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The Colosseum - A Trip Through Ancient Roman History

By Mike Keenan

Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan

Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan

As Stephania Pistone, our guide, leads us from the Forum, looming in front of us, is the Roman Colosseum. It's a déjà vu experience for me as the building seems ubiquitous, given its many movie and architectural depictions. There's buildings inspired by such as Hitler's Kongresshalle or Congress Hall, started in 1935 and left unfinished at the Nazi Party Rally grounds, which I recently visited in Nuremberg, Germany. And another favourite is Vancouver's Public Library in British Columbia, designed by Moshe Safdie and patterned on the Colosseum. And for old football fans like me, there is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum's entrance plus more.

In movies, for example, the 2000 award-winner, Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe as Maximus, debuts in gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum as a Carthaginian a re-enactment of the Battle of Zama, unexpectedly leading his side to victory. Thus, as we view this historic relic from both inside and outside, the Coliseum exudes history.

Stephania, from Eyes of Rome, a group of independent local, expert guides (they call themselves storytellers) enables us to soak up her knowledge and enthusiasm as we tour.

When Stephania was a child, her father regaled her with stories and anecdotes about the Colosseum and Ancient Rome as they strolled amidst the Eternal City and played in the Roman Forum. With her mother, they visited all of the churches, looking for the most fascinating artwork and then shopping in intriguing markets. She explains that this is how she fell in love with Rome. She is a great asset to provide us with an enriched appreciation of this site.

The oval amphitheatre in the centre of Rome is a major tourist attraction, built of travertine, tuff, and brick-faced concrete, the largest amphitheatre ever built, just east of the Roman Forum. Construction began under emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, and was completed in 80 AD under Titus, his successor. Domitian, 81-96, made modifications, the three emperors known as the Flavian dynasty.

Stephania asks us to imagine 50,000-80,000 spectators watching gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles as with Russel Crowe, and dramas based upon Classical mythology.

Stephania Pistone, our guide and Di, my wife
Stephania Pistone, our guide and Di, my wife

Construction was funded from spoils captured from the Jewish Temple after the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 AD led to the siege of Jerusalem. An estimated workforce of 100,000 Jewish prisoners were brought back to Rome after the war. Slaves undertook manual labor in quarries at Tivoli where the travertine was quarried and stones then transported 20 miles to Rome.

The inaugural games were held in 80 A.D. with 9,000 wild animals in the amphitheatre. Gladiatorial fights are last mentioned around 435. In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV endorsed the view that the Colosseum was a sacred site where early Christians were martyred. Pollution and deterioration prompted major restoration between 1993-2000, at a cost of 40 billion Italian lire or $19.3 million U.S.

As we observe, the ruined state of the interior makes it impractical to use the Colosseum to host large events. Only a few hundred spectators can be accommodated in temporary seating. However, much larger concerts featuring the likes of Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Billy Joel are held just outside, using the Colosseum as a backdrop.

Rome, Italy: The Colosseum

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Stephania explained that unlike Greek theatres built into hillsides, the Colosseum is an entirely free-standing structure. It is 189 meters or 615 foot long, and 156 meters or 510 foot wide, with a base area of 24,000 square metres or 6 acres. The height of the outer wall is 48 meters or 157 foot. The perimeter originally measured 545 meters or 1,788 foot. The massive outer wall required over 100,000 cubic metres of travertine stone which were set without mortar, held together by 300 tons of iron clamps, and we see their traces in the walls.

Stephania showed us how the huge crowds would fill or evacuate quickly, much like modern stadiums. She walked us around entrances at ground level, 76 of the 80 entrances used by ordinary spectators, each numbered as was each staircase. The northern main entrance was reserved for the Roman Emperor and his aides, and the other three for the elite, all four entrances richly decorated with painted stucco reliefs, of which some fragments survive. Many outer entrances have disappeared with the collapse of the perimeter wall, but entrances 23-54 (XXIII to LIV) survive.

