Honors in Rome - WInter 2007
It is impossible to understand why people act the way they do across cultures, let alone millennia. However, given the evidence historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, etc. have been able to conjure up, it is now understood that there existed a time in Roman history where people were popularly and successfully entertained with various forms of murder. These forms included gladiatorial games, animal hunts, and prisoner executions. Granted it is beyond the scope of this paper to completely account for these activities, but this paper will provide some insight as to why the games were put on and why the audiences were so hooked. The murderous activities being discussed all took place at the Colosseum, possibly the greatest living monument in all of ancient history. Though gladiatorial games took place in other locations before the Colosseum’s construction, none were of equal or greater scale than those that were carried out in this centerpiece of Rome. General knowledge about the Colosseum and Gladiator games comes from popular media and commonly held myths that may be misleading or outright false. The historical evidence we do have consists of theories that may or may not be true. Even written records dating back to the time of the operational Colosseum tend to embellish or exaggerate what was possible at the time. This is not to discredit the amazing feats of the Romans (achieved with a lot of slave labor), but to portray the most accurate representation of the Colosseum’s history that science can offer.
First, it is important to understand the conditions in which the Colosseum’s creation came about. Rome was on the verge of a civil war. The hated emperor Nero had built a palace for himself, called the Golden House, after a fire raged through Rome in AD 64. Circumstances worsened for Nero in AD 68 when the Senate stripped him of his powers; which eventually caused Nero to flee and commit suicide. Then, Civil War broke out in the year 69, the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’. One of those emperors, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, commonly known as Vespasian, became victorious.
In AD 70, Vespasian and his son Titus sacked Jerusalem and returned to Rome victors with huge riches. Though the Golden House of Nero was quite hated, part of it was put to use by Vespasian and Titus for Imperial needs. A huge private lake that Nero had built became site of the, now and then famous, Colosseum. As stated by a poem by Martial:
Where the stupendious theatre’s vast Pile
Is rear’d, then Nero’s Fish-ponds were e’er while
Rome’s to it self restor’d; in Ceasar’s Reign
The Prince’s Pleasures now the People gain.
Facts about the Colosseum that are known for sure are that it was built for the people, ordered by Vespasian, funded by taxes and the spoils of war with Jerusalem; however, the artist or architect remains unknown. One theory that exists is that Virgil (who died many decades prior to construction of the Colosseum), Rome’s greatest poet, is the creator, but this and other theories are unfounded. No knowledge of the author or architect survives. Historians know that Vespasian died before the completion of the Colosseum in AD 80, but his son Titus saw its completion.
The name of the monument we use today, Colosseum, is an adopted name. At the time, it was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, after Vespasian’s family name. Vespasian preserved the statue of Nero, ‘The Colossus’ that stood outside of the Colosseum. To further confuse this issue (as the statue of The Colossus no longer exists), the eighth century scholar Bede stated, “So long as the Colisaeus stands, Rome also stands, when the Colisaeus falls, Rome will fall too” that is commonly attributed to the Colosseum, but it actually refers to the statue of the Colossus. Rome fell not long after the actual Colossus fell, which made it a better prediction of Rome’s fate.
The Colosseum is quite an architectural spectacle; it amazes people today as it did nearly 2000 years ago. The Colosseum stands 157 feet tall, 615 feet long and 510 feet wide. An inherently immense structure, it is considered even more impressive since it was not built into a hillside or a depression just like other amphitheatres of the time , but on a level surface. Because a lot of the Colosseum was lost, pillaged, rebuilt and maintained, it is difficult to ascertain specific details about the Colosseum. Archeologists cannot accurately date the various parts of the Colosseum, since what remains today isn’t exactly the same as when it was first built. There was a major rebuild in the third century when lightning struck the Colosseum and burned it. Half of the outer wall is destroyed. The marble facings, paintings, decorations, the floor and the seating no longer exist. Nevertheless, as much of the outer structure remains as it once was.
