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The Coliseum in Rome

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Dr. Watson E Mills holds degrees from University of Richmond (B.A.), University of Louisville (M.A.), Southern Seminary (B.D., Th.M., Ph.D.) and Baylor University (Ph.D.). He retired from Mercer University in 2002 where he served as Professor of New Testament Language and Literature for 23 years. More recently he retired as senior minister to Sharpsburg Baptist Church (1981-2008). He has done post-doctoral at Harvard, Oxford, University of Hong Kong and Basel.

On a warm, bright August morning in the Eternal City, I took Metro line B from the central station (the Termini) to the stop just across from the Coliseum – hands down the most recognizable icon of central Rome. Riding the Metro in Rome is quite an experience in itself – often so crowded you don’t really get on so much as you are propelled by the scores of other riders lurching to enter the already stuffed cars. Finding a seat is frequently a fool’s errand, so standing and reaching around other passengers to find a grab pole is the next challenge. I was not too worried though because I only had to hang on for about three minutes to the first stop. Any degree of consideration for others is apparently checked at the turn style where the pushing and shoving begins in earnest. However, the metro is so much faster than the traffic snarls on the streets above that you endure the drawbacks and soldier on!

I managed to exit the metro under my own steam and immediately searched for the exit sign that read COLISEUM. As I made my way up the long flight of stairs, I began the countdown, silently to myself, even if my heart was racing a little faster than usual. Five, four, three, two, one: then the top of the Coliseum came into view. The exit from the Metro looks directly at the Coliseum in all its glory and affords a perfect photo op. Just to the right of this great amphitheater stands the Arch of Constantine, which the Arc de Triomphe in Paris closely resembles. Further along to the right is the entrance to the Forum.
This colossal amphitheater was built by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago. It was the Emperor Vespasian who began the construction of the Coliseum in 72AD. It was to be the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire. It required eight years to complete the oval-shaped edifice, and by the time of its completion, Vespasian had been succeeded by his son, Titus. The dedication of the Coliseum was marked by games lasting 100 days, during which approximately 5,000 animals were killed. Further modifications were made during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD).

It remains one of Rome’s most impressive monuments, being visited by over 5 million people each year. It is located adjacent to the Roman Forum and is almost always crowded inside and out by hordes of tourists, the narrow streets near the Coliseum jammed with tour buses. I have sometimes avoided this surge of tourists by walking along a street just above the Coliseum which affords a fantastic view of the monument, but above the crowds at street level.

The Coliseum is situated in a valley between the Palatine, Esquiline, and Caelian Hills – three of Rome’s seven hills. It is held by many to be the “emblem” of Rome. Over the course of the centuries, it has withstood fires, looting, and earthquakes. It remains a brilliant testimony to the genius of its designers and builders. During the first century AD the Coliseum held over 70,000 spectators to witness events ranging from gladiatorial contests to mock naval battles. Its name arose from the size “colossal.” Others have suggested its name may have originated from the 66 foot-high statue of Nero that was located near the Coliseum.

I first saw the Coliseum in 1970 and most recently in 2014. I can tell you that the effects of pollution and of the massive number of tourists have taken a huge toll. The usual deterioration over time marches on, yet I was delighted to see that, in the intervening years, car, scooter, bus, and trolley traffic have been moved farther away from the Coliseum because the jostling of the earth by the vehicles is adding to the natural deterioration of the structure.
What remains of the Coliseum today is about two-thirds of the exterior marble surface. The walls are four stories high. Each of the three lower stories consists of 80 exterior arcades and half columns. The top story served as an attic to the structure. You can still see holes where canvas awnings were attached to afford at least some shade against the blistering sun.

Anyone who has seen such films as “Spartacus” or “The Gladiator” can imagine some of what took place here, e.g., human beings being torn apart by wild beasts and gladiatorial flights “to the death.” These activities were understood as a kind of “theater of reality.” While some Christians may have been martyred here, most died in the center of the nearby Circus Maximus in the years before the Coliseum was built. The Circus Maximus was the place where chariot races were held (as in the film “Ben Hur”) and remains a large open field where its shape calls to mind the oval track used for chariot races.

In ancient times, admission to the games at the Coliseum was free; however, the level where you would be allowed to sit depended upon your social status in the Roman system. For example, the senatorial class sat closest to and directly in front of the arena, on level one. The emperor and his family and high-ranking officers of state were seated at either end also on level one. Those who had achieved the rank of Knight were seated on level two, while the third and fourth levels were reserved for the lower classes.

The arena floor was covered with wooden planks that covered a “basement” with numerous underground passage ways. The rooms under the arena contained the equipment needed for the games, dressing rooms, stage machinery, weapons for fighting, as well as cages for wild animals. An elaborate system of cables, pulleys, and weights were used to lift the gladiators and the animals up to the arena level. These “elevators” were also used to haul elaborate props and scenery to the arena floor, i.e., to create a landscape setting that included woods to simulate a “hunt” for wild animals.

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The Coliseum appears to have been a venue in which the Romans could satisfy their hunger for “blood and gore” at least until the year 6th century AD. The last known games were held around that time and then, during the Middle Ages the Coliseum was abandoned altogether.

Saint Benedict studied in Rome in the early 6th century and would have known about the “games” held at the Coliseum. Some historians theorize that he may have been instrumental in his decision to halt the traditional games held here as he was a forceful voice for Christian ideals of social justice and of the sanctity of every human life.

During the Middle Ages the Coliseum became a fortress and still later became a “come and get it” stone quarry, like many of the ancient buildings of the Roman Empire. Only after a bronze cross was erected in the center of the Coliseum’s arena in 1744 was it transformed into a memorial to Christian martyrs and thus spared from further pillaging.

No matter how you look at it, the Coliseum is an extraordinary structure and always tweaks my imagination when I see it. Both inside and out, it points to the might of the Roman Empire and underscores how its people enjoyed congregating even if, for some centuries, the center piece of their togetherness was blood and gore! The Coliseum is definitely a “must see” for anyone coming to Rome. Like the Vatican, the Forum, and the Spanish Steps, miss the Coliseum and you haven’t seen Rome!

Next time: “The Rose-Red City of Petra”