Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Christians to the lions?

Old meets new

There were several things that surprised me when I walked to and through the Colosseum – a well-known landmark if ever there was one. The first mild surprise was that there was not a single cat to be seen. The – mobs? herds? flocks? – of stray cats infesting the Colosseum where one of its features that I recalled from 18 years ago. (I looked up the collective noun for cats. Wild cats are known as a ‘destruction’. Regular cats are known as a ‘clowder’, ‘clutter’, ‘pounce’, ‘dout’, ‘nuisance’ or ‘glorying’. My goodness). The second, and more interesting, surprise was that I learnt that the big venue was not constructed until fairly late in the history of the Roman Empire, and then it was built on top of an artificial lake that Nero had constructed. The building was inaugurated in 80 AD – hey, that’s only 1931 years ago!

The Colosseum 2011 AD

The Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79 AD and seems to have been rather a good guy (well, in comparison with Nero and his family, that wouldn’t have been hard) came up with the idea for the Colosseum. He drained the lake in front of Nero’s Domus Aurea, and promised the citizens some pretty magnificent shows, in an early example of a leader ingratiating himself with his subjects. But it was Vespasian’s son Titus who opened the great arena with 100 days of festivities in 80 AD; and it wasn’t completed until the reign of Domitian. Vespasian, Titus and Domitian were known as the Flavian Emperors, and for a while the arena was called the Flavian Amphitheatre. It seems to have been called ‘the Colosseum’ from the Middle Ages, taking the name from the large bronze colossus statue of Nero which had stood in a pavilion nearby at the Domus Aurea area (long since melted down).

Artist's impression of Nero's lake

It does indeed deserve the moniker, as it is colossal. It is an oval shape, 188 metres at its maximum diameter, and reaches a total height of 50 metres over four floors. There are eighty arches and banks of seating, ranged from the orchestra stalls to the gods, just like a theatre today. The senators got the best seats, with the ranks of the plebs rising above as their status diminished. Some things never change. However, although you may have had a strictly allocated seat, it was free for you to attend the shows.

Inside the arena
And the shows? Certainly there were wild animals – their cages are there to be seen, under the stage area (the stage was always a wooden platform over the basement pits). The shows would feature animals being hunted by huntsmen, or fighting each other, or tearing apart prisoners (who had been sentenced to death). It is of course said that Christians were thrown to the lions in the Colosseum, and possibly some Christians were killed there: the Christian church has put up a cross inside the auditorium to commemorate any who might have died. But we really don’t know for sure.

In the morning, the shows would feature the wild animals. In the afternoons, the gladiators would come on. For both, there were bits of fantastic scenery to amaze the audience, and all kinds of dues ex machina were invented to give a bit of glitz and razzle to proceedings. Scenery representing the countryside and forests would give verisimilitude to the wild animal hunts. The animals were brought from all over the Roman Empire: lions, panthers, leopards, bears, rhinoceroses, giraffes, gazelles. The hunts involved a lot of skirmishing and proper fighting – it had to be a good show. The gladiators were sometimes prisoners on death row, or slaves bought in ‘speciality markets’ for the purpose; but were often young men of good family who hoped to win glory and fame. The crowds had their favourite gladiators, and would wildly yell their support for them (just like football crowds today). Sometimes prisoners of war would be made to dress in their national battle dress and fight staged battles, including sea battles for which the arena was flooded.

Doorway to...?
The arena of the Colosseum (the word ‘arena’ comes from the name for the sand which was spread on the floor of the arena) has a door at one end through which the gladiators would enter to begin the fight. There is another at the other end, through which the dead would be carried. Those of you reading this blog regularly might be struck by the similarity in this arrangement with the bull fighting ring in Seville. There was another similarity with the bullfights: a fighter or gladiator could appeal to the emperor for mercy, and the emperor would accede to the crowds’ wishes. A fighter or a brave animal might live to fight another day if the crowd considered that he or it had shown courage and deserved to live. The custom of the gesture of ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ comes from this.

The events were introduced by a grand parade, and between fights the crowd would be entertained by dancers, gymnasts, jugglers, actors and conjurors. Gladiators could be become wildly popular celebrities. When the opponents went into the ring, one would almost certainly not come out alive, with the choice always in the balance: in the hands of fate. The games only slowly came to an end under the Christian emperors (Constantine – 306 to 337 – was the first to ‘convert’ the whole Empire to Christianity) when a concept of the sacredness of life began to gain ground. Until then, however, the eager and insatiable cruelty of the games kept the Roman audiences thrilled.

As it is
As it was
These 'before and after' books are all over the Rome souvenir shops

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