There are four arcaded stories; the first three are open archways, each with their own distinct architecture. On the ground floor are columns of the Doric order, the first floor colomns of Ionic, and on the second, columns of Corinthian. The third story also has Corinthian columns, but there are windows instead of arches. This was both traditional and innovative in using multiple established types of column; this is something that came to be copied by many generations. Then, on the roof are sockets that are said to have held up the roof of the Colosseum. The most probable theory is that there was a large mast and boom construction (similar to that of sail ships of that time period and it is probable that sailors operated this), which allowed the raising and lowering of the roof, as well as the retracting of the roof in order to keep it from being destroyed during storms.
There are eighty entrances to the Colosseum that allowed easy access for a great number of people. All but four of these entrances are numbered; the ones not numbered lie on the four ‘corners’ of the stadium that was reserved for performers, emperors, and those presenting the shows. Upon entering, the seats are ranked hierarchically (even though seats were to be free). The ringside seats (like today) went to the richest, from Senators, to Knights, and then to normal citizens, and lastly to slaves and women (except the Vestal Virgins). The Emperor and the Vestal Virgins had special box seats. The capacity of the stadium has been argued to have held as high 90,000 people, to a more realistically 40,000. The rich could easily leave their seats from the lower levels, avoiding the people from the upper level who had to funnel into a tight area, so as to let the rich out first and alone. The floor was covered with sand (Latin word for sand is arena), which was used to soak up blood and other remains. Surrounding the arena was a wall to protect spectators (though the action might get very close with a rampaging elephant).
Below ground is even more complicated than above ground. There are many passageways, tunnels and storerooms. There were trapdoors and elevators to bring scenery or exotic animals into view. These underground structures are probably not part of the original plan, and were most likely built under Titus’ successor Domitian.
When the Colosseum opened in AD 80 under the emperor Titus,, a hundred days of gladiator games, executions and beast hunts commenced. The beasts were not only local, but wild exotics, including lions and tigers and bears, elephants, rhinos and hippos. Women were even involved in these beast hunts. The executions themselves were extravagant, often portraying famous or mythological people in a play that resulted in their death. All of this was for the entertainment of the citizens of Rome.
The extent of the bloodshed seems to be over exaggerated by the poets who recounted the events, or within the records of the officials putting on the shows. An example of this would be the depiction the expense involved in putting on shows, the capture and transport of wild and dangerous animals from great distances, the training and purchase of Gladiators, as well as the famous mock sea battles where the entire stadium was flooded (this is much disputed on how many times this occurred, or even if it occurred in the stadium).
Within a short period time of history, thousands of gladiators were said to have fought and died in the Colosseum; however, the lives of the Gladiators wern’t as bad as it has been made out (though it was no cakewalk either ). The average Gladiator possibly fought twice a year, which entailed a few dozen matches in his lifetime. His lifespan sometimes exceeded that of the peasants (aside from untimely deaths). The Gladiators achieved a celebrity status (though were still shunned as slaves), received gifts, food, and women.
Pollice Verso (1872) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum)
There were supposedly many different types of fighters, each with their own unique fight style (either from their native country or given to them by their trainers). They were at the mercy of the Emperor or those putting on the show, such as senators. The thumbs turned meant death, though it has been thought that thumbs down means death, thumbs up is life; or thumbs up and in meant death, down and out and (and away) meant life, or thumbs turned (pointed towards the chest meant death) and a closed fist meant life. Most of these details come from the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, who gathered as many facts as he could about the Colosseum. There is no undisputable evidence about the gladiators at the Colosseum, other than the fact that many Gladiators fought there. Today there are visible ruins of a training camp with an underground passageway next door to the Colosseum.
The spectators themselves were involved in the happenings of the Colosseum. It was a place to gather and speak with each other, and to see the many stratifications of Roman society. Though the seats were ‘free’ for citizens, the tickets were probably handed out by elites, for favors or money. Since the majority of tickets were probably given to the more wealthy first, there wouldn’t have been a mishmash of the super elite and the dirt poor. This is because the stadium held nearly 50,000 people at any given time, and the adult male population (which were the primary attendees) in Rome totaled approximately 250,000; this meant that no more than a fifth of the population was present at any given time.
