Crushed between the vast colliding ships, the wooden oars erupted in a shower of shards. Running at full speed he leapt, grabbed the rigging and swung out wide over the ship’s side. Releasing his grip, he landed, with a thump, upon the enemy’s deck.
A pair of boiling eyes fixed upon the invader. Their owner sprinted forwards, menacingly raising his javelin overhead. The invader leapt to his feet while swinging his broadsword up in one well-trained motion. The razor sharp blade slashed through the approaching torso showering the invader in blood. He snatched the javelin from the dying hand and hurled it towards the source of the arrows raining down from the rigging. It plunged deep into the archer’s chest. The subsequent agonising scream ended with a dull thud and crunching bones as he crashed upon the deck.
A seven foot tall giant waded through the fighting men towards him. He swung his trident down powerfully upon the invader. The broadsword and trident locked. With grimacing faces only inches apart, the two men grappled. Spotting unsteady footing, he kicked. The giant teetered, loosening his grip. He kicked again, toppling him to the ground. He swung his huge sword high above his head and down, deep, into the assailant’s stomach. The blood pouring from his gasping mouth was met with the raucous roars of the eighty thousand strong crowd.
The Colosseum was completed around AD 80. Some claim the inaugural games even included a sea battle. As I sat in those stands, gazing down upon that arena, I couldn’t help but imagine the astounding sights that must have once been witnessed there.
Sea battles would, undoubtedly, have been some of the arena’s most spectacular events, but there were many different categories. From the famous gladiatorial contests to the less famous animal hunts. It was also the host of public executions, re-enactments of famous battles and even dramas based on classical mythology.
The animal hunts were elaborate affairs. The arena would be transformed into various landscapes using moveable rocks and trees. A huge variety of exotic beasts were sacrificed upon the altar of entertainment. Rhinos, hippos, elephants and giraffes, lions, leopards, aurochs, bears, tigers, crocodiles and even ostriches were slaughtered for the pleasure of the braying crowds. The animals were often introduced unexpectedly via ingenious trapdoors and underground pulley systems. It’s even been claimed whales were involved, though I’m not sure how much of a fight they were expected to put up. And I don’t imagine they entered through a trap door either. The contests often occurred on breath-taking scales. At times 10,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators would battle continuously for months on end.
Not all animals were there to be killed. Some were there to do the killing. Lunchtime sessions often involved executions. The condemned would be thrust, naked and unarmed, into the arena while beasts were released to tear them to pieces. Though, I have to admit, it’s not entertainment I’d choose to accompany my lunch (“Hey, Lance. Do you want some ketchup with your bacon sandwich?” “Umm…you know what? I’ll think I’m fine on that front…”). But there weren’t only gruesome events. I imagine the acrobats and magicians served as a welcome relief from the stomach-churning violence.
The Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre ever built. Its capacity is estimated to have been 80,000. Such huge numbers made it necessary that the arena could be emptied quickly in times of emergency. Despite the numbers, it’s thought it could be emptied within minutes. This swiftness was owed to eighty exits. Sadly, many of them have disappeared due to the perimeter wall collapsing. The exits were serviced by corridors called vomitoria. This ability to conduct such a rapid discharge is the origin of the English word vomit. After all the violence and horror featured at the Colosseum, it’s amusing that it was actually the corridors that gave us the word vomit.
But it wasn’t just health and safety features that made Roman events similar to modern arenas. The arena operators even used a form of ticketing. Spectators were given numbered shards of pottery to direct them to their seats.
Interestingly, the Colosseum was the first sports arena with a retractable roof, in the form of a canopy. It provided shade and cover from the rain. It had a hole in the centre angled so as to catch the wind and provide a cooling breeze for the spectators.
The arena’s wooden floor spread was covered with about 15cm of sand to absorb the blood (in fact, our word ‘arena’ derives from ‘harena’ the Roman word for sand). Something I find amusing is that the sand was sometimes dyed red to disguise blood. If you go to watch such horrific violence, how can you be squeamish about a bit of blood?
The Colosseum saw around 450 years of service. It was later used for housing, workshops, a quarry and a Christian shrine. This shrine was dedicated to the Christian martyrs thought to have died there. However, there’s no evidence Christians were actually martyred there, and, prior to the 16th century, no one made such a claim. Pope Sixtus V intended to turn it into a wool factory to provide work for Rome’s prostitutes, though his premature death derailed the plans. These various uses, combined with earthquakes, have led to extensive damage over the centuries.
Despite the damage, much of it remains. I’d been told that it would be smaller than I imagined. Personally, I thought it was massive. I’d also read that there wasn’t much to see and you were unlikely to stay long. I think I read one commentator claiming you’d only spend about half an hour there. I couldn’t understand this. I was enthralled. I was wandering around, star struck, with a childlike grin. Whether staring down at the arena and imagining the scenes, or stopping to study the ancient graffiti etched into the walls, I was fascinated. I must have stayed for over 1hr 30min, and I only left when I did as I had other things to do.
The ticket for the Colosseum also includes entrance to the Forum and the Palatine Hill. Although the Colosseum queue moved quickly, I took the sage advice of getting my ticket at the Palatine Hill entrance as the queues were much shorter. Afterwards, I went back to take a look.
The Palatine Hill is the central hill of the Seven Hills of Rome. It’s the most ancient part of the city, and during Rome’s height it became a fashionable place to live. Today it features the ruins of many of the great palaces of the Roman Emperors. It was once covered with imperial palaces. Archaeologists believe they’ve even discovered the remains of the house where Augustus, the first emperor, was born. Today most of the hill is peppered with the ruins of Emperor Domitian’s vast palace, which was the main imperial palace for three centuries.
According to legend, the hill was the location of the cave where the she-wolf had suckled Romulus and Remus, the city’s founders. The name palatine is also the source of the English word palace. Amusingly it’s derived from the Latin word ‘palus’ which means marsh or swamp. So people who live in palaces, semantically, actually live in swamps. Not nearly as glamorous.
The hill is massive, and the ruins sprawl over a vast area. On several occasions I was about to leave when I thought “I’ll just check around this corner…” only to discover a whole new section. If you visit, my advice is to explore far and wide to make sure you don’t miss any.
As you walk down the Palatine Hill you reach a large ledge that looks down upon the last part of the spectacular attraction: the Forum.
The Roman Forum is a rectangular plaza that features the ruins of numerous important buildings central to Roman life. It was home to Rome’s religious, legal, political, economic, social and commercial life and played host to speeches processions, trials, trade and commerce. It was once filled with shops, temples, offices and arches. It’s situated in a valley at the foot of the Palatine Hill and was used for 1,400 years.
Since my trip I’ve read that a guide is recommended. I think this is a good idea as it was difficult to understand what you were looking at. It’s fascinating, but, to the untrained eye, it’s a confusing jumble of random crumbling buildings and public art.
One particularly notable aspect is the Via Sacra. The Via Sacra was a major road during Roman times. It was along this road that returning armies would march. Today those ancient armies have been replaced by armies of tourists, but it was still incredible to stand on those very same cobbles and imagine, two millennia ago, legions of tired, battle-weary soldiers marching along in a massive unbroken line snaking its way towards the horizon and beyond.
Since my return I’ve discovered this video which features a 3D virtual reconstruction of the forum helping to explain the site.