The early morning sounds of garbagemen, their slamming the lids of trash cans in the rear courtyard of my Roman hotel, woke me up quickly out of a sound sleep. I opened the nearby window sashes to greet the dawn of what promised to be a warm and gorgeous Monday, hopping into the shower after trying the bidet: a fixture which was totally foreign to me.
The personal hygienic device wasn’t like anything that I had ever experienced. Perhaps, I should have tested the velocity of the jets before straddling the bowl and quickly turning on the faucets. I thought water was going to come spraying out of my nose, ears and mouth spontaneously like a Grecian fountain.
Wearing my favorite, green-flowered shirt along with a pair of jeans and sandals, I figured surely not to be considered a tourist by any stretch of the locals’ imagination. Heading downstairs to the dining hall for filling my bellowing stomach, expecting to eat a good, old-fashioned egg, bacon, and wheat-toast meal, I found the Italian version of a continental breakfast: a humble buffet that offered only pane or crusty bread, panini, which is freshly baked bread rolls; brioche, consisting of delicious pastries; and croissants with marmellata or assorted jams. Fortunately for this coffee addict, plenty was available.
After loading up on sufficient amounts of carbs, sugar and caffeine to rocket any spacecraft into a low orbit, I buzzed out toward the site of ancient Rome and its surroundings, mostly within walking distance, roughly one mile away.
Visiting the Colosseum had been always on my bucket list. Dying is not an event to which I’m looking forward, but for each day having remained alive and well, I’m still one day closer to death; so why not live it up?
Via Labicana, the avenue on which my lodging sat, afforded breathtaking views of the Roman Colosseum from as far as a quarter of a mile away. Directly across the street from the ancient landmark, which had originally been known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, an excavation occupied half of the entire city block, within which had been the largest of the Roman gladiatorial training schools during its heyday, named the Ludus Magnus.
Barracks for the men had been located along the sides of an arena, which were still buried. Excavation had ceased years ago, and only a portion of what remained of the structure was visible. Built by the Emperor Domitian at the end of the first century CE, the institution linked to the Colosseum by means of an underground passageway which led to the hypodeum, an elaborate subterranean network of tunnels below the coliseum’s arena-floor.
Inside the courtyard of ancient Rome’s centerpiece, the grounds were swarming with tourists who were taking in the mid-morning sun, grabbing a bite to eat at the refreshment stands, or buying a trinket from the many vendors who were spread about the area.
While taking shots of the impersonators who were dressed as gladiators and soldiers, I was coerced by one of them to have my picture taken with his authentic replica of a legionnaire’s helmet on my head, and a blunt-edged sword in my hand, pointed at the actor’s exposed neck.
A compadre of the thespian, dressed as a centurion, used my own camera to take several shots, costing me ten euros. What a gimmick that was, albeit well worth the money.
The wait to get up to the windows for buying tickets to enter the Colosseum was well over an hour. A friend who advised me about wearing nice shoes while in Rome suggested that I should look also for a guide on the grounds of the site, with whom I could enter the building with little delay. A young woman approached who was a tour-coordinator, arranging for me to be included in a group with other English-speaking individuals.
We waited for about ten minutes to be escorted into the Flavian Amphitheatre, well ahead of the massive crowds of people who were still waiting on the ticket lines. Entering the coliseum quickly and viewing the inside through the eyes of a very inspirational host was worth every euro, whereby the history of the ancient amphitheater unfolded before us with the tales of glory and slaughter that took place within its confines.
Constructing the Roman Colosseum was a colossal feat of ancient architectural engineering and design, taking roughly ten years to complete. The stadium opened to the public in 70 CE and was capable of seating fifty thousand spectators.
Alleged tales about the magnificent edifice claimed the arena had the capability of being flooded by an adjourning aqueduct, connected for spectacles of mock naval battles, portraying Roman victories at sea and other aquatic activities. However, many historians dispute such events ever took place.
Gruesome exhibitions have been documented to have occurred inside these walls, some of which have also been in dispute as never having occurred. Contests were fought to death, such as beasts against beasts, humans overpowered by beasts; or ordinary-human, hand-to-hand confrontations with trained gladiators who bore armor and weapons, where only the strongest and fully equipped warrior survived to face another day.
