars across the Colosseum.

Clearly, what we see is a pretty ruined version, but we have enough remaining to be able to imagine it in its glory. It was a four-storey structure, though each Colosseum storey is around the height of a modern three-storey building. It was never meant to be delicate or fancy, although it was handsome. The first three storeys were built from arcades, essentially curving corridors of arches. Arches on each level face out. On the second and third levels, statues were placed in each of the arches, and on the lowest level the arches are entrances. There were 80 entrances in total, 76 of them numbered and for the general public, another two of them were reserved for the emperor, and the other two for the gladiators. 31 remain today. The first three storeys each have a different style of Greek column: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian in turn for the first, second, and third. In layman's terms, this means the columns get a little fancier with each successive level. The top storey is without columns and is a little more plain – it's just a wall with windows. Inside at this level was the tier of seating reserved for women and the poor – no need to get fancy for them.

Who built it? Slaves, mostly, lots and lots of slaves. All the labour would have been done by them, although many slaves did skilled work. Craftsmen and engineers were also clearly involved. But as for the man in charge, we have no idea. A Christian called Gaudentius, who was subsequently martyred in the arena, is occasionally mentioned but as you might imagine, this is entirely a myth.

Surrounding the Colosseum these days are a few roads and a patch of what appears to be wasteland, which is where all the tourists congregate. This area offers access to the ruins of the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill too (they come on the same ticket. Tip: buy your ticket there to skip the massive queues at the Colosseum). The 315 AD Arch of Constantine is next to it.

As immediate surroundings go, it's alright, but not exactly glorious. It would have been much better in the Colosseum's heyday. The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill would still have been there - but not ruined. There wouldn't have been a road packed with cars, and the entire area would have been paved with travertine slabs. In fact, the slabs are still there, albeit worn-down and patchy. Though much of ancient Rome is buried, the Colosseum and the immediate surrounds never were. Walking on many of the bumpy slabs around the Colosseum is to walk on the same the stones as Romans did in 80 AD and beyond.

Simply approaching the Colosseum and wandering around is good enough to get a feel for the place. It is a powerful-looking building, scarred by time and vandalism. It would have been impressive in its day; it looks just as impressive today, though in a different way. The outer ring has been ripped apart, much of it used to build Rome in the Renaissance years, with thousands of cartloads of stone taken from it to build St Peter's alone. It's not at all a nice or pretty structure: it looks like has been in wars. If buildings were cats, the Colosseum would be the big-bollocked tom cat, with an ear torn off, fur missing, and poised for yet another fight. You would not want to pet it. Strolling around the 545-metre outside circumference, gazing at the blackened archways, clamp-torn holes, and the sheer vertical drama of the remaining outer wall, there is no doubt: this is a tough piece of Roman construction.

Hundreds... no thousands of tourists flock around the Colosseum, and this bustle suits it. The serenity of a cathedral suffers when swarmed with people, likewise the atmosphere of a ruined city doesn't suit clumps of tour groups, but the Colosseum was designed for crowds. A late Roman account cites a capacity of 87,000. This seems an exaggeration, but modern estimates suggest around 50,000. These would have been from all classes of society, from emperors to slaves, from foreigners to the middle classes. Roman entertainment was for everyone, and it seems that all strata of society enjoyed seeing a bit of bloodshed.

And bloodshed there was.

The Colosseum saw a lot of death, of people and of animals. The popular image is of gladiators swiping away at each other inside, and this certainly took place, but many more animals than people were killed in the Colosseum. Agents would tour the empire finding animals, the rarer and stranger the better. At sometimes great expense and effort – transporting a hippo, for example, would not have been easy – animals such as bears, tigers, lions, elephants, and crocodiles were brought to the Colosseum to be slaughtered. They were kept in chambers underneath the arena, and not fed in the days before the show. Then they were lifted into an amphitheatre with tens of thousands of roaring spectators and released from their cages. Some animals were too scared to leave their cages, and had to be unceremoniously killed by their handlers. The rest would fight and die. Some were goaded into fighting with each other, others would be killed by professional hunters, and others would be pitted against slaves or condemned criminals. It wasn't just wild and dangerous animals, but harmless ones too. Ostriches, giraffes, deer, and rabbits were fair game – 50,000 people could watch a man chase around a terrified animal and killing it. The emperor Commodus liked to get stuck in – he's the emperor who appears in the film, Gladiator. He lived from 161 to 192 AD, and loved killing stuff in the Colosseum. One account has him killing a hundred lions there. It's unlikely this was brave combat; much more likely he shot them down with arrows from a safe distance. He enjoyed decapitating ostriches. Commodus sounds like a rather peculiar, unpleasant fellow.

