The Colosseum: Rome’s blood bath


One of the highlights for our visit in Rome was the Colosseum. We braved the crowds and the 37 degree heat for a guided tour (recommended unless you want to wait in line for a couple of hours) which was well worth it. There are some important facts about this structure and it’s history that most people aren’t aware of.

Firstly the name Colosseum wasn’t coined until much later, after the massive statue Colossus which stood outside. To the Romans it was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. Built of concrete and stone, it is the largest amphitheatre ever built and is considered a marvel of architecture and engineering.  Measuring a whopping 189 metres long and 156 metres wide it towers above you more than 48 metres.  The stones were held together by massive steel clamps – no mortar was used. I found this fascinating because steel reinforcing is usually considered to be an invention in the modern era.

Secondly, it wasn’t built by Roman hands but Jewish slaves brought back by Titus after his conquest of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Titus also brought back a swag of booty – gold, silver and precious metals that he looted from Solomon’s Temple before demolishing it (all that remains today is the wailing wall). He used much of this to fund the project. Construction began in 72 AD and was completed in 80 AD. Then, a number of modifications were made (such as a top tier and trap doors and levels under the arena floor) in years following by succeeding emperors.

In the second and third tier archways there were life sized statues.  All the human statues were painted in this era (a fact I wasn’t aware of). That’s why they used white marble, because they were easy to paint.  When we look at these statues in a museum today all we see is the white marble and blank eyes.  They were fully painted in their day and looked very life-like.  Standing in the archways with the sun gleaming on them they must have looked beatiful. Outisde of the Colosseum stood a giant statue – “Colossas”, which was later stolen (along with the archway statues).  It would have been something to behold because it reached the height of the Colosseum itself.  Here is a picture of a recreation of what the Colosseum, with the statues in the arches in the second and third tiers, might have looked like: What you see on the roof is the edging of a massive sail structure that provided shade for the spectators in the hot Rome sun (which we were experiencing in its fullest!).  Experienced sail makers from the emperial Roman navy were employed for the construction.  Handling massive sail area of this size is no small feat and required experienced men.  Here is a picture from above of what it might have looked like: 

The lower archways are very important as this is where people gained access. There were 80 of them in total and when you came to the Colosseum (which was free to the public – a gift from the emperor), you were given a ticket which informed you which particular archway you were to enter (we saw they were all numbered) and also your seat alocation. The Romans were very organized! The Colosseum could hold something between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators – an impressive number. Games were hosted every year and were free for the public. This was the emperor’s gift to the people. So what took place there? Killing – for sport. In the morning you would watch animal hunts, consisting of lions, tigers and hippos (as well as other impressive animals). After lunch there was the public executions. And then in the afternoon there was the highly popular gladiator battles.  The Colosseum was one giant blood bath, to entertain the masses. It is estimated that the games played here over the years have taken the lives of about 500,000 people and over a million wild animals. 

Sadly (or perhaps not so sadly?) much of the Colosseum was damaged by the great earthquake in 847 AD causing an entire side (the south side) to collapse. Much of the tumbled stone was used in other building projects in Rome. Squatters then moved in along with market place owners who set up shop on the different tiers. But here’s the real clincher: the place was viewed as a quarry for useful materials. So people would come in and take a statue or two, cart off the precious marble and even chisel out the steel clamps that held the huge stones together (!!).  No protection was given to the site for its historic value. Today, huge efforts are being made to try and preserve the remains. Even while we were there we could here construction crews working to reinforce the stone work.  So here’s a picture of the remains today that we saw on our tour:  And here’s a view from the other direction: 

 You can see that the entire seating area has dissappeared, all that is left is the arches and brick work that lay beneath.  A footnote here: all brick work was hidden from view in Roman structures.  It was all covered with either marble or plaster.  What you see above are the bare bones and skeleton of a former building in its glory.  The flat yellowish surface is the partially reconstructed floor of the Colosseum.  Beneath that, just where the people are standing, you can see the elaborate labyrinth of tunnels and levels beneath the floor that housed the animals and ‘surprise’ elements of the ampithetre.  Here is a closer look of what lay beneath: 
 Now this is where it gets interesting.  There were eighty vertical shafts with an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes that enabled caged animals, scenery and props to be lifted up for instant access to the arena.  Animals and performers were brought through the tunnels from nearby stables as well as the gladiators’ barracks.  The cages were pulled up, the cage door opened and then a lion or tiger would suddenly appear on the surface – often camouflaged by a tree or cave scenery, to the delight and suprise of the crowds.  Here is a recreation of what it would have looked like: 
You can understand why the games were so popular. It had all the elements of a great Hollywood movie, played out in front of your very eyes.

In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV declared the Colosseum to be a sacred site where early Christians were martyred.  But according to our guide, there is no historical evidence to support this.  We do know that many Christians were martyred (Nero being the greatest culprit) but if our guide was right, most of those deaths occured not at the Colosseum but the Circus Maximus, just down the road.  There is still extensive digging going on around the place (we saw a number of archealogists sifting rocks and stone) and perhaps in time these things might be brought to greater light.

Whether Christian or not, hundreds of thousands of people perished here, for the entertainment of the masses.  Our guide made the comment that there was no TV or movies to watch back then; this was all they had.  I couldn’t help wondering: is going to watch blood and gore on the big screen today any different?  And given the choice, to see a Hollywood reinactment or watch the real thing – which would most people do?  My guess is that human nature hasn’t really changed over 2000 years and given that its the socially acceptable thing to do (as it was in ancient Rome), they’d watch the real thing.  Better the smell of blood with the screams.  It’s far more authentic.

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