Insight Guides: Rome

Travel Books: Italy

Follow in the footsteps of emperors and saints, discovering the monuments and mood that mark out Rome as the capital of Italy and of the ancient world.


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The Colosseum: Bread and Circuses

“While the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall.”

The Venerable Bede’s 8th-century prophecy has been taken to heart and the Colosseum shored up ever since. The ancient amphitheatre is the city’s most stirring sight, a place of stupendous size and spatial harmony. The Colosseum was begun by Vespasian, inaugurated by his son Titus in ad 80, and completed by Domitian (ad 81–96). Titus used Jewish captives from Jerusalem as masons. The Colosseum had 80 numbered, arched entrances, allowing over 50,000 spectators to be seated within 10 minutes. “Bread and circuses” was how Juvenal, the 2nd-century satirist, mocked the Romans here who sold their souls for free food and entertainment.

With the fall of the empire, the Colosseum fell into disuse. During the Renaissance, the ruins were plundered to create churches and palaces all over Rome, including the Palazzo Farnese, now the French Embassy. Quarrying was only halted by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century, and the site consecrated to Christian martyrs. The Colosseum was still neglected on the German writer Goethe’s visit in 1787, with a hermit and beggars “at home in the crumbling vaults.” In 1817 Lord Byron was enthralled by this “noble wreck in ruinous perfection”, while Edgar Allan Poe, another Romantic poet, celebrated its “grandeur, gloom and glory.” Visitors on the Grand Tour were beguiled by the sight of the ruins bathed in moonlight or haunted by the sense of a lost civilisation. In Byron's words, "Some cypresses beyond the timeworn breach/Appeared to skirt the horizon, yet they stood/Within a bowshot - where the Caesars dwelt."

During the Fascist era, Mussolini, attracted to the power that the Colosseum represented, demolished a line of buildings to create a clear view of it from his balcony on the Palazzo di Venezia. To celebrate Holy Year (2000) the Colosseum was restored, and it has reopened for festivities and classical drama.

The Roman appetite for bloodshed was legendary, with barbaric blood sports introduced as a corrupt version of Greek games. The animals, mostly imported from Africa, included lions, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, hippos and zebras. The contests also served to eliminate slaves and proscribed sects, Christians and criminals, political agitators and prisoners of war. Variants included battles involving mock hunts and freak shows with panthers pulling chariots or cripples pitted against clowns. Seneca, Nero’s tutor, came expecting “fun, wit and some relaxation” but was dumbfounded by the butchery and cries of “Kill him! Lash him! Why does he meet the sword so timidly?”

Extract from Rome CityGuide by Lisa Gerard-Sharp (copyright © APA Publications (UK) Ltd)
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