He also became a gladiator, although being an emperor too, these weren't exactly fair fights. His opponents would always submit, but be spared also. If he wanted to kill – and he often did – he had amputees brought in to slay. Oh, and he liked to fight naked – it gave him more manoeuvrability. Even imperial Rome recognised that this wasn't behaviour befitting an emperor, and Commodus was strangled, aged 31, by his wrestling partner as part of a political conspiracy.

It's the gladiators, rather than the animal slaughter, that have most captured today's imagination. Mostly convicts or prisoners-of-war, they were trained up in pretty awful conditions and sent to fight in arenas across the empire. The Colosseum would have seen the best. Usually the fights were two versus two, and gladiators only fought other gladiators, they didn't fight animals or kill convicts. There were various types of gladiators with various types of weapons, such swords, knives, and spears being the kind of thing we picture these days, but also stuff like tridents and nets. Defeated gladiators would be at the mercy of the crowd, and the popular myth has them choosing to spare the loser with a thumbs up or condemning him to death with a thumbs down. In truth, we don't actually know this, but it does appear that some kind of gesture with the thumb determined their fate and how many thumb gestures can there really be? At an estimated death rate of once per six fights, they usually lived for another day, but life expectancy was clearly not great. There were even women gladiators, for around 150 years, before being outlawed in 200 AD by Emperor Septimus Severus.

Shows were always given by private individuals rather than the state, and didn't have to be violent in nature. Sometimes they just featured exotic animals hanging around - just as zoos are popular today, the Romans enjoyed looking at animals. Their ultimate fate would likely have been grim though. Most shows would begin with a bit of comedy, perhaps duels between a combination of women, dwarfs, or cripples using wooden weapons. It's thought that actual gladiatorial battles-to-the-death were fairly uncommon. They weren't daily or weekly events, they maybe took place just a handful of days every year, for special events. Most of the time, gladiatorial combat would be "practice" events, and so not to the death. More common would have been the killing of criminals, whether by routine execution, or being mauled by wild animals if it was the crowd's lucky day.

The Colosseum held gladiatorial contests right up until 404 AD, despite the Romans having been Christian for decades by that point. Pre-Christianity, there appears to have been no moral issues with the Colosseum and other such arenas. Sure, a bunch of animals and people were slaughtered needlessly, but it was regarded as an institution and an example of the ancient Roman values of discipline, courage, and endurance. But in the Christian era, it was going out of fashion. In 399 AD, Emperor Honorius had abolished gladiatorial schools, and in 404 AD a monk called Telemachus prompted him to stop the games too. Although it can't be absolutely certain it was the Colosseum (“the stadium” in Rome is quoted, so the Colosseum is the likeliest candidate by far), Telemachus jumped into the arena during a gladiator fight. Exact accounts then vary. One has a gladiator killing him, another has the crowd stoning him to death. Either way, it seems to have been the final straw for Honorius, who banned fighting from that point on. Don't worry, if you still wanted a bit of bloodshed, the Colosseum still had criminals fighting wild animals for about another century.

That takes this Colosseum up to about the start of the 6th Century. Things went downhill for it then, and for Rome. At the start of the 6th Century, the Colosseum was still in great condition. Remember, by now the Colosseum was over 400 years old, the age most of the Great Wall of China now is, or the Taj Mahal. The only damage it had suffered was from a 217 AD fire and a 422 AD earthquake, both times being repaired soon after. But it had been an active, functional structure then. From the 6th Century, this ceased. A small church was built into the structure, with the arena acting as a graveyard. Centuries passed, with the arches being used as homes and shops, and by the 12th Century the Colosseum had become a fortress. Rome was sacked many times by barbarians, and several earthquakes caused damage, but still the Colosseum survived. But in 1231 an earthquake saw some parts of the south facade collapse, and and even greater earthquake in 1349 saw even more go down. From this point, it seems to have been open season for anyone wanting to take stone away. The Colosseum became a quarry.

It continued this way right up until the 18th Century, when Pope Benedict XIV declared it a sacred site due to early Christians having been martyred there. There is no historical evidence this was true, but it certainly saved the Colosseum from more plundering. Subsequent popes started restoration programs, cleaning the structure of the thick weeds that covered it and fixing sections. The brick buttresses that prop up the end of the outer ring date from the 19th Century. From 1873 it was established as state monument and archaeological site, and it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980, one of the earliest.


The real scars of the Colosseum are much more visible when you visit the inside. Other arenas I've visited in recent years have still, remarkably, been active. Verona Arena hosts regular operas, Nimes Arena hosts all kinds of concerts. Sure, they've had a bit of restoration, but they still have their seating. They still have an arena floor too. The Colosseum has neither. The seating is long gone – the small section you see is actually a fanciful reconstruction from the 1930s. Likewise, the arena floor, which would have been wooden with sand on top, is long extinct.

