Roman Coliseum arena

The Roman Colosseum – arena of death!

The Colosseum was the largest arena of its kind in the Roman Empire – a place where spectators came to watch executions, animal hunts and gladiatorial combat. At the end of any major festival, the place was literally dripping blood.

I’ve visited a few times and I wrestle mentally trying to imagine what it must have been like for a Roman spending the day there. Arriving to this huge structure with a ticket and entering under one of the many arches.

The scale of the building is best appreciated in the corridors that took you to your seat. And I hope I’ve conveyed that with the images below taken in 2015. If you were a slave or a woman, you’d have made your way to the upper galleries. Equites and Senators were closer to the front. And the emperor in the imperial box.

A Roman would have been treated to public executions as spectacle but also a warning that – this could happen to you! Crucifixion, burning and being attacked by wild beasts were the main forms of execution. But contemporary accounts also say that criminals were killed by re-enacting gory scenes in Greek and Roman myths.

Then wild beast hunts. When the Colosseum was first opened, the Roman audience watched thousands of animals slain. What happened to all these lions, tigers and leopards? