Gladiatorial combat existed in the days of the Roman Empire. If you’ve seen the movie Gladiator, you’ll know what I am talking about. A script didn’t inspire producer-writer-director Ridley Scott to make this movie — instead, it was a painting titled Pollice Verso* by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. The painting shows the crowd decreeing death on a fallen gladiator. Scott said, “That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked.” The venue for this form of battle? The Colosseum.
The Colosseum is one of the most visited monuments in Italy, and hosts up to six million people every year. The first thing that strikes you about it is its sheer size. In its heyday, the arena stood at 160 feet (49 meters) high, covered six acres (24,300 square metres), and could hold about 60,000 spectators with standing room for 10,000. Once one of the tallest Roman structures, the Colloseum’s imposing edifice has suffered from the forces of nature (earthquake, fire and lightning damage) and at the hands of man (who either stripped it of its decorations or used its stone in the construction of buildings such as the steps of St Peter’s Basilica).
Completed in 80 AD after a 10 year construction process, the Colosseum’s elliptical arena rose to four tiers. Mostly used for seating, the first tier was reserved for senators and ambassadors, the second, for the wealthy, and the third, for the public. The fourth tier provided the support fixtures to anchor an awning over the Colosseum’s circumference to shield spectators from harsh weather conditions. Unlike the other tiers, the fourth tier had windows.
The centre stage was covered in sand and was separated from the first tier by a high wall. When we visited in May 2011, the stage was being restored and below it you could make out the maze of tunnels and rooms that contained caged animals and gladiators before they were released onto the battlefield. Imagine the sounds of a roaring audience, the blaring of trumpets, and the beating of drums as the gladiators walked out of the passageways in the hopes of a victorious battle. To increase the element of shock and surprise, trap doors from the wooden floor of the stage were used to release ‘special guests’ during the ‘floor show’.
Combat between gladiators and wild animals was said to be the most popular event, but there were many variations and all were fights to the death. All kinds of weapons were used – swords, nets, tridents, daggers and offensive shields – and the people involved, included professional gladiators, convicted criminals, Christians, hunters, dwarves and even women. The arena was decorated with sets representing woods and deserts and on occasion it was flooded and equipped with small boats to imitate a sea battle. (Ann Natanson, www.historytoday.com in her piece, ‘Restoring the Colosseum: A colossal undertaking’.)
The last known gladiator contest was held in 404AD. Legend has it that a monk, Saint Telemachus, protested the combats by attempting to stop a fight in a Roman amphitheatre. He is said to have been stoned to death by the crowd and his act of martyrdom effected the end of gladiator battles.
Considerable investment has been made to restore the Colosseum to its former glory. The founder of luxury leathergoods brand Tod’s, Diego Della Valle, pledged 25 million euros (US$34 million) to the project over a three year period. By 2014, visitors should have access to a quarter more of the ancient Roman remains.
Click here to see a fantastic photo of the interior of the Colosseum. An amazing photo!
Tips: to avoid the long line for tickets, pay a couple more Euros and take the audio tour. This should guarantee you faster entry.
Since the majority of the structure is viewed under the sun, don’t forget to bring sunscreen, a hat ….and sunglasses in the warmer months.
*Translated as ‘Thumbs Down’ from the Latin phrase pollice verso meaning “with a turned thumb”. It can be seen at the Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona. See reproduction of the painting below.