Friday, October 14, 2011

Rome Guide 2: The Colosseum by Peter Hopkins and Mary Beard

The Colisseum is part guide, part detailed history - and if you are not reading it in anticipation of a visit, it will make you determined to go there (or even back there) soon.

The Roman Colosseum was built using the spoils from the sacking of Jerusalem on the site of Emperor Nero's lake. Emperor Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned, and this formerly popular leader had been disgraced and died, there was an effort to eradicate his more exuberant works, including a palace and grounds. However, the name 'Colosseum' ironically comes from Nero's statue (the colossus).

The colosseum was built to stage events was supposed to have opened in 80 AD. A lot of what is thought to have gone on - viz wild animal hunts, human-animal sex acts, executions of criminals at lunch-time and gladiator fights - may not have been frequent occurrences (perhaps taking place on just a few days each year).

The gladiators were social underdogs and yet some of them had the status and virality of superstars. There were maybe 8,000 gladiators deaths a year over the whole empire - and these were young men in their prime. Animals were apparently slaughtered in their hundreds in this colosseum alone. The logistics of capturing and transporting these large animals must have been challenging.

Prisoners, criminals and Christians were also executed - often by animal attack and being tied to a stake. There is no record of Christian martyrdom until after Christianity became the official religion - although there must have been some.

People were allocated seats through tickets. Women were only allowed at the back - except for the vestal virgins who sat at the front. The seating was according to social class, with lower orders further up. Since the Rome population was then one million, the 50,000 strong audience must have been ' the toga-clad elite'.

Emperors used the spectacle for their own purposes, one called Commodus being particularly notorious in his escapades: with a taste for dressing up as a gladiator, killing animals, and sometimes was even known to threaten the audience. Although it was a world very different from our own, with correspondingly different cultural mores, Mary Beard and Peter Hopkins suspect members of this Roman audience may well have had ethical doubts about some of this required 'entertainment'.

The Colosseum would have been much more elaborately decorated with marble and plaster at first, but this has been eroded away. The entrance for the emperor may have been underground with a mosaic floor. There may have been an attempted assassination of Commodus there.

The main floor was likely to be wooden with spaces underneath and apparatus to lift animals, objects and people to the 'stage'. It is not entirely clear when this apparatus was constructed, but was clearly impressive - as were the drainage and foundations of the structure too.

After describing the colosseum in its Roman heyday, the book goes on to consider what happened to it after Rome fell, and the empire removed to Constantinople. In medieval times (ca. 1000AD) the colosseum was thought to be a temple of the sun containing devils, and in middle of the twelfth century it was used as a palace. In the sixteenth century it was proposed to be used as a wool factory and then was used as a small glue factory. This helped to preserve it.

However, from the Renaissance onwards, it was used as a quarry for surrounding buildings, and only rescued from complete destruction by being recognised as a site of martyrs. In 1750 Pope Benedict XIV proclaimed its holy site status with a plaque.

Even so, by the nineteenth century it had been taken over by vegetation and Richard Deakin counted 420 different sorts of flowers there. It was only in the 1870s, after the reunification of Italy, that it was taken over by the antiquarians and archeologists, and patched up and excavated to ensure that it survives to this day.

The book finishes with a highly entertaining chapter on the colosseum's final couple of centuries before going on to give a very useful tips on making the most of a visit. Altogether it is a very interesting book which really brings the place alive - while being careful to detail what is actually known, and what is assumed.

Thanks to Profile Books for the review copy.


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