As I entered the Roman Colosseum’s main gallery, a mixture of joy and fear overtook me. I was happy to be standing in one of the world’s greatest historical monuments, but as I looked around, I couldn’t help but think of its bloody past.
As my guide spoke about the men and animals that had been slaughtered here to slake the bloodlust of the Romans, my mind’s eye began to picture the hills and valleys of Swat, a place where animals in the shape of men had also slaughtered countless people. I pictured the once idyllic Sabz Chowk of Swat, which had been renamed the ‘Khooni Chowk’ during the bloody reign of the Taliban.
I found myself drawing comparisons between the two places: the Colosseum of the first century AD and the ‘Khooni Chowk’ of 2009. The first was used for gladiatorial matches, animal fights and brutal executions. The second was used by extremists to instil fear into the already cowed local population. They used to hang decapitated bodies in the square, an example of how brutality has extended well into the 21st century.
Shaking myself out of my reverie, I tried to focus my attention on the site in front of me. Located at the entrance to the Roman Forum, the Colosseum was built by the Roman Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, who is also known as the founder of the Flavian dynasty. This magnificent but barbaric amphitheatre was built near a gigantic statue of the emperor Nero which also occupies a section of Nero’s park.
Initially known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Roman Colosseum was opened to the public by Emperor Titus in 80 AD, son of Vespasian and heir to the throne. The inaugural festivities are said to have lasted for 100 days. During the opening ceremony, the public watched gladiators battling each other to the death, and were treated to mock hunts where thousands of animals were killed. The most spectacular part of the opening ceremony, however, was a simulated sea-battle. This was achieved by filling the arena with water. Imagine trying to do that with Gaddafi stadium today!
The Colosseum is capable of accommodating about 50,000 spectators. The arena, which is where gladiators used to fight, was filled with sand to soak up the blood that was inevitably spilt here. Constructed like large ellipses, the galleries enabled spectators to see all the action very clearly, whether it occurred at the centre or corner of the ground. Clearly our modern-day stadium builders could stand to learn a lesson or two here.
Seats in the Colosseum were divided according to class and status. The first level was for Roman senators, with a private box reserved for the emperor. The section just above accommodated lower Roman nobles while the third level was further divided into three sections. The best one was for wealthy citizens, the upper part for poor citizens and a third wooden part was reserved for lower-class women. There were a number of passageways winding in and out of the galleries, designed in such a way that they could be filled up in fifteen minutes and be vacated in the same amount of time. Again, quite a feat from the people known as the master architects of the ancient world.
It is said that a typical day of festivities at the Colosseum would begin with fights between wild animals, followed by public executions, and the gladiators would fight near the end of the day.
Both the exterior and interior of the massive structure are worth seeing, made of travertine, a form of limestone. With three stories of arches connected with semi-circular columns, the exterior is stunning and symmetrical. The interior of the Colosseum comprises brick, tufa and marble, little of which can be seen presently.
The Roman Colosseum has outlived its makers and gone on to withstand great upheavals in history. Sometimes damaged by fire, sometimes shaken by earthquakes, it was fortunately continually restored.
It is believed that the Christian emperor Honorius outlawed gladiatorial combat in 407 AD, and animal fights were banned in 523 AD, after which the Colosseum lay vacant. Soon after its closure, the Ostrogoth general Totila, plundered it to get to the valuable bronze which held the stones together, after which people took stones from the structure to construct their houses.
Today the Roman Colosseum is one of the largest and most popular tourist attractions in Rome. The second story has been converted into a sort of museum, exhibiting its history in detail. The discoveries made during archaeological excavations: statues, pieces of its pillars, pottery, beads, architectural fragments, and a lot more items are on display. Though entry into the Colosseum was free in the ancient times, one has to get a ticket for 12 euros to enter it these days.
Despite the barbaric beginnings of this place, I was overwhelmingly glad that the edifice has been left standing as a monument to history. It serves to remind the visitor of the depths to which humanity can plunge, and the heights to which it can soar. Now only if we could do something similar with ‘Khooni Chowk,’ so that some good could actually come out of such a bad time – but perhaps we will have to wait a few centuries before that can happen!
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2011.
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