Tickets in the form of numbered pottery shards directed spectators to a specific section and row. People sat in a tiered arrangement reflecting Roman status. Special boxes were provided at the north and south ends respectively for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins, providing the best views of the arena. Flanking them at the same level was a broad platform or podium for the senatorial class, allowed to bring their own chairs. The names of some 5th century senators can be seen carved into the stonework, presumably reserving the areas for their use.

The tier above the senators was occupied by the noble class or knights, next level up reserved for ordinary Roman citizens or plebeians which was divided into two sections, the lower part for wealthy citizens and upper part for the poor.

A final level was added at the very top of the building during the reign of Domitian, a gallery for the poor, slaves and women, standing room only or with very steep wooden benches. Some groups were banned from the Colosseum, notably gravediggers, actors and former gladiators.

Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan  Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan 

A wooden floor was covered by sand, and the elaborate underground structure was called the hypogeum. Little remains of the original arena floor, but the hypogeum is clearly visible, consisting of two-levels, a subterranean network of tunnels and cages beneath the arena where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Eighty vertical shafts provided instant access to the arena for caged animals and scenery pieces concealed underneath. Larger hinged platforms, called hegmata provided access for elephants. The Romans sure knew how to put on a show! We stare in awe at the remnants trying to imagine what it once was like.

The hypogeum was connected by underground tunnels to a number of points outside the Colosseum. Animals and performers were brought through the tunnel from nearby stables, with the gladiators' barracks located at the Ludus Magnus to the east also being connected by tunnels. Separate tunnels were provided for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins to permit them to enter and exit without needing to pass through the crowds.

Stephania explained the machinery in the hypogeum. Elevators and pulleys raised and lowered scenery and props, as well as lifting caged animals to the surface for release. It was possible to flood the arena rapidly, presumably via a connection to a nearby aqueduct. However, the hypogeum soon put an end to the practise of flooding, and also the naval battles.

The Ludus Magnus had its own miniature training arena, which was itself a popular attraction for Roman spectators. Other training schools were in the same area, including the Ludus Matutinus (Morning School), where fighters of animals were trained. There was the Summum Choragium, where machinery was stored, the Sanitarium, with facilities to treat wounded gladiators, and the Spoliarium, where bodies of dead gladiators were stripped of their armor.

I ask Stephania about the animals. She says that they utilized a variety of wild beasts, mainly imported from Africa and the Middle East, including creatures such as rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, elephants, giraffes, aurochs (wild cattle), wisents (European bison), Barbary lions, panthers, leopards, bears, Caspian tigers, crocodiles and ostriches. Battles and hunts were often staged amidst elaborate sets with movable trees and buildings. Such events were occasionally on a huge scale. Trajan is said to have celebrated his victories in Dacia in 107 with contests involving 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators over the course of 123 days. During lunch intervals, executions ad bestias would be staged. Those condemned to death were sent into the arena, naked and unarmed, to face the beasts which literally tore them to pieces. Other performances by acrobats and magicians also took place during the intervals. A fun day Roman outing indeed.

In the Middle Ages, Stephania explained that the Colosseum was not regarded as a monument, but was used as a handy "quarry," with stones taken for the building of other sacred sites. Now, Christian crosses stand in several points around the arena, and every Good Friday, the Pope leads a Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) procession to the amphitheater.

Stephania was extremely knowledgeable, friendly with a great sense of humor and fun to be with, the characteristics of an ideal private guide. She studied Art History at University, focusing on the conservation of cultural heritage with a Master's degree in Industrial Archaeology and another in Didactics of pictorial disciplines. She could work as a teacher or a professor, but loves guiding, a form of education itself. Check out the Eyes of Rome's website. You will be impressed, and I highly recommend their tours.

The Colosseum

This is Eyes of Rome

Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan

Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan

Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan

Colloseum, photo by Mike Keenan

For more pictures, go to: https://www.pinterest.com/mustang6648/

Mike Keenan is a travel columnist for Troy Media. He produces a travel podcast - http://whattravelwriterssay.libsyn.com/ and has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of five thousand viewers.

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