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Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Monday, July 4, 2011

In and Around the Colloseum

Ever since I’ve arrived in Rome, my favourite Metro stop has been the Colloseo on Metro Line B. This is because right outside the metro exit is a bus stop where loads of buses stop to take one to most parts of the city. And each time I’ve stepped out of that metro, the Coliseum has been there, silently beckoning me to enter. I’ve held back mainly because of the long lines of people waiting to get in. This day was different. I meant to go to the Trident area, but when I got out of the metro, I noticed that there were not too many people around the Coliseum and more importantly, no line waiting to get in. Because it was an overcast, breezy day, I decided right then to change plans and proceeded to the ticket office to purchase my ticket for the Coliseum. I paid 12 Euros for a 2 day pass that included the Forum and the Palatine Hill.

The Flavian Ampitheater as the Coliseum was originally called, was started by Vespasian, the first of the Flavian emperors, in 72 AD and completed by his son Titus in 80 AD. Vespasian was one of Nero's general who became emperor after a period of instability following Nero’s death. There was a struggle for power between 4 men, each of them supported by a different power base. Galba was supported by the senate, Otho by the Praetorian guards, Vittelus by the legions in Germany and Vespasian by the legions in Judea. Vespasian managed to take control of the empire and so began the Flavian dynasty.

Vespasian destroyed most of Nero’s Domus Aurea, his Golden House, which was built around the artificial lake on which the Coliseum was built. The funds for the construction came from Vespasian’s share of the booty acquired during the sack of Jerusalem and was meant to demonstrate an end to the days of Nero and indicating Vespasian’s desire to give Rome back to the people.

The Coliseum was meant to replace the makeshift stadiums erected in the Roman forum for gladiatorial games. It was erected by slaves, a lot of them Hebrews captured during Vespasian’s sack of Jerusalem. They used travertine blocks quarried from Tivoli and brought over 27km to Rome by the cartload. The structure is massive, being 165 feet high and 600 feet long and able to sit 50,000 people. There were multiple archways which contained statues and other works of art which were taken from the destroyed Domus Aurea and transferred to the Coliseum.

There were several stories of sitting spaces, the best seats, closer to the arena floor reserved for the emperor, the senators, the vestal virgins and the higher social classes. The higher the seats, the less important, until you reach the topmost level (today we call them nose bleed seats) where the slaves and the poor were seated. Some say that women were also seated here as befitted their gender. Certainly very different from the Hollywood versions where women were not only present in huge numbers in all areas of the Coliseum, but as enthusiastic as their male counterparts in their participation.

Entering the Coliseum, you follow arrows directing you along the tour route. I made a decision not to join a tour, preferring to view the site by myself and form my own impressions. Strategically placed bill boards give you basic information which is more than enough to give you an understanding of the place. The tour route presently brings you to a rather steep staircase which brings you to the main floor, that is to say the only other level that is still open to the public, which is about halfway to the top of the Coliseum.

Going Up!
 First thing you come across is part of the Nerone exhibit, where artifacts from Pompey and other sites are displayed. There was also a picture of a reconstruction of the area when the Domus Aurea was still standing. What was most obvious was the size of the place, the artificial lake right at the center and the massive Colossus of Nero, which was reputed to be larger in size than the Colossus of Rhodes.

A depiction of Nero's Domus Aurea with the Colossus of Nero
 When Vespasian tore down the Domus Aurea, he kept the Colosus intact, merely changing the head of the statue, removing Nero’s features and replacing them with a representation of the Sun God, Apollo. This statue survived to the middle ages (the base is what remains of the colossus today and can be seen on the Via Sacra). Through the years, the Flavian ampitheater became known as the Coliseum, some say taking the name from the colossus.

Depiction of the Flavian Ampitheater with the Colossus of the Sun God

The Coliseum underwent restoration in 1993 and then again in 2000 and after the exhibits, you see a portion of a corridor after the restoration, giving you a tiny glimpse of just how magnificent it was in it’s heyday.

Restored area

I have been inside a number of times before, when I was a little girl, with my parents, again when I was a teen-ager and once with my own family. So I was unprepared for the reaction I experienced when I finally stepped out into the interior of the Coliseum. The site literally took my breath away. The vastness of it, resembling a humongous bowl did not fail to impress.

Looking down, one sees what was hidden from the ancient spectators, the labyrinth where animals and men were kept until it was time for them to be, shall we say, “vomited out” (through the “vomitariums”, I kid you not!) onto the arena floor.

What was under the floor of the arena
These underground corridors were also connected to the Ludus Magnus or the gladiatorial school, where the gladiators lived and trained. They were able to travel to the Coliseum without being seen. Today the ruins of the Ludus Magnus can be seen between Via Labicana and Via San Giovanni in Laterano.

Plastic model of Ludus Magnus
The floor over this labyrinth of corridors, cages and waiting areas was wooden and was covered with sand (harena in latin) to absorb the blood and other fluids excreted and left over after every show. And so we have the origins of the word arena! The sitting areas were originally all in marble, but today only a very small portion of that is left.

Sitting Area in marble

Most of the shows were large productions, vanatos (animal hunts), reenactment of famous battles and muneras (gladiatorial bouts), where contrary to Hollywood perpetuated myths, thumbs down actually meant “let him live!”. There is no historical evidence that wholesale slaughter of Christians ever took place in the Coliseum although belief in this was perpetuated by pope Pius V (1566-1572), when he consecrated the Coliseum as hallowed ground. Today, the Way of the Cross on Good Friday led by the pope usually starts here.

The numerous arches that are now devoid of statues allow the breeze to constantly flow into the Coliseum and also provide beautiful frames for pictures of the surrounding buildings and gardens.


The Coliseum has withstood earthquakes, fires, modern day pollution and traffic noise, to stand proud and tall after 2,000 years. Lord Byron, who lived in Italy for sometime, wrote:
            While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
            When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall
             And when Rome falls - the World.

Will this prophecy, which was originally voiced by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century hold? Only time will tell, In the meantime, the Coliseum stands, for all to marvel at.... and sometimes serve as a resting place for a weary traveller.

1 comment:

  1. I really admire all the pictures.And it's good po to launch of it,to share to everyone. Nice ...