The human-verses-animal contests were the questionable events. Some experts say they never happened. Many of the participants in these purported, so-called games were convicted criminals, sentenced to death and placed in situations where the total advantage lay on the side of their opponents, by whom they were certain to be brutally killed.
Some individuals were thrown into the arena with wild animals like lions or tigers. Others while being tied up had their vital organs pecked out by voracious and grossly ravenous birds. Many were sewn into animal skins and led out to die while being mauled by a pack of crazed carnivores.
Persecutions took place with Christians having been eaten alive by big cats, or dipped in oil and crucified before having been set on fire as human torches.
A larger percentage of the contestants were slaves, many of whom were captured during war and trained as gladiators at the various gladiatorial schools throughout the empire. They faced one another in mortal combat, however, with a glimmer of hope they may eventually be set free by their masters, if they became outstanding fighters with many victories and had become tremendously popular with the masses.
Those who survived and were not set free before retirement usually became instructors at the training facilities where they were affiliated, or promoted to a higher position such as becoming a personal guard to a Roman dignitary.
Some warriors were even given property and social standing that was equal to men who had become victorious at war. By having become a gladiator, a slave had a fighting chance for fame and fortune, as they were able to keep any prize money or gifts that had been given to them by appreciative spectators for their victories in the arena.
Their length of service was typically for five years, if the gladiators made it that long; and they could have been set free after three years at the discretion of the headmaster.
The bloodbaths continued throughout the history of the Colosseum up through the ages. After the matches with gladiators were outlawed by the Holy Roman Empire, the last recorded gladiatorial event occurred on New Years Day in 404 CE.
The stadium continued to host chariot races and animal hunts until the end of the sixth century, when the arena became a cemetery, and the blood ceased to flow.
During the subsequent sackings of Rome by barbaric tribes, the structure became the fortress for two of the cities’ patriarchal families, the Frangipanis and the Annibaldis. Sections under the seats were converted into housing and workshops, rented out until the beginning of the twelfth century.
In the early 1300s, a severe earthquake caused the outer wall on the south side of the amphitheater to collapse and turn to rubble. It was never rebuilt. The crumbled stone was reused to build palaces and churches within the confines of the city and the Vatican, and also provided materials for hospitals and other buildings throughout Rome.
The inside of the structure was stripped also of stone that was used elsewhere. The marble facade of the Colosseum was burned, as were all of the statues and stadium’s seating, consisting of marble as well that was converted to quicklime for making mortar and plaster, amongst its many other uses.
Bronze clamps which held together the inner and outer walls were chipped out and melted down to make armament. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church instigated the halting of the building’s usage as a quarry, for it was viewed as a sacred site which had been sanctified by the blood of the Christians who had been killed there.
A few attempts to restore the facade and interior of the landmark occurred in the early nineteenth century, and the hypodeum had been fully uncovered in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini. A massive reconstruction occurred at the end of the twentieth century, when marble seats were replaced and a partial arena floor was built.
Our tour guide concluded her history lesson, leaving us to our own devices while we waited for the second part of the tour to commence, which was going to take us to Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome.
I had thirty minutes to kill and walked around the anterior of the building, taking photographs and shooting video, trying to imagine my being a spectator during the amphitheater’s florescence and attempting to fathom one’s spending an entire day of watching back-to-back events that spewed blood, guts and gore, which finally resulted with the death of slain human beings or animals to the cheers of tens of thousands of Roman citizens.
Such a totally barbaric behavior was prevalent for a supposedly civilized society to be such blood-thirsty fanatics. Not that this fan of the macabre doesn’t enjoy watching the latest zombie movie or gore-fest from my favorite neighborhood video store or on a cable-TV channel, but this was different. Films only imitate pain and death while not actually inflicting it.
Witnessing such atrocities in the flesh and experiencing great pleasure in doing so were brutal acts, entirely sadistic and too violent for me to savor. Then again, what else did the plebeians have to do on their time off? Beside the thrill of chariot races, Rome didn’t sponsor any team sports, as what occupies the population today.
Considering the rites of sacrifice used for worshiping their gods, bloodshed was ingrained within the very core of a Roman citizen’s way of life, so perhaps their thirst for brutality was somewhat justified.
For a quick look inside the Colosseum, click on the video below:
The preceding was based on an excerpt from Thirty Days Across the Big Pond: Part One.