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  • Writer's pictureFrank Klaus Jordan

ancient superstars - arena of glory and death


The afternoon sun has turned the Hypogeum into the lobby to hell. A man walks along the main passage through this labyrinth of tunnels, cages, shafts and trap-doors that provide direct access to the arena just meters above. The stench of animals, the excrement, the smell of blood and death fills every part of this gruesome place. There is no sunlight down here, just the sparse flames of the torches on the red brick walls that would lead him to "Porta Sanavivaria" the Gate of Life.

How did he end up here? He was a free man once, a soldier, fighting for the Emperor of Rome. But the gods had put him on a different path. On his way to fame and glory he had seen and survived the famous arenas of the empire. He has fought against horsemen in Ephesus, where the silk-road from the east meets the spice-road from the south. He was fighting chariots in Londinium, where the rain never stops. He had survived the majestic arena of Pompeii, before the Vesuvius had buried the city. Finally he had arrived in Rome, again to fight for the Emperor. But this time as "Verus", Superstar of the arena.

Going up the stairs he can hear the 50,000 hysteric spectators, calling his name. One last pull on his armour, one last prayer to the goddess. He takes his gladius and shield. Sweat is running down inside his helmet when two praetorians open the Porta Sanavivaria, the gate of life, the gate to the greatest arena the world has ever seen, the Amphitheatrum Flavium - the Colosseum.

Although not much is known about this famous Gladiator, "Verus" is a historical figure. He was making his final gladiatorial fight in the opening games of the Amphitheatrum Flavium in 80 AD. His opponent was the legendary "Priscus", another Superstar of the empire. All we know about this "highlight of the inaugural games" is recorded in a laudatory poem, the "liber de spectaculis", written by the roman poet Martial. This poem is the only known detailed description of a gladiatorial combat that has survived to the present day.

(liber de spectaculis 29)

As Priscus and Verus each drew out the contest and the struggle between the pair long stood equal,

shouts loud and often sought discharge for the combatants.

But Titus obeyed his own law (the law was that the bout go on without shield until a finger be raised).

What he could do, he did, often giving dishes and presents.

But an end to the even strife was found: equal they fought, equal they yielded.

To both Titus Caesar sent wooden swords and to both palms. Thus valor and skill had their reward.

This has happened under no prince but you, Titus: two fought and both won.

Ancient Super-Dome

What we call today the "Colosseum" was built in only 8 years during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian and his son and successor Titus. Its original name was "Amphitheatrum Flavium". Its monumental size as well as the innovative design for accommodating and organizing more then 50,000 people, make it one of the greatest civil constructions of the Roman empire. In fact many of the architectural achievements of the Colosseum are indisputably present in our modern stadiums today. The blueprints of the Colosseum have influenced the basic design of our Super-Domes, their elliptical shapes, along with the use of arches to support the structures, and how to facilitate the entry and exit of the spectators in modern sports events.

But who did finance this ancient Super-Dome in the first Century AD? The new Emperor Vespasian had inherited a throne in 69 AD that had been bankrupted by his predecessor Nero. Archaeologists have now found the answer on a large altar-like stone which had a latin inscription, that tells "the Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus had this new amphitheater erected with the spoils of war". There is no doubt which war this was; the sack of Jerusalem by his son Titus, crushing the revolt by the Jews in 70 AD. The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was plundered and destroyed and 30,000 people were said to have been sold into slavery. The Arch of Titus, still standing near the Colosseum, commemorates this victory over the Jews, and bas-reliefs show Roman soldiers making off with booty from the temple. Two years after the sack of Jerusalem, in AD 72, the construction of the Amphitheatrum Flavium began.

The architectural achievement of the Romans is impressive, but we shouldn't forget for which purpose the Colosseum was built. Behind those beautiful arches and columns, Roman entertainment shows took place for more than 500 years, that killed literally thousands of war prisoners, criminals, as well as professional gladiators and exotic animals. The Colosseum itself was nothing else then a symbol of Roman imperial power and cruelty, displayed to Rome's citizens and their slaves. The games and spectacles produced in this arena, paraded Rome’s mastery over the ancient world. Since there was no mass media at that time, the shows of the Colosseum were a perfect way for the Roman Emperor to advertise himself and to demonstrate his generosity to the people. The purpose of the Colosseum was social control through mass entertainment; like a "football game" and "political convention" combined into one. Let's learn from it and make sure that history will not repeat itself.

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