In the heart of Rome stands the great icon of the Eternal City, its walls half-crumbled but intact enough to preserve a glimpse into the ancient glory of empire and the heirs of Caesar triumphant. The Colosseum has withstood gladiator battles, earthquakes, devastating fires, barbarian hordes and pesky thieves, forever holding up the memory of a long-gone, world amidst a sprawling, modern metropolis. The clanging of swords has given way to the clicking of cameras, thundering hooves to the throngs of tourists, but still, the Colosseum remains ever vigilant against the city skyline.
The great structure was built by Emperor Vespasian and paid for by the loot he secured from the sacking of Jerusalem in the year 70. It was constructed on the site of Nero’s private baths, as a political statement to the citizens of Rome, a declaration in concrete, that Vespasian was a man of the people, unlike his despised predecessor Nero (though the name comes from the “colossal“ statue of Nero that once stood nearby). Contrary to Hollywood mythology, no Christians were ever fed to the lions in the arena, though Russell Crowe’s swaggering forebears fought many a duel for the crowds. It had a seating capacity of 55,000, comparable to a modern stadium, with the best seats in the lower levels reserved for the wealthy. he Romans themselves saw it as a grand theatre, the elliptical shape of the arena formed by two Greek theatres put together.
As the fortunes of Rome waned and the seat of the empire shifted east to Constantinople, the Colosseum went into service first as a fortress, then a Christian shrine, and finally a sightseeing destination for travelers. In other words, it became a multi-use facility out of sheer duration through the centuries, hosting sporting competitions, civic events and religious processions. The Romans truly built things to last in comparison to the venues of today that are replaced every few decades.
So what to make of the Colosseum? In some ways, it looks more impressive from the outside than in wandering the loops inside. The famous exterior silhouette of the partially collapsed wall seems unfamiliar when looking at it in the obverse from the interior. The various chambers below the arena are now exposed rather than the flat flooring we expect to see, rather jarring when compared to the mental images of gladiatorial combat from too many movies. Yet we tread the paths taken by senators and citizens from antiquity, popes and prelates from the middle ages, countless visitors over a two-thousand-year span. The Colosseum is like a mountain venerated for simply lasting, for always being there, something tangible that connects disparate generations. This is simply one of those places that must be seen, even if it is just a really, really old stadium.