Did you ever see anything grander that that almost incomprehensible immensity, the Roman Colosseum ? I am sure I never did, and I have seen most of the world’s greatest wonders. So vast is it that Juvenal says, it : “. . . in its public shows, unpeopled Rome, And held, uncrowded, nations in its womb.”
To my mind nothing can impart a more vivid impression of the marvelous power and wealth of the ancient Romans than this mountainous yet beautiful ruin. Its gigantic proportions grow upon us when we remember that, for many centuries, its stones have been sold as from a common quarry, and built into palaces and churches, and even carried off to the ends of the world.
That titanic structure was commenced A. D. 72, by the Emperor Vespasian, and was finished by his son Titus some years later, after the destruction of Jerusalem. It was at that time completely faced with marble four inches thick. Of the captive Jews brought from Palestine twelve thousand were employed upon this work. As you can see by looking at the exterior of the left-hand wall, which remains intact, the building consisted of four stories. Examine it closely, and you may see that the first row of pilasters, between the arches, is of the Doric order, the second Ionic, and the two upper rows are Corinthian. The circumference of the Colosseum is one thousand seven hundred feet, its greatest length six hundred and twenty, and its width five hundred and twenty-six, while its height is one hundred and fifty seven feet. The en-trance for the Emperor was between the fifth and sixth lowest arches, counting from this end of the building, those without cornices and facing the Esquiline Hill. There was a similar entrance on the opposite side of the structure. The great blocks of stone which compose the amphitheater were held firmly together by metal clasps. These were all dug out in the Middle Ages, when metal was very valuable, and, as a result, the building is riddled with holes. We do not know who the architect of the Colosseum was, but there is a legend founded upon an inscription to the effect that it was Gaudentius, a Christian, who afterward suffered martyrdom in this very structure.
The amphitheater is purely an invention of the Romans, the cultured Greeks possessing nothing like it. It was used for gladiatorial combats, fights between gladiators and wild beasts, and also for naval conflicts, the arena being so constructed that it could be flooded with water. Subsequently the area within these walls was the scene of terrible Christian martyrdom. Heroic men and saintly women and innocent children were torn to pieces by wild beasts, for no other crime than that they believed on the Lord Christ.
The Romans reveled in sports of all kinds, but, unlike the more intellectual Greeks, their pastimes were characterized by an element of coarseness and brutality. Horse-racing, which had been imported from Greece, was popular, but not until it had reached a degree of recklessness and cruelty which had never been witnessed in Athens. Not to be outdone in the good graces of the rabble, to whom Pompey had given a permanent theater, Julius Cesar favored the people with a permanent circus – the Circus Maximus – especially adapted for chariot racing and situated in the valley between the Palatine and the Aventine, and which was one of the most magnificent buildings in Rome. On the map its location is given on the opposite or southern side of the Palatine Hill.
In the days of Julius Csar it was one thousand eight hundred and sixty feet long and six hundred and twenty feet wide ; circular at one end and straight at the other. On the inner side of the straight end wall, the space was free, but the other three walls were lined with tiers of stone seats, except those near the top of the walls which were of wood. On great occasions, when the building was crowded to its utmost capacity, these wooden seats occasionally gave way, and, in the reign of Augustus, a thousand people were killed. As completed by Julius Cesar, the structure held one hundred and fifty thousand spectators. A canal, ten feet deep, separated the lowest tiers of seats from the course. Length-wise, through the middle of the building, was a low, broad wall called the spine, whose summit was adorned with an obelisk and marble sculptures. At each end of the spine was a goal, marked by three small conical masses of gilt bronze, which formed the turning point for the races -chariot races, foot races, and athletic games of various sorts. This structure was the great hippodrome of Rome, but mortal combats, both of men and beasts, were reserved for the Colosseum. In the circus, men and women sat together, but in the Colosseum they were assigned to different parts of the building. In the latter structure
“Rome showed so many maidens and so fair, All the world’s beauty seemed collected there.”
Strange to say, the first introduction of gladiatorial exhibitions here in Rome was on the occasion of a funeral. They were given by Marcus and Decimus Brutus in memory of their father in B. C. 264. They immediately secured the popular favor and it was not long before they became recognized as the Roman’s principal pastime.
Besides the amusements offered by the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum-the races and the gladiators-there were various games in which the people indulged, chief among which were those resembling our billiards and dice. “Let them,” says old Cato, speaking of the gay and giddy set in Rome, “have their armor, their horses and their spears; let them have their swimming matches and their races, so they do but leave us, among the numerous sports, the `tali’ and the ` tesserae’ ” (a kind of dice) ; but the aged were not allowed a monopoly of this game, as Juvenal assures us
“If gaming does an aged sire entice, Then my young master swiftly learns the vice, And shakes in hanging sleeves the little box and dice.”