Vespasian, the original patron’s goal was to have the people forget about Nero, and to have a place to go when there was downtime all the while being fixated on a given spectacle (this was to prevent the mob from gathering on their own). Further, this large gathering of people allowed them to voice their opinions to the emperor. The original patron’s goals were not achieved with respect to Nero, because Nero became immortal because of the name Colosseum. Vespasian succeeded dearly with the second goal. The games went on for hundreds of years after their inauguration, keeping the public’s attention on entertainment, showing them the power and might of Rome.
Later emperors used the Colosseum to gain respect or love from the citizens. They would put on lavish shows, and shower their audience with gifts, sometimes food, gold or other surprises. They were attentive to the games, never busying themselves with their imperial duties. On the contrary, bad emperors would do terrible things. Either throwing spectators into the ring when no more prisoners were left to be executed, or join the ring as a gladiator themselves; Commodus most famously did this. Commodus would kill animals and other gladiators himself to boast his skill. The emperors didn’t want to be surpassed by the games they put on, so they tried to suppress this in their own ways. The Colosseum was to show the image of the Emperor to its citizens, and what he could do for them.
The citizens loved the bloodshed, and there is little indication (besides from abject Christians and the first century philosopher, Seneca) that there were objections. The costs of the games led to their eventual downfall (also linked to the fall of Rome). Damages to the Colosseum and upkeep were very expensive, as well as the shows that were put on. The games became fewer and fewer, and the end of the Colosseum, as the Romans knew it, ended.
However, this was not the end of the Colosseum and its many uses throughout history. It became home to the homeless, vendors, and even a dumping ground. The Colosseum also became a great supplier for builders pillaging marble, stone and iron. Considering the amount of spolia gathered, much of Rome may have some of the Colosseum in it. Eventually the Christians took over the Colosseum, making it a holy site and home to the many Christian martyrs (there is no evidence supporting this, just myth and speculation). It became a Christian symbol nevertheless, and a small church was erected. Eventually Christians lost power over the Colosseum and archaeologists won in their pursuits to begin excavating the area.
After the Church had nearly permanently left the Colosseum, Mussolini took over, sponsoring excavations, and built a road right next to it. Mussolini put up a cross that still stands today, praising Pope Pius XI, King Victor Emmanuel II, and himself. Mussolini used this site as a tool of propaganda, and put up the cross to appease the Catholics.
Though the structure as it stands today is in poor condition, and much of it is gone and is unlike its original form, it still is influential to current amphitheatres. It also stands among existing amphitheatres as one of the biggest and most extravagant ever constructed. The style of the Colosseum was mostly influential to other Roman architects and artists of the time. The use of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns within the same façade was a style that was repeated due to its influence. What most amazes people today, is the sheer size, beauty and workmanship put into the Colosseum. It has survived for nearly two thousand years, and remains intact even after all iron supports were removed, thanks to a huge foundation underneath. The Romans planned well for the Colosseum survival to this day.
What most surprised me about the Colosseum when I researched is not only little we know about the ancient workings of the Colosseum, but also how much was made up much later than when the games took place or exaggerated (or misinterpreted later) of the content of the games. I learned so much about gladiators, far more than the extent that this paper provided, and their lives were quite interesting. I was amazed at how much was put into a single game, and how much these games must have cost. I still can’t figure out how they captured and maintained these wild exotic animals, and brought them back live enough to fight. The ingenuity of the Romans is only eclipsed by the brutality of the games. As much as we shun the games, I wonder if we would have been caught in the spectacle as so many of the Romans did. Sure, we watch movies with insane amounts of violence and gore, but real life is so much different. Still, the wonders of Rome will never cease to amaze the world or me.
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