“Rome has been restored to herself” wrote the Spanish poet Martial when the “far-seen amphitheater” was nearing completion. “What was formerly a tyrant’s delight is now the delight of people”. The tyrant’s colossal column, the figure on the summit replaced by that of the sun-god, still stood nearby and it was possibly this, rather than the vast size of the Colosseum itself, that gave the amphitheater its name. The measurements were daunting. Its oval ground area, 617 feet long by 513 feet wide, enclosed an arena 282 feet by 177 feet. The surrounding walls rose in four storeys to a height of 187 feet. The top floor, an enclosed, colonnaded gallery, was reserved for women and the poor, who sat on wooden seats; the floor immediately below this, also enclosed, was reserved for slaves and foreigners; beneath this were tiers of exposed marble seats, the higher for the middle class, the lower for more distinguished citizens. Just above the level of the ringside were the boxes of the Senators, magistrates, priests, Vestal Virgins and members of the Emperor’s family. High overhead on the roof of the topmost gallery were sailors expert in the handling of canvas whose duty it was to pull across a coloured awning to protect the spectators from rain or the heat of the sun. In all about fifty thousand spectators could be accommodated.
The gladiators combat, adopted by the Romans from the Etruscans, had lost most of their religious, sacrificial significance and had become part of that system by which the authorities placated the people of Rome, a large proportion of whom were always unemployed (as now in Europe), by providing them with regular entertainment as well as with free distributions of food (unlike today in Europe). Relics of their religious past lingered on, however: the games, for instance, were also known as munera, offerings; and the attendant who made sure that a fallen gladiator was dead by delivering a coup de grâce to the head was usually dressed as Charon, ferryman of the souls of the dead across the river Styx from the upper world into Hades. Yet these were mere trappings. Great men vied with each other in the presentation of more and more spectacular games, not so much as sacrifices to the spirits of the dead as for their own glory and to gain the gratitude of the people, while the imperial court valued them as vital social bond bringing the Emperor closer to the populace.
The games usually began early in the morning with a parade of gladiators, dressed in purple and gold cloaks, driving round the arena in chariots. The gladiators then marched around on foot, followed by slaves carrying their weapons, shields and plumed helmets, and ended in front of the Emperor’s box where they thrust their right arms forward from their naked chests, shouting ‘Ave Cesare! We men who are about to die salute thee’(Morituri te salutant). They then marched off to await their turn to fight, for the spectacle was generally opened not by them but by comic turns in which clowns and cripples, dwarfs and obese women pretended to fight each other with wooden swords and threw themselves to the ground in extravagant representations of paroxysmal death.
The gladiators reappeared to the cheers of the crowd and the blast of the trumpets. Some carried heavy swords or lances and wore armour on their arms and legs; others, with little protection apart from a shoulder piece, had nets in which they hoped to be able to entangle their opponents before dispatching them with thrust of a spear. When the fighting began the shouts of the crowd grew louder and more excited. ‘Habet, he’s got him!’ ‘Lash him!’ ‘Strike him!’ ‘Burn!’ ‘Kill!’ ‘Whip him to fight harder!’ ‘Why does he meet the sword so timidly?’ ‘Why doesn’t he die like a man?’. But soon individual voices and cries were lost in the wild and deafening uproar. A wounded gladiator who fell to the ground could appeal for mercy by casting aside his shield and raising his left hand. His opponent could, in the absence of the Emperor, kill or spare him as he chose. If the Emperor were present, the choice was his. As the spectators screamed their preference he made his decision known, either by raising his thumb as a sign of reprieve or by turning it down as a verdict of death.
Successful gladiators were the heroes of the day; and there were those, unlike the impressed criminals and prisoners of war, who chose the precarious existence in the hope of achieving fame and the admiration of women. It was a hard life, though, as well as an obviously dangerous one. The training was long and exacting; and, if the medical attention and the meals supplied in the gladiators schools were adequate, the quarters in which the men were lodged were usually cramped and foul. Fights between gladiators were but one of the spectacles that the Colosseum had to offer. There were boxing matches, archery contests, women swordsmen, fights between charioteers, all of them often accompanied by the music of bands and hydraulic organs. Above all, there were wild beasts shows in which thousands of animals were slashed to death.
As revered as successful gladiators were the charioteers of the circus, where performances were staged before audiences as enthusiastic if not as large as those in the Colosseum. There were several circuses in Rome, the Circus Flaminius which had been built in the days of the Republic, the Circus Gaius inaugurated by Caligula, and, most splendid of all, the Circus Maximus which, in use perhaps since the time of Roman Kings, had been improved and enlarged by Julius Caesar and could accommodate well over 150.000 spectators. Here, in the immense arena eventually measuring 1800 feet by 600 and surrounded by shops and eating places, by taverns and the booths of prostitutes and fortune-tellers, horse races and chariot races took place in atmosphere of noisy excitement, betting frenzy and amorous intrigue. In fact Ovid advised in his Art of Love:
Many are the opportunities that await you in the circus. No one will prevent you from sitting next to a girl. Get as close to her as you can. That’s easy enough, for the seating is cramped anyway. Find an excuse to talk to her…ask her what horses are entering the ring and which ones she fancies. Approve her choices…if, as is likely, a speck of dust falls into her lap, brush it gently away; and, even if no dust falls, pretend it has done and brush her lap just the same. If her cloak trails on the ground gather up them and lift it from the dirt. She will certainly let you have a glimpse of her legs…the deft arrangement of a cushion has often helped a lover…Such are the advantages which circuses offers to a man for an affair.
In fact, it looks like an ancient version of the daily chronicles of “modern” Italian “pappagalli” approaching good looking tourists in front of the Trevi Fountain.