From the outside, the Colosseum looks like had it's had a tough life, but from the inside it really looks ruined. It's a strangely visceral sight. It looks like the skeleton of a vast animal, the bare bones of the arcades sticking out like ribs, the walls of the chambers beneath the arena on gory display. This labyrinth of subterranean passages and dark cells once kept condemned criminals and wild animals, awaiting their doom. It's not pretty, and you're not going to be hosting operas in here, but it's a powerful and impressive display.

As I mentioned, there was rather a lot of scaffolding on the day I visited. Scaffolding is never a pretty thing, but the Colosseum fortunately doesn't pretend to be the prettiest of buildings. It's part of a three-year £20 million cleaning and repair program, as some of the building is sagging slightly due it being built on the softer ground of Nero's former lake. Chunks of stone have been falling off. A visitor's centre is planned. The before-and-after difference so far is clear.

Can a Wonder be separated from its immoral history? Can we justify the celebration of a scene of horror? Let's be honest: yes. An unimaginable number of people died building the Great Wall of China. The Maya temples were scenes of human sacrifice. Given enough time, the horror of the atrocity fades. If the Colosseum had been built and used for World War 2, it would probably be the most widely hated building in the world. We would dismantle it. But there's enough distance between imperial Rome and today for the Colosseum to “be ok”. However much we might detest the notion of gratuitous slaughter for mass entertainment, we don't hate the Colosseum for it. In fact, it gives it an extra edge. It's not just another temple of worship or another royal tomb or a king's palace, it's an arena where people and animals were killed for sport, in front of tens of thousands. Horrible, but fascinating. The Colosseum seems more intriguing for its barbaric past. But barbaric is perhaps the wrong word. It may have been savage, but it was also civilised. The Colosseum was not a nice place, but it was definitely an incredible one, a monument to cruelty, organisation, creativity, and sheer power all in one. Being nice is not a prerequisite to being a Wonder.

Time, in my view, has been oddly good to the Colosseum. It wears its scars well. I like the fact the only half the outer ring remains, when viewed side-on looking like a cross-section. I like the many holes from the long-stolen metal clamps. I like the harsh skeleton of the interior. All of it enhances the Colosseum's powerful, rugged image. It's a brute. And it has the instant impact and the lasting impression of a World Wonder.

Criteria then.

Size: It was the biggest ever Roman amphitheatre. 48 metres high, 189 metres long. Estimates for weight vary widely, but around 400,000 tons seems likely. It's pretty big, basically.
Engineering: The size makes the Colosseum an impressive feat of construction, although it wasn't the first Roman amphitheatre so would have been built to known principles. But as with anything that has survived almost 2000 years, it was clearly built very, very well.
Artistry: In its time, it was done up nicely, with columns and statues. These days, any hint of beauty has gone. But to look for beauty is to miss the point. The Colosseum is about a visceral sense of power, and this successfully conveyed. The scars only add to it. It is a powerful, striking building.
Age: Over 1900 years old. 
Fame/Iconicity: Probably one of the world's most famous buildings. Certainly one of the most notorious.
Context: In its day, it was surrounded by the majesty of imperial Rome at its peak. These days, it's a centrepiece in a city that spans the ages. The immediate surroundings could be improved - I'm not convinced that having a fairly busy road wrapped round two-thirds of it is really the best way to treat the Colosseum - but there's no doubt that the Colosseum suits Rome and Rome suits the Colosseum.
Back Story: It's where gladiators fought and ostriches were decapitated by emperors. It's the main amphitheatre of Rome, and although spectacularly cruel, is a gruesomely fascinating place.
Originality/Distinctiveness: There are many Roman amphitheatres but this is the one everyone knows, to the degree that the others are wrongly called "colosseums". The size and the dramatically severed semi-circle of the outer wall make this easily identifiable. 
Wow Factor: Wow.

For the Colosseum's inaugural games, the Roman poet, Martial, after dissing all the other ancient Wonders, writes: "All labors yield to Caesar’s Amphitheatre. Fame shall tell of one work instead of all." Martial was a little on the biased side, but it demonstrates that the Colosseum was celebrated in its time. It was more than just a functional building to the Romans, it was a spectacular one. It's aged well. The damage and ruin suits the Colosseum, adding to its tough image. Martial may have been getting carried away by suggesting that the Colosseum was the number one construction of all time, although in fairness to him nothing else at the top of my current list had been built then (the Pyramids were, however, so I'm not letting him off). But there's no doubt that this is one of the world's most celebrated structures, for good reason. It's a powerful, aggressive, fearsome presence, and an astonishing monument left over from one of the greatest civilisations in history. The Colosseum comes with a weight of expectation, and delivers. I was quietly expecting to be a little disappointed, and I am instead delighted that the Colosseum had matched its hype. My top Seven is currently a very competitive field, but it breaks into it, slipping just below the irregular fantasy wonderland of Mont Saint-Michel, but above the mega-iconic Eiffel Tower, which seems delicate and dainty by comparison.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower 

Other Wonders
The Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa

St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers 

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Verona Arena
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha  

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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