The sight of this great center of Roman life makes it interesting to think over again the way the average Roman spent a day at the close of the Republic and in the Imperial period. It was briefly as follows : The first two hours were taken up by clients who came to pay their respects. The next two hours were spent in attendance and in transacting personal business at the law courts; at the fifth hour (our eleven o’clock) came the noonday lunch to which guests were never invited ; and the sixth hour, with a part of the seventh, was a time of repose, in which the Romans enjoyed a noonday siesta; at the eighth hour (two P. M.), they repaired to the baths, after which, at the ninth hour (three o’clock), they went to supper, although the earlier Romans waited for this meal until sunset. Then from the tenth until the twelfth hour (four to six), they flocked to the theater, to the Colomseum or the Circus Maximus, and, in the evening, the wealthier classes gave sumptuous feasts to which they invited their relatives and friends. Thus, generally speaking, a Roman spent almost his entire day in the Forum, the baths, the theater, the Circus or the Colosseum.
Titus celebrated the opening of the Colosseum with a display of unrivaled splendor. A battle of cranes with dwarfs was followed by gladiatorial combats in which women took part, although no noble matron was allowed to appear in the arena. Five thousand wild beasts were slaughtered, and water having been let into the arena a sea fight of terrible fierceness was witnessed. When all was over it is said that Titus sat down and burst into a fit of weeping, but this was probably due more to complete exhaustion resulting from his prolonged dissipation, than from sorrow at the remembrance of the flood of brutality and butchery which he had occasioned.
Hadrian gave an entertainment in the Colosseum on his birthday at which a thousand wild beasts were slaughtered, including two hundred lions. The arena was planted with living trees, shrubs and flowers, and from grottoes and yawning clefts of rocks came forth the wild beasts. In A. D. 181 the Emperor Commodus frequently fought in the arena himself, and killed gladiators and wild animals. Dressed in a lion’s skin, his head sprinkled with gold-dust, he called himself Hercules.
In A. D. 217, the amphitheater was repeatedly struck by lightning and so severely damaged that it was abandoned for the Circus Maximus for many years. It was restored in A. D. 223. In A. D. 248, Philippus celebrated here the millennium of the city with a series of entertainments, in the course of which thirty elephants, ten tigers, ten lions, thirty leopards, forty wild horses, one hippopotamus, one rhinoceros, and two thousand gladiators were slain. At another time, one hundred of the finest breed of African lions, half-starved, were let into the arena together; these were followed by one hundred lionesses, two hundred leopards and three hundred bears, and the thunderous roars that arose from this vast multitude of royal beasts fairly shook the massive walls of the structure as though they had been built of boards. Such an appalling and heart-rending slaughter was never before witnessed, and when, at last, the darkness of night fell upon the awful scene, the arena was flooded with blood and thickly covered with a mass of quivering flesh.
These gladiatorial and wild beast combats came to an end in a very tragic way. In A. D. 403, an oriental monk named Telemachus was so horrified at the spectacle he had been witnessing, that he leaped into the arena and besought the people with tears to abandon their fiendish brutality; the mighty multitude sprang to their feet and poured upon him an avalanche of derision, and before he could leave the arena, they had stoned him to death ; but he had won the victory, for his was the last lifeless form ever dragged from that bloody arena as a sacrifice to the brutality of the Roman people.
Viewing the structure from where we do, does it not seem a pity that such a monument of power and greatness should have been blackened and defiled by the satanic cruelty of men? The Colosseum is at all times a striking object, but I think it especially so when the setting sun flings over it a flood of yellow light changing the somber walls and crumbling arches into gold ; or when the moonlight transforms the whole wondrous mass – walls, corridors, countless tiers of seats, and even the blood-soaked arena – into a titanic citadel of silver, calling up from out the deep shadows that lurk in obscure corners the dark phantoms of the past. I do not wonder that when Walpole, accompanied by the English poet Grey, visited the amphitheater, he enthusiastically ex-claimed : ” I would buy the Colosseum if I could!”
We are about to pass beneath one of the eighty arches and enter that mountainous amphitheater. Before we do so we must note several other objects of interest here. This block of Roman concrete, so close we can almost touch it, and most of the other ruins near us on our right, are remains of the Turris Chartularia, a stronghold of the Frangipani family in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But beneath these more prominent ruins are ancient beds of concrete and huge blocks of peperino which belong to the Temple of Jupiter Stator, a temple vowed by Romulus during his first struggle with the Sabines in the valley of the Forum, and built by M. Atilius Regulus in 296 B. C.
Of course the Arch of Titus is only a few rods off to our left, beyond the limit of our vision, and the road before us with a modern pavement follows the course of the Sacra Via between the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. The small conical structure of stone, in a circular grass plot near the. Colosseum, is the remains of an ancient fountain, the Meta Sudans. Beyond the Colosseum, to the left, is the Esquiline; and the ruins upon it belong to the Baths of Titus.
We are to take our next position within the Colosseum near the level of the arena, on the side to our right, and look up toward the side on our left which still towers to its full height. We can see from here a small section of the inner side of that highest left-hand wall, and to the right of that section you see a break in the top of the wall leading down by two steps as it were toward the right. Those steps will be above us and to our left, when we stand within the Colosseum. On the map, this new position is given by the lines which branch within the Colosseum extending from the southern to the northern side.