Friday, September 9, 2011

Entry 164 9.9.11

Entry 164, September 9th, 2011, 2:22pm (GMT +2)

I forgot to mention (during my Titanic-inspired rant) that I visited the interior of the Colosseum yesterday. High tourist season has just ended in Rome, and while the lines are still considerable it is actually possible to start visiting things again. If you ever are interested in seeing the Colosseum, I recommend buying your ticket at the Roman Forum. The line is shorter, and it's a joint ticket good for two days that will get you in both places. This gives you an excuse to go to the forum as well, where there are much more extensive ruins (even though the Colosseum is more famous). I really recommend the Palatine hill . . . but I digress. I covered all that in an earlier entry anyway.

The Colosseum, or Flavian Ampitheatre (named because is was built by the Flavian dynasty – Domitus, Severus, and some other guy I can't remember), was begun after the death of Nero as part of a project to reclaim the huge portions of Rome occupied by his palace (the Domus Aurea, I think?). Thus, any movie showing a descendant of Julius Caesar pronouncing the death of gladiators in the Colosseum is historically inaccurate, as Nero was the last of his line, but I suppose that's not really very important. It could hold up to 70,000 spectators and was in constant use for over 500 years, except when damaged by earthquakes. That's actually why many of the facades have collapsed – it was built on a variety of substrata that shift differently when earthquakes strike. The original structure was built in only ten years by the extraordinary effort of manual laborers and anonymous architects; one hundred days of solemn festivities were required to properly dedicate it. Imagine a structure twice the size of a standard basketball stadium constructed in the first century A.D. and you begin to understand the Colosseum.

The building originally had a wooden stage, covered in sand. Two stories of “backstage” areas stretched beneath the surface, a warren of connecting passages and small rooms. These are the masonry structures you can see exposed now on the Colosseum's floor. A complicated system of winches and trapdoors allowed people, animals, and scenery to be brought up from below, recreating far off climates or illustrating scenes from well-known stories. I can only imagine the chaos below the Colosseum floor – lions and tigers being herded into cages, gladiators arguing before a fight, and managers trying to call cues, all done in stifling half-darkness and with sweet sticky blood trickling down the walls from the combat above.

The building itself is a hodgepodge of architectural styles and technologies. Given the number of times it has been partially knocked down and then rebuilt, I suppose that it makes sense, but I wasn't expecting it. I stood on the floor and tried to imagine it in it's heyday – the roar of animals being hunted through an African or Egyptian scene, the screams of criminals being devoured by lions, to occasional roar of the crowd over the general hum of conversation and merriment in the stands. There are small hollows in the stone for cooking or reheating meals (events could go on for days). Rough grids can still be seen scratched into the surface of the amphitheater where the commoners used to play the Roman equivalent of tic tac toe or backgammon. There's graffiti, too – simple pictures of favorite gladiators, with nicknames scrawled underneath. Most gladiators were slaves, captives, or convicts, but a few free men joined the system as well for fame and glory.

We may build larger stadiums now, but how many of ours are going to be in use for the next 500 years?

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