The Colosseum by Moonlight

October 21, 2008 in Europe, Italy, Travelogue

A silvery moon shone overhead as we wandered through the concentric circles of the colosseum.  Both of the lights of the sky were smiling on us as we walked where untold millions have preceded us for centuries and millennia.

We could almost hear the roar of  the ancient crowds as we walked through the arches to the edge of the arena.  It was not difficult to see the huge retractable sail stretched out and shading the wealthy families, the senators in their boxes with names still visible on the marble stones before them.  The emperor on the podium, awaiting the entrance of the gladiators.  I hummed the song (Enter the Gladiators) as we watched the imagined contests, playing out the heart stopping action between wild beasts and wild men in our minds.

The colosseum is about two thousand years old and in remarkable condition.  It was named, not for its size, but for the great bronze statue of colossus that stood nearby.  About half of the top tier was removed to recycle the stones into other Roman monuments, like St. Peter’s, but what is left has been carefully conserved and certainly evokes visions of the grand contests once held within its walls.

We learned a few things, of course:

  • The colosseum was built as a gift to the Romans, returning some of the public lands that had been usurped by Nero during his reign.
  • The occasion of the grand opening was celebrated with one hundred days of celebrations, in which five thousand wild animals were killed in the arena… lions, hippopotamuses, tigers, panthers, elephants, bears, and many, many more.
  • The floors were made of removable wooden sections which were covered by sand.
  • The latin for sand is “arena” from which we get our current name for sports “arenas”.  The kids liked that fact a lot.
  • They were also fascinated by the maze of little rooms beneath the arena floor in which the critters were kept and where they had a series of lifts that allowed mountains, or animals, or whole forests, to magically appear out of nowhere, to the amazement of the guests.
  • Attending the events was free for the public, and the shows were put on by the noble families to display their power and benevolence toward the citizens.

As to the infamous feeding of Christians to the lions in the colosseum, there is no hard evidence of those martyrdoms.  The first writings about Christian deaths as a spectator sport occurred over a hundred years later at the hands of a, now Christian, emperor who was opposed to the bloody sports in the colosseum.

So… maybe they really happened, and maybe they were made up as a political move to sway the powerful church in the direction of a certain politician’s agenda.  Sounds like modern politics, doesn’t it?!  We will never know.  Either way, a monument has been placed at the edge of the arena to the supposed martyrs and the Pope leads a procession there each year to honor their memories.

As if the colosseum is not enough of a historical adventure for one day, the icing on our Roman cake was a long afternoon’s wander through the Palatine and Roman Forum.  It sounds cliche to say that the sculpture was fabulous and the preservation of the buildings was amazing… and maybe it is… but it was, fabulous and amazing.

Grandpa called us as we were walking down the main street of the Forum, in front of the temple to Romulus.  It was so much fun to share that moment with him, half a world away.  The children sat in the shade of cyprus trees and tried to draw one of the temples into their journals… “It is too big Mom!  I can’t fit it all!” they complained.

For me, the most profound moment of the entire day was standing (amidst a jostling, deodorant-phobic crowd) on the floor of the original Roman senate.  Or at least the one that was rebuilt after the first one burned.

I shut my eyes and the stinky tourists faded, the noises of cameras and the cacophony of french, italian, german, english and mix of slavic languages we’ve grown accustomed to swimming in dimmed.  Out of the swirling mists of time emerged the greats:  Julius Caesar and friends, senators in long robes swept into the room, across the marble tiled floors to take up their places on the raised steps on either side of the room.

They debated and stood to speak and worked for the good of their empire, without any idea of the weight their words and ideas would have two thousand years later in lands not yet discovered, to people they’d never meet, in a world unimaginable to them.  I stood with the ghosts for a moment, wondering if they could see me watching them, and then stepped back out into the sunshine.