Gore and entertainment, digging into Rome’s Colosseum

Are you planning a trip to Rome? I’m positive that one of the first attractions you’ll consider visiting is the mighty Colosseum.

The Colosseum as seen coming from Via dei Fori Imperiali
The Colosseum as seen coming from Via dei Fori Imperiali

Hardly in need of any introduction, the Amphitheatrum Flavium is one of Rome’s most visited and photographed landmarks, one of those must-sees no guidebook would ever dare forgetting. It must be its look, its majesty or its ancient wisdom overlooking our whimsical modernity, but the Colosseum never fails to attract thousands of people every day.

A detail from the Colosseum facade
A detail from the Colosseum facade

You don’t even need to plan a specific tour to see this fabled place, it’s visible from many of the spots you’ll be likely visiting. If you are in Piazza Venezia, you can see it wrapped up in the maze of the city’s pollution, if you go up to the terrace of the Vittoriano Complex, yet again it will come up in your pictures. In a nutshell, if you are in the city center it’s almost impossible to avoid it.

So, what’s so cool about the Colosseum? Its architectural style? Ridley Scott’s influence on his audience?

One more shot of the Colosseum from Via dei Fori Imperiali
One more shot of the Colosseum from Via dei Fori Imperiali

Elliptical in shape and measuring 188 mt in its long axis, 156 in the short one and 50 mt in height, the Colosseum comprises of four floors, its facade made with limestone from nearby Tivoli. Its imposing structure reveals in full the skills of ancient Romans in the organization of a construction site. Each level was aimed at a specific class, loyally reproducing the layers of Roman society, and although access was free, citizens were given a card with their specific seat number.

Funded with the spoils of the war in Judea, the Colosseum was started by Vespasian, inaugurated by Titus in 80 AD and completed by Domitian, who added the underground section and the dwellings for the gladiators.

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The main area where games took place
The main stage where games took place

Here gladiators fought against each other or against wild animals, here the Emperors, devoid of their humanity, coined the infamous “thumb down” expression and bewitched the citizens with the gimmick of Panem et Circensem, forerunner of today’s propaganda system of distracting the public opinion from the real problems by giving them money and entertainment, except that today we don’t get the money.

The wild animals used in the games came from different places, Europe, North Africa, Middle East, and were killed very cruelly. Taken brutally away from their natural environment, many of them to died even before reaching Rome. Gladiators, on the other hand, were either slaves, criminals or even noblemen who wanted to feel the vibe of risking their lives by proving their strength to the population and the Emperor.

The Colosseum from behind
The Colosseum from behind

The shows (ludus -i in Latin) were originally conceived as propitiatory rituals to appease the gods, and eventually, they evolved into atrocious games where countless men and animals were brutally slaughtered. In ancient Rome physical strength, pride and bravery were crucial to a man’s personality, the reason why gladiators who didn’t give evidence of such traits during the fights could even be sentenced to death by the audience, some 50,000 to 70,000 people. This was considered the worst way to die, humiliated in the public arena.

Visiting the Colosseum inside you can also see on display what we can consider the trash left by spectators, objects, and tools they used during the breaks, chessboards, tables for betting, pawns made with the most different materials, from bones to terracotta, even spindles women used for weaving and makeup tools. Often spectators would gamble, even though it was allowed only during the Saturnalia, festival honor of the god Saturn. The passion for games was so big that it was common practice among men, women, patricians, and plebeians without distinction.

Detail of inside carvings
Detail of inside carvings

All the objects found from the diggings reveal an image of a theater overcrowded with noisy and vociferous people busy in all types of activities, including eating, heating up their meals or even cooking from the scratch, as the rudimentary stoves found on the bleachers show. Writers of the time report that the most common foods eaten there were fruits, meat, and fish. All around there were fountains where people could get free water. Alcohol was also consumed, but with moderation. In fact, at the entrance spectators were given a token equal to a single glass of wine to avoid troublesome drunks.

Inside the Colosseum, where spectators sat.
Inside the Colosseum, where spectators sat.

The diversity and the enthusiasm the Romans put into organizing their entertaining moments reveal how important leisure time was to them.

It would suffice to say that inside the Colosseum even representations of naval battles (naumachia in Latin) took place. Not many, but those few happenings were certainly spectacular, according to the witnesses who left written impressions about it. Not sure how they managed to organize these battles, but sources report that the Colosseum was filled with water and proper boats were brought in. All this, before underground cells and cages were dug.

Another view from inside the Colosseum.
Another view from inside the Colosseum.

Apart from shows and fights, also capital punishments were performed in the Colosseum, and apparently so brutally and humiliating, supposedly to work as a deterrent for future crimes, that many prisoners preferred to commit suicide before the execution. On the other hand, while common knowledge might suggest that in the Colosseum early Christians were martyrized, probably due to Hollywood movies such as Quo Vadis, there is no historical record to prove this.

The biggest holiday, the busiest summer season, the most tourist-crowded days are probably nothing compared to the excitement, the chattering, the noise at the time of the first shows, when the Colosseum, just built, stood in all its glory.

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