SI Vault
Mark Kram
November 13, 1972
...or so a holy man said: If the Colosseum falls, Rome will also. Well, the old stadium is crumbling, and somebody better do something
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November 13, 1972

It Could Be The Ruin Of Them

...or so a holy man said: If the Colosseum falls, Rome will also. Well, the old stadium is crumbling, and somebody better do something

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Aside from heavy rainstorms that have been cruel to the colosseum and other ruins, it seems the major threat is traffic. And the traffic is blamed on Mussolini, who cared for the arena rather well. Il Duce had grand plans for it after the war. It was to be the center of his Romanit�, symbol of imperial grandeur. So he cleared away a congested quarter of Rome and built a ring of asphalt around the Colosseum. The ruin stood in splendid isolation. But he did not realize that an estimated 200,000 cars would one day explode around it, not to mention a subway underneath.

Traffic and official neglect are bad enough, but a hard, embarrassing fact is that the Colosseum ranks as one of the sinkholes of the world. It is a far cry from the place that once was a botanist's dream and a must after-dinner spot for Victorian ladies who rode there in carriages to see it by moonlight. Henry James had Daisy Miller go there in his novel of the same name, though she was warned of the popular threat of the time: "You'll not think a bad attack of the Roman fever very quaint." The flirtatious Daisy died of the fever, which is much more romantic than what could befall you there now after the sun goes down.

The Colosseum is a sinister bivouac for the strays of Rome, a place of amber light and strange sound. It is not wise to set foot in it, certainly not alone. On a visit at night not long ago, one remembers the eerie chill. It was like being lost inside a cave of stalagmites. Laughter floated down from its high rim, whispers could be heard nearby and then a sudden yowl of a starving cat. The cats, thousands of them, are the principal residents, just slightly more in number than the bands of thieves, busted-up prostitutes and homosexuals; if you hear a loud pop, it is a homosexual knocking out a light. So the police say, who have better sense than to go inside.

By day it is evident that the sanitation corps does frequent it now. Until recently all the refuse of Rome seemed to be deposited here, from old tires to rotten vegetables, and on a hot day even the most insensitive nose had to flinch. For perspective, one could imagine the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal being in the same condition or, on a more minor scale, the Houston Astrodome in a couple of centuries. The least, it can be said now, is that the Colosseum can crumble in dignity befitting a structure that has survived nearly 20 centuries and may be the most quickly recognizable monument in Europe.

Standing in the middle of it, it is likely that one will feel very old or very young, much inspired or quite subdued. But few can fail to grasp its brilliant construction, its workmanship and intricate design, its great upward feeling. A maze of sophisticated arching, entrance-exits (about 80), vaulted tunnels and stairways, the Colosseum never felt a sliver of wood; all of it was made of solid masonry. Not counting the basements and subbasements, the Colosseum is four stories high (187 feet). It is 620 feet long and 513 feet wide. Inside, there were 50,000 seats, all of marble and not a bad one in the house.

What a spectacle it must have been, the opening of Titus' 100 days of "games." Dawn breaks, silence for a moment, then thousands of Romans with their food for the day, buzzing toward the entrances, the clay disks that promised them admission in their hands. The velarium (a huge awning) snaps in the warm wind as they sit arguing and exchanging gossip while waiting for the dignitaries to come and be carefully seated; the velarium does not shade the masses, only the elite. The ringside is divided: one section for Titus and his guests and the rest of it for senators, pontiffs and other officials. Once they are seated a stillness falls over the arena.

Even the populus Romanus (the working stiffs) are quiet, but it is a wonder. Prior to the games the promotion has been intense, with posters up all over town announcing the gladiators and their records and special festivals. There were false promises of supreme comfort: the velarium would be up and there would be a sprinkler for the dust. The mob does not have to wait long, for now Titus, robed like a peacock, is being saluted by the gladiators. He then lets a scarf flutter from his hand over the rail, the signal for what would be endless carnage that would fascinate ages and make the use of the word cruel for description seem restrained.

The Romans would surely debate that point. For like all the chics of today—Mafia chic, Black Panther chic, protest chic, one for each month—barbarous spectacle was "in" at the time. Titus' games are fairly mild on this day: bear against buffalo, buffalo against elephant, elephant against rhino, man with javelins and nooses against beast and, finally, man against man. For amusement a few Pygmies are matched against cranes. Thousands of animals and many men are slaughtered before the 100 days end, and as the games close, Titus weeps; rumor is that he sees his own death near. His inaugural games for the Colosseum are a smash hit, the first step toward making it the most blood-soaked acreage in history.

Titus died one year later, and he was succeeded by his brother Domitian. A more poetic figure, but just as cruel as Titus, the games flourished under his rule. Crowds were seldom bored, for by now there were more diabolical stagings, more inhuman results: whips and red-hot irons to spur those who were hesitant; an orchestra of horns, flutes and a hydraulic organ; blows to the forehead by mallets; official confirmation of death and victory. Domitian also favored combat between women or cripples or dwarfs and one day flooded the place and produced a naval battle. Even so, the staple of the shows was and always would be the gladiators.

Look at a picture of a gladiator, think of his lot in life, and the instinctive emotion is pity. They were hard men, most of them drafted from slavery, from the ranks of prisoners of war and convicted criminals, and some were strayed nobility who merely sought the thrill of it all. For most, it was a hellish life, causing them to commit suicide in groups or attempt revolt in preference to slaughtering each other. For others it was a career and there were some, it is said, who had long merry lives, long enough to collect the wooden sword that symbolized honorable retirement, to be hymned by poets and have their portraits painted on vases. They would not have understood Byron's lines: "Butcher'd to make a Roman holiday."

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