CHIAVARI, Italy – It was this photo of the police keeping an eye on Rome’s coliseum after the attacks on Paris that got me thinking about what ISIS has done to national and global treasures.
The footage of them destroying the 2,000 year-old Arch of Triumph in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, the Buddhas of Bamiyam in Afghanistan and so many others brought tears to my eyes. Treasures that have been preserved for centuries were heartlessly blown up, and turned into clouds of dust.
The very thought of it happening to the coliseum is more than my heart can bear. Rome’s 2,000 year old coliseum is the greatest architectural and engineering strictures ever built. Like the Buddhas and the Arch of Triumph in Syria, it is one of the wonders of the world.
In its prime between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators could be entertained by the performances that were held there. In that long ago world of the Roman Empire, it was used by the Caesars to celebrate their successes, their triumphs, and there were many for it was Rome that ruled the world. At that time the Roman Empire included most of Western Europe, including France and Spain, the Netherlands and England, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the whole of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco.
It took about seven or eight years to build the coliseum, and when it was completed the Romans celebrated with 100 days of games. There were gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles and dramas based on Classical mythology.
However, there was one spectacle that was never seen in Rome, and that was Christians being fed to the lions. While it may be a story the tour guides at Rome’s Coliseum like to tell, it is just a story recounted in Hollywood productions like Quo Vadis and Ben Hur. It never happened in real life. We know this because in the actual history of ancient Rome, there is not one word about it. Christians may have died in other arenas, but never in Rome.
There were three main types of games that entertained the ancient Romans, and they were presented like food menus are today, with a primo, secondo and desert. To get things moving, the primo was usually a spectacle of beast against beast. Groups of wild animals that had not been fed for a while, would be set loose to hunt each other down.
The secondo, or second act, involved a hunter, or bestiaries as they were called, in a battle between man and beast. The men were usually armed with a shield and a spear, but sometimes they were just given a bow and arrows.
The hunters became famous for their daring deeds and had their own fan clubs. The Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis, once wrote this about his favorite hunter, Meleager, “he killed a boar, then a bear and then a magnificent lion, and then, taking a long shot at a racing leopard, he killed him too.” Meleager took first prize in the games that day.
But there was more to come – the gladiators - the featured event of the program. With trumpets blaring and drums rolling, the gladiators chosen for that day’s entertainment would take center stage. When they were all assembled they would parade around the stadium accompanied by the music of the trumpeters and drummers.
The British historian Michael Grant lists about a dozen major categories of gladiators. Mostly they were criminals, murders, robbers, arsonists, men convicted of treason, and prisoners of war that had not been sold as slaves.
Some of the gladiators were heavily armed with a large oblong shield to protect their bodies and a helmet with a visor to protect their heads. On one leg, they wore leather or metal protection and they carried a sword or lance for a weapon.
Other gladiators were lightly armed with a small shield, leather protection on both legs and a curved scimitar for a weapon. There was another, even less protected category that was equipped with a net for the left hand and a long three-pronged harpoon for the right. The idea was to catch the opponent in the net and then harpoon him. Sometimes a lasso was substituted for the net.
Then there were those who wore chainmail and fought on horseback like medieval knights, and those who fought from chariots, a trick they learned from the British In the reliefs, mosaics and paintings from Roman times we see gladiators fighting to the death. With shields raised, swords and daggers drawn, fishnets and harpoons ready to strike, most ended up dead or dying in the arena of the coliseum.
That included female gladiators as well. At one gladiatorial show that was held during the 1st century to celebrate the Festival of Satturnalia, women, who had not been trained to use a sword did battle against groups of dwarfs, giving and receiving wounds and even dying. Not every type of encounter was presented at every game, each program was designed for the occasion.
One account, written about the games for the inauguration of the Coliseum, says that 5,000 animals were slaughtered for that event alone. And an eyewitness to the games staged by the Emperor Trajan to celebrate the end of the Dacian wars in what is now modern Romania, wrote that about 11,000 wild and tame animals died during that spectacle.
We look at the Coliseum today and wonder how such brutality was not just tolerated, but celebrated. And maybe that is the real purpose of preserving our past – to make us think about ourselves and what we tolerate and celebrate.