Peter Jones

Better Than Wembley

The Colosseum


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his is an extremely interesting and intelligently illustrated book, rather spoiled for me by its tone. Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard (H–B, though H recently died) write in too chatty a fashion for my tastes, as if Roman history were intrinsically boring and readers needed to be jollied along. Furthermore, they rarely miss a chance to pilger on about how disgusting they find their chosen subject, beating their breasts and sanctimoniously inviting the reader to do the same, as if their Cambridge-liberal credentials might be jeopardised by their writing about a building whose purpose was to celebrate the deaths of humans and animals. ‘There is still a sense of transgression in the paradox of taking pleasure in touring the site where Romans took their pleasure in state-sponsored mass murder,’ they sermonise. Not for me, there isn’t. I find no paradox in enjoying a visit to any ancient site, whatever happened there. And even if I did, how exactly would I be ‘transgressing’? When they piously toynbeed on, saying: ‘it may finally come as a relief to know that [the Colosseum] has also been harnessed by some more noble causes [including Amnesty International]. … With the slogan “The Colosseum lights up life”, the building is bathed in golden light each time a death sentence is commuted anywhere in the world’, I am afraid I fell about laughing. Look on the bright side, indeed. But enough of that.

H–B begin by putting the Colosseum in its historical context. After Nero committed suicide in AD 68 with no obvious heir, Vespasian eventually emerged triumphant from the bloody battle for succession. One problem he faced was what to do about Nero’s infamous Golden House, a massive (perhaps 300-acre) palace, lake and park complex built in the centre of Rome after the great fire that ravaged it in AD 64. He decided to return much of the compound to public use, and the Colosseum was begun on the site of the lake, using money taken from the sack of Jerusalem (I have no idea what H–B mean when they say ‘it was in effect the Temple of Jerusalem transformed by Roman culture’).

Finally inaugurated in AD 80 under Vespasian’s son Titus, with a 100-day extravaganza of fighting and beast-hunts, the Colosseum marked an important shift in the relationship between emperor and people. The Roman elite was generally suspicious of large-scale meetings, and therefore of large-scale meeting places: sedition could brew there. Rome did have some small permanent (ie stone-built) theatres and amphitheatres, but the big imperial shows were put on in temporary wooden structures, which were dismantled after the event. So the gigantic Colosseum, with its 50,000-plus seats, made a major statement about the confidence of the emperor in facing his people. He knew they would not hesitate to voice their views in front of him, if the mood took them. As H–B go on to say, the plebs, the senate and the aristocracy would all be there for the shows – with the emperor as much on show as the fights he was paying for.

There are many problems about the Colosseum which H–B tackle with a will. Could the central arena be flooded? Not in the building as it survives today, with its complex under-floor mechanisms for lifting animals into the arena; aquatic shows were probably put on elsewhere. Could, for example, elephants really be made to fight cranes? H–B conclude there is a good deal of inventive wishful thinking in many of our sources, but agree that criminals were often executed in the arena in cod re-enactments of myths (eg a criminal would be dressed as Orpheus and torn apart by wild animals). We do not know which way up the thumb went to signal life or death; there is no evidence that ‘We who are about to die salute you’ was the regular gladiatorial declaration to the emperor; in the absence of explanatory ancient accounts, it is extremely difficult to determine the different gladiatorial types, let alone describe their tactics (eg ‘net-men’ are usually shown without nets); are those magnificently decorated but unmarked and absurdly heavy helmets from Pompeii the real thing, or simply for pre-match display? And so on.

Gladiators were often seen as the lowest of the low, symbols of moral degradation. At the same time, they were often admired: graffiti record their popularity (‘girls’ heart-throb’), and objects from perfume-containers to babies’ bottles carry their images; some philosophers saw them as epitomes of manliness, exemplars of the Roman way of fighting and dying nobly. So their position in society was ‘contested and ambivalent’ (ghastly academic-speak for ‘there were different views about them’).

H–B work hard on the matter of ‘gladiator mortality’. With the few statistics that survive, they conclude that death in the arena was probably less common than we may imagine – perhaps a rate of one in six. Shows also seem to have been remarkably infrequent, perhaps as few as two per year in the roughly 400 venues across the empire. Animal mortality was, of course, a lot higher (9,000 were killed at the Colosseum’s opening, according to Dio), and H–B wonder how such vast numbers – especially of exotic animals like elephants, rhinos and lions – could even be caught, let alone transported and kept fit. As for Christians, they point out that there is no hard evidence that a single one was ever slaughtered in the Colosseum itself, but show in general how cruelty and suffering in the arena became ‘idealised as instruments of believers’ salvation’. The final chapters deal in detail with the construction of the Colosseum and have much of interest to say about its afterlife (Hitler, inevitably, loved it).

Despite its irritating tone, this is a highly informative and stimulating book. Paradoxically, therefore, transgress away and take pleasure.

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