Ever since I saw Russell Crowe playing Gladiator, standing in the huge, ancient arena and saying the words „My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius”, I wanted to see the Colosseum. I had to go to Rome and see the arena of death.
The Italian capital attracts few million visitors per year. The city has a lot to offer but its most famous hallmark is without a doubt, the Colosseum. This ancient amphitheater is monumental. I remember the moment when I saw it for the first time. I left a metro station and it was simply there. It stood in front of me. It was a bit hard to believe that such an extraordinary building, stands in such an ordinary place, surrounded by regular streets and houses. But it still looks grand from all its sides.
Seeing the Colosseum from the outside is one thing, and discovering its secrets from the inside is another. The Colosseum is not only an ancient structure that you read about in a history book or saw in the “Gladiator” movie. It was Rome’s arena of death and a scene of hundreds of years of bloodshed. People rarely think about this while visiting Roman amphitheatres. But the truth is, these structures were built for one purpose. People are amazed by the most famous amphitheatre – the Colosseum, and I don’t blame them as it is a masterpiece of architecture that has survived for centuries as the city evolved around it. The Colosseum is a beautiful building but its pretty face hides a dark soul and bloody history. People focus on admiring its arch-laden structure, forgetting about what actually took place inside of it, and what it was built for. It was a place of Death!
When the Colosseum was built, it wasn’t called “The Colosseum”. Its original name was the Flavian Amphitheater. It had 50,000 seats but could hold even up to 87,000 people. It was free of charge for all people wanting to watch the spectacles taking place. It was a very advanced structure. It had a complex system of lifts and pulleys beneath it to open trapdoors and unleash ravenous beasts kept under the arena’s floor. Releasing animals, usually lions was done to diversify gladiatorial combats. The Colosseum even had a pipe system that could divert an underground river to flood the whole place for a simulation of a naval battle, or just to wash stains of blood away.
The ancient Romans were brilliant inventors. They built advanced structures like aqueducts and temples thousands of years ago. These Roman structures stood the test of time. But the ancient Romans weren’t only geniuses they were also brutal and bloodthirsty. And not only the emperors, but ordinary people, citizens of the Eternal City and the Roman Empire.
The opening of the Colosseum was celebrated with pomp and ceremony. The fights were continuously presented on the arena for 100 days. They were brutal, bloody and resulted in the deaths of 10,000 gladiators and 20,000 animals. If 10,000 people died in the first 100 days after it was open, can you imagine how many people met their end here during the time the Colosseum was actually in use? The Flavian Amphitheater was used for about 500 years and then was abandoned. For these 500 years, its only purpose was to entertain bloodthirsty crowds. The site is a place of the brutal deaths of an estimated 700,000 people and countless animals. As a home of souls at unrest, the Colosseum is considered one of the most haunted places in the world.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Here I was, standing in a line, waiting for my turn to enter the mighty Colosseum. When I entered I wasn’t suddenly hit by these hundreds of years of the history soaked with blood and fear and screams. In fact, I found myself admiring all the columns and all the stones and taking photos. The Colosseum is a ruin, but it is not the same kind of ruin as Acropolis, Delphi or Ephesus. It takes standing on the arena floor to make you realize what really went on here. It also takes a moment to realize that the scenes from “Quo Vadis” weren’t created only to enrich the movie in the action and thrill, and that Maximus Decimus Meridius wasn’t the only gladiator fighting here, and that actually he was real, and that the Colosseum saw many such Maximi..
As I stood above the arena’s floor and looked below, I wondered what the conditions would have to been like, in the underground, more than 2,000 years ago. This part of the Colosseum was the realm of slaves, both people and animals, as they basically stood on the same level. Gladiators doomed to die were sleeping next to the exotic animals, brought to Rome from the farthest corners of the world, that roared or whined during the night. This place had to be dark, hot, airless, smelly and full of bugs. It had to be a horrible place because even now it is. The party unveiled underground is covered in moss and baths in shadows. Between its walls grows green grass. I’m sure it wasn’t here in the past. It’s just Mother Nature reclaiming what is hers. People aren’t allowed to walk among these walls. Maybe it’s even better as it could be a traumatic experience.
After leaving the Colosseum I made a walk around the circumference. After seeing the interior, the structure looked even bigger now than before. I felt a bit sad that some parts of it are missing, as it would look spectacular as a whole. But the fact that the Colosseum is still around for people to visit in this way is actually somewhat of a miracle. The Colosseum, together with neighbouring Forum Romanum was abandoned in the 7th century when Rome made the shift to Christianity. In the eyes of the Romans, structures like temples and amphitheatres had too many ties to Rome’s pagan past to be of any use any longer by Romans who now worshiped Christianity. The Romans started to use stones from the Colosseum and Forum Romanum to build new structures, like for example, St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s been said that 50% of marble used in the basilica was taken from these two Roman sites. The tectonic position of Rome didn’t help the Colosseum as well. Same, the passage of time.
As the years passed, Rome’s pagan past fell into oblivion. To erase the pagan roots, Romans changed the names of almost every single thing that could have any relations with the past. The Flavian Amphitheater became the Colosseum and it is known under this name till now. It would seem that Christianity was a reason for the fall of the Colosseum, but not necessary. It actually may have been Christianity that saved the Colosseum from complete destruction. Pope Benedict XIV was the person who accidentally saved the now-iconic landmark. He mistakenly spread a belief that in the Colosseum Christians were thrown to the lions for sure death. He decided that the Colosseum deserved to be preserved since so many Christians had lost their lives there. He established the Colosseum a holy site and erected a cross inside of it. Of course, fights did take place in the Colosseum, people did die here, but there is no record of any Christians martyred at the grounds of the Colosseum. At the grounds of the Circus Maximus, a place where chariot races and public executions took place, they were killed, yes, but in the Colosseum, not really. However, nothing else but the declaration of making from the Colosseum a holy site saved it. Without the pope, the structure would not have been preserved as well as it has, or perhaps at all.
During my Italian vacations, I kept coming back to the Colosseum a few more times. I liked looking at it. In the sunlight and after it got dark. It is a beautiful construction, and it would be hard to deny it. Maybe that’s why it is hard to imagine all these lions, crocodiles and bulls down there, in the underground. Maybe that’s why it is hard to imagine gladiators killing one another on the sandy floor of the arena. Maybe because of it, it is hard to believe that so many people lost their lives here! And maybe because of it it is even harder to believe that people would consider that entertainment! It is easier to picture such things and believe in such things in dark and ugly places. Places like Auschwitz, Birkenau or Dachau. But not in the Colosseum. Because the Colosseum is beautiful! And how could it be possible for such a beautiful place to hold so much darkness?