Rome’s Colosseum

The Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built and a must-see highlight of any visit to Rome. We spent a day there before taking a Mediterranean cruise in 2011. After the cruise we spent another day in the city.

That first day had us take a hop on/hop off bus around the city and one of our hop off points was the Colosseum. We grabbed a light lunch and then walked around the perimeter.

This photo is a merge of two others. It captures the immense size of the Colosseum.

It is an ancient building and in remarkably good repair considering it is almost 2000 years old. Construction started under Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD. He died in 79 AD and did not see the building completed the following year under his heir Titus. Financed by the spoils of the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, it was built with the slave labour of 100,000 Jews captured and spirited off to Rome.

Made of concrete and sand, it was large enough to accommodate 50-80,000 spectators, averaging around 65,000. Like modern stadiums, it was a venue for mass entertainment which included battling gladiators, wild animal hunts, re-enactments of famous battles, mock sea battles, dramas based on Classical mythology and public executions. Yes, Christians were fed to lions here. In fact, the Pope marks every Good Friday by a Way of the Cross procession that starts at the Colosseum to honour Christian martyrs.

The Arch of Constantine, built in 315 AD, stands near the Colosseum.

Interestingly enough, twenty years after its construction, the poet Juvenal published his Satire X which includes the following lines:

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

Juvenal is lamenting the practice of gaining political office by bribing the voters with free wheat and mass spectacles. It marked the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. Walking around the perimeter we were impressed by the vastness of the Colosseum and its great beauty. The two millennia since its creation have left it weathered and eroded. It underwent extensive renovations from 1993 to 2000 at a cost of 40 billion Italian lire (US$19.3 million).

This end on view of the outer wall of the Colosseum captures its great height. The outer wall is shored up by supports built during renovations.

There were originally two walls, an outer wall and an inner wall. The inner wall remains largely intact but only a small portion of the outer wall remains. It is shored up at both ends by sloped concrete supports. But even with all the renovation, you can see cracks in the facade at various places, not to mention large stones at the base which have fallen from the structure.

Some of the stone work on the facade looks precarious but didn’t seem to phase the tourists walking below.

We saw some men in gladiator garb posing with tourists on our walk as well as a wedding party. It is a popular locale for wedding photos.

The Colosseum is a popular locale for wedding photos. Did you spot them in the picture of the Arch of Constantine above?

After our cruise we visited the Colosseum once again, this time paying to go inside. Well worth the money. The inside is as spectacular as the outside and well worth the visit.

As we entered we passed a recently recovered partial statue. There is continuous archeological work going on around Rome. This partial statue was probably of a horse and rider, but we were amused by it because all that remains is, how shall we put it, a horse’s ass.

The back end of a horse is all that remains of this recently discovered statue.

Inside you get a terrific view of the hypogeum, a series of underground passages and rooms, and a partially reconstructed stage at one end. The staging, made of wood, covered the entire subterranean level during the Colosseum’s heyday. Many spectacles were staged that involved lifts and hoists moving animals, actors and stage props from below to the arena floor.

The interior of the Colosseum showing the hypogeum and a partial reconstruction of the arena floor.

The hypogeum was a later addition to the Colosseum and in its early years, at least two mock sea battles or naumachiae were staged there. This involved filling the basin with water and bringing in ships. One was staged by Titus when the Colosseum opened in 80 AD and another by Domitian in 85 AD.

It must have been quite the spectacle. Some experts figure that water supplied by aqueducts and a series of pipes and channels could fill the basin to a depth of five feet in just 35 to 76 minutes. These battles were considerably bloodier than the gladiatorial battles often staged in the arena. They involved many more people, 3000 in the event staged by Titus. Condemned prisoners were used and they fought to the death.

Shortly after the last naumachia,  the hypogeum was built which precluded staging more of these spectacles.

Some detail of the hypogeum, the underground passages and rooms used to handle actors and props before they made their way to the stage.

Up to 80,000 people filled the stadium in its prime but  little seating remains. There are many sloped angular buttresses which held the seating at one time, but now stand alone. There is a little bit of seating extant above the renovated stage area. I’m not sure if this is original or recreated for tourists.

