Death as Spectator Sport

John and I had planned to go to Corsica yesterday via Pisa, but arrived at the train station to discover that the web site for TrenItalia (the national rail service) was wrong. No train to Pisa leaving Florence at 6:30 a.m. We hopped a train to Rome hoping we could make a connection to a port town on the coast to take a ferry to Sardinia. No luck there on timing, so we decided to see a couple of the sites in the Eternal City.

The metro system in Rome was easy to navigate and we went straight to the Colosseum.

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Begun in 70 A.D. by Vespasian (using the gold his son, Titus, had nabbed from the Temple of Solomon when conquering Judea), the Colosseum is certainly an architectural marvel of the ancient world. Using slave labor, it was completed in a decade.

Yet, as I stood amid the ruins, symbolic of an entire civilization, I could only marvel at humanity’s extremes. Ancient Rome, forefather of our own Republic, was an enlightened society in so many ways. The Romans were brilliant at adopting the best practices of the civilizations they conquered. Yet — so like our own great Republic — Rome was fundamentally a violent society. The Colosseum personifies the dark side of Roman culture. A venue erected to entertain the masses by making death a spectator sport.

It was a muggy 80 degrees, but I felt chilled as our tour guide described what passed for entertainment in ancient Rome. Beyond gladiators, Rome used the Colosseum to execute criminals in very creative ways or stage elaborate, bloody theatrics using slaves ( aka citizens of other countries conquered by Rome) — all for the enjoyment of the crowd which could approach 80,000.

Get caught stealing some bread or captured in a Roman conquest and you were fodder for getting ripped to shreds by a lion/tiger/bear who had been beaten and starved before released in the arena with you. Or maybe you’d get chased and trampled by an elephant. Either way, you die a horrible death to entertain a bloodthirsty crowd.

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I left the dark side of Rome and literally walked up a hill to see what’s left of the Forum, once the world’s center of intellectual, commercial and political exchange–now nothing but scattered ruins.

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The only building still standing is the Senate which served as a church for several hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire. A section of the Senate floor is still intact.

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We left the ruins of an ancient city and ventured across town through the vibrant buzz of modern Rome to visit the Vatican, specifically St. Peter’s Basilica. The heat and the massive throngs of people, literally thousands, waiting to enter convinced us to return another day.

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