Thursday, October 14, 2004

Thumbs down

We had a morning in Rome between the Paris Motor Show and the Ford Focus launch in Siena, and began the quick 'cultural tour' at the Coliseum.

We'd inadvertantly picked a good time to be there. There was some kind of festival, and entrance was free. And the roads in the vicinity of the Coliseum-Roman Forum area were also for pedestrians only.

We were lucky that we got there early. It was going to get very crowded.

Which is what the Coliseum must have been in its heyday. When they held there the equivalent of the All Ireland Gaelic Football Finals, or at least the Olympic Games.

Animals versus animals. Animals versus Gladiators. Animals versus Christians. Gladiators versus Christians. Even Christians versus Christians. And somewhere in the mix there were a few slaves too.

Though the main visual of the Coliseum is the above-ground tiers that were the places from which both patricians and plebs got their competition jollies, after a lot of excavation they're able to show us the parts that were underneath the 'competition floor'.

Training places for the slaves who hoped to gain their freedom by killing regal animals or gladiators, in the latter case just getting themselves a step up in the entertainment chain.

Holding places for the animals, wild and often exotic to Rome, which were the basic elements of the 'games' that excited, enthralled, and ultimately were part of the 'Roman Tiger' moral descent into the end of the Empire.

There's a cross at the edge of the 'play area', with a little plaque that says it was placed by Pope John Paul II to commemorate the 'refurbishment' of the edifice that is the strongest icon of Italy's capital city.

But on reading it, my travelling companion expressed disgust. "Why doesn't it commemorate the thousands of Christians slaughtered here?" she asked.

It was a valid point. Made at the end of our visit, and thus in the strong emotion that was the result of steeping ourselves in the folk-memory and imagination of all the events and people that the Coliseum is the touchstone to.

The tiers of seats are long gone, but a section has been rebuilt to show how they were. For the first-time visitor, a real feeling of the drama and terror of two thousand years ago still remains in the worn stones of the walls, and many more lying fallen around the aisleways. It isn't just the carvings on some of them, indicating some form of civilisation, but almost a permeation of life's essence that was absorbed as spectators and combatants performed their often hideous interactions.

Odd things come to mind. For instance, that the smell in the underground warrens must have been dreadful, of human and animal excrements, of fear and sweat, of blood and bile soaking down from the killing floor.

And that both animals and those who faced them must have been temporarily blinded in the first minutes of their appearance on the 'stage', in the contrast between their gloomy underworld and the blaze of a full Mediterranean sun.

Another thing, what kind of a 'civilisation' was it that wallowed in watching fights to the death? Where the decision of life or death to the loser depended on the collective whim of a blood-crazed audience who were otherwise little different to the crowds who swarm into Croke Park for a Sunday GAA football game?

On the face of it, a very cruel one. It seems to have been a civilisation where life was cheap, especially if you weren't a patrician. Where worship of multiple gods was used both to deify the powerful and keep the poor in their place. And where corruption and freedom from prosecution lived sword by short shield.

How can we comprehend the thoughts of Emperors who believed that they had a divine right to be and do anything they wanted, and their horrific deeds would never catch up on them?

Hmm. When you think about it, how far have we progressed at all in a world two millennia later where nations and the power-lords running them are probably responsible for killing, corruption, and arrogance on an even larger scale than even the most cruel leaders of Rome?

If you are any way sensitive, the Coliseum's embedded memories ooze out of its impressive but crumbling remains like the gas that burps periodically from the rotting detritus in an old landfill.

But in today's world we're only laying down the stuff that will astound and overwhelm the senses of whoever or whatever is around to look back on our 'civilisation' two thousand years from now.

Rome's excesses — the ones that, by all analysis, brought its downfall — may well seem but the boldness of a naughty child by comparison.

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