Flying buttresses supported the original seating area.
Some seating above the stage. Not sure if this is original or a recreation.

One of the things we noticed in the Colosseum was the large number of feral cats. We noticed them outside on our earlier visit and now again inside. Not sure what it is with ancient ruins and wild felines, but we first encountered them in the walled city of Cadiz in Spain and we later came across more of them at the ruins in Ephesus.

Feral cats keep the tourists company on a visit to the Colosseum.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Colosseum and can only imagine how it must have been in its heyday, the scene of great and bloody spectacles. The fact that these extravaganzas were staged with real people fighting to the death or even put to death in contests with ferocious beasts gives one chills. But even today gore fests remain popular in movies and television shows, though these are non-lethal make-believe. In less civilized parts of the world, live beheadings and stonings of the condemned remain popular with the masses.

I’ve included an additional photo gallery as well as links to a couple of articles on naumachiae.

Sicily and Mount Etna

Follow us on Facebook!

To celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary we spent a week in Paris followed by a Mediterranean cruise. The first port of call was Sicily. The ship passed through the narrow strait between the island and the toe of Italy’s boot and then into the harbor of Messina, the island’s third largest city. A golden statue known as the Madonna of the Letter greets you as you enter the sheltered bay. The latin quote at its base says “Vos at ipsam civitatem benedicimus”. It means “We bless you and your city” and is a taken from a letter sent by the Virgin Mary to the people of Messina in 42 AD.

The Madonna of the Letter
The Madonna of the Letter greets ships arriving at Messina, Sicily

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is rich in history with Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Byzantine influences. There are many ancient ruins as well as cathedrals to visit, but we opted for a trip up Mount Etna. The only volcano I had seen up close before was Mount Saint Helens in Washington state.

A bus took us along the shore road that included a number of short tunnels as we wended our way south. We stopped at the town of Giardini Naxos where we saw a copy of the Winged Nike, Goddess of Victory. The original is in the Louvre in Paris. The metal statue was created by Italian  sculptor Carmelo Mendola in 1965. It stands on Cape Schiso looking out to sea. It marks the spot where Greeks landed to found a colony in 734 BC.

Winged Nike at Giardini Naxos, Sicily
Winged Nike at Giardini Naxos, Sicily

From there we went up the coast to the small town of Giarre where we visited the artisan jewelry factory of Gival. It is located in a grand old mansion, a beautiful building which features gilt ceilings in its spacious lobby.

The ceiling at Gival Jewelry
The magnificent ceiling at Gival Jewelry

In the basement we saw a number of artisans at work. Later we were treated to complimentary drinks and snacks. The banquet room had a display of seven swords in a fan shape on the wall.

Artisans at work making jewelry
Artisans at work making jewelry
Swords on display in the banquet room
Swords on display in the banquet room above the table of goodies

After we left the jewelry place, we took a long and winding road up Mount Etna, passing a number of vineyards along the way. The road took us to the Sylvestri Crater, the highest point you can reach by car or bus (1900 metres). Etna erupted at this point in 1892 but it has been dormant since then. The Google Earth map below shows the crater.

As you can see, there is a restaurant nearby as well as a large parking lot. The entire complex straddles a lava flow from higher up. The landscape is stark and almost barren. A few grasses have managed to emerge in places.

The Sylvestri Crater
The Sylvestri Crater

A roadway between the restaurant and the parking area runs right over the lava flow. This flow, a guide told us, is less than twenty years old. Etna is still a very active volcano. Unfortunately, some people don’t know how to take pride in this piece of heritage and litter could be seen on the lava.

A fair amount of litter was evident on the lava flow.
A fair amount of litter was evident on the lava flow.

Nearby was a gondola ride to a higher elevation. It was a bit foggy on the day we were there so we did not go higher. But what we saw was spectacular. I’d love to be there when Etna is actually erupting. That would be one heck of a sight!

Hardened lava is everywhere.
Hardened lava is everywhere.

After some time on Mount Etna, we took the bus back to our ship. I’ve got more pictures in the accompanying Photo Gallery. And a few additional links.

Follow us on Facebook!