Italy 2011, Rome, Emperors and Gladiators

Colosseum Rome

“ I see before me the Gladiator lie: 
 He leans upon his hand — his manly brow 
 Consents to death, but conquers agony, 
 And his droop’d head sinks gradually low – 
 And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow 
 From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one, 
 Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now 
 The arena swims around him — he is gone…” 

Lord Byron

On the second morning there was no improvement in the breakfast so we didn’t dawdle long in the dining room, just long enough for a stodgy croissant and a couple of cups of tea and then we left the hotel and made for the station for a second time.

As it was Monday morning the train was busier today as we joined commuters going to work in the city but we found some seats and it left precisely on time.  It seemed to be an even slower journey today but once again it arrived exactly on time at Roma Termini and we were soon outside in the bright sunshine and planning a route towards the Colosseum.

There are lots of things that I would like to see and I imagine the thrill of seeing the Pyramids, The Great Barrier Reef or the Great Wall of China for example would be heart stopping moments but when viewed for the first time the Colosseum ranks with these and others as a genuine draw dropping, knee buckling, stomach churning event.  I can well remember that experience in 1976 but even now, on my fourth visit to Rome, it still produced a moment of wonderment and awe that matched it as we emerged from the narrow streets into the Piazza del Colosseo.

Two thousand years previously this had been the largest amphitheatre ever built in the Roman Empire and was capable of seating sixty-thousand spectators (some estimates say eighty thousand but most agree that this is unlikely) at gladiatorial combat events.  I am always stunned by the size and magnificence of the place and even though there are substantial parts of it now missing I find the scale of the place simply breathtaking.

We were going to make this our first place to visit and we were disappointed to see a long slow moving queue but we were quickly picked out as potential easy pickings by a girl selling guided tours which promised a speedy entrance and the services of an expert guide so we agreed to this and paid up. Suckers!

We had to wait now to be assigned a tour leader and it was just our luck to get a total head-case!  Silvio!  Silvio was a theatrical extrovert with a dramatic style and with arms flailing and occasionally getting over excited and spitting into his beard he gave us an extravagant introduction to the construction of the magnificent building and the gladiatorial combats and the shows that were staged inside.  This was all really helpful background information but it did seem to drag on longer than expected and all around people began to get fidgety as individual patience tanks one by one began to run dry.

Colosseum Rome

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” – Gladiator (2000)

Finally, as promised, it was time to push through the lines of waiting people  and within just a few minutes we were inside the underground passages below the auditorium where we followed the designated route up a flight of steps where it was fascinating to imagine that these had been used previously by thousands of Romans attending the games and we now were following in their footsteps.

We emerged into the interior of the amphitheatre where once there were seats, now long since pillaged and removed for recycling in medieval building projects, and into the bright sunshine where we circumnavigated the arena stopping frequently to admire the views and to imagine what it might have been like to be at this very place two-thousand years ago or so in a noisy and unruly crowd being entertained by bloodthirsty and barbaric games.

Inside the Colosseum it is huge but there isn’t really a lot to see – no statues, no paintings, no exhibits, just an elliptical arena surrounded by ancient brick and concrete, so once a full circuit has been completed, although it feels as though you should stay longer, there is not a lot to hang around for.  This doesn’t mean that the visit experience is in any way disappointing or less wonderful just that it seems to me that there are two types of sightseeing, the first is where we go to admire the statues, the paintings and the exhibits and the second where the experience is simply about being there, in a place that has played such a pivotal role in world history and the development of civilisation and for me the Colosseum is one of the latter.

The day was getting hotter now and it was easy to understand why inside the arena the Roman crowds were protected by giant shades made of Egyptian cotton or why even today the most expensive seats at a bullfight in Spain are those in the shade and protected from the sun. We left the amphitheatre and bought some expensive food from a street stall and competed with everyone else to find some shade while we waited for Silvio to return at two o’clock to take us on the second part of the tour up to the Palatine Hill and into the Roman Forum.

Colosseum Rome


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8 responses to “Italy 2011, Rome, Emperors and Gladiators

  1. Pingback: On This Day – Rome (Twice) | Have Bag, Will Travel

  2. We had one visit there . . . self-guided tour, so no Silvio with the spittle beard.

  3. Ah, guides. They can be wonderful, or wonderfully awful. Sometimes they themselves can become the story, rather than the monument they are introducing.

  4. Love the tie in over the decades, Andrew. I would really enjoy a trip to Rome, but probably our time is past for such a venture.

  5. I like that you categorize the Colosseum with other great wonders, which helps me decide that I must see it after all. I do love great theatres no matter where I find them, so I would probably love this as well, and the size is hard to imagine without being there, I’ll guess.

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