I saw the Colosseum a long time ago and I wasn’t especially looking forward to another visit. It’s a ruin. It’s old. It’s crowded with tourists. It’s associated with a confusing array of tyrannical and heroic emperors. And it comes with too many numbers:
Number of years to complete: 10
Date of completion: 80 AD
Height: 144 feet
Cubic meters of marble used: 100,000
Number of entrances: 80
Number of animals killed: a million
Number of men killed: thousands and thousands
Number of tourists each day: 10,000
However, somehow during this visit to Rome, it made an impression on me; not in the geeky history book way or in the architectural epiphany sense, but more along the lines of sentimental. And I mean that in a good way. I was moved by the ancient lives lived in its heyday, and I was struck by the evidence of humanity and emotion. I know it’s cliché, but this monument bridged the span of time for me. I felt close to spectators and gladiators. By the end of our week in Rome, I spent two guided afternoons in the Colosseum, once with my family and once with my friend Rose who just arrived from Seattle.
Both times, Lucia was our guide. She whizzed us past long lines and into the upper corners of the Colosseum where small, preserved artifacts lay. She took us to her favorite display of graffitied marble. We imagined an impassioned fan carving the name of his favorite gladiator or a picture of the day’s events.
While feeling a little disturbed at the sheer number of violent deaths that occurred in the arena, Lucia reminded us that life was super tough for the ancient Romans: Infant mortality rates were high, crime was rampant, and the constant conquering of territories took many lives. So the Colosseum battles simply gave the citizens a worse scenario than their own. It was entertainment. It was a show complete with scenery, trap doors and costumes. And since everyone was welcome, even women and slaves, it bonded the citizens and kept up moral. Tom said he always thought the futuristic scenario of the Hunger Games could never happen, but then he pointed out that it already had.
Contrary to popular belief, not a single Christian was executed in the Colosseum. The gladiators were often slaves; some had been recently captured, others were trained professionals. They would battle each other (or exotic animals) to the death. If a gladiator managed to survive, he could win his freedom and become a Roman citizen.
I thought a lot about Russell Crowe and kept wanting to refer to the movie when we were touring, but that’s kind of embarrassing. However, Lucia pointed out the The Gladiator is pretty accurate in its depiction of second century Rome. There were only two things that were blatently false:
- While Emperor Commodus did participate in gladiator battles, he wasn’t killed by a gladiator.
- Gladiators weren’t as handsome as they were in the movie. (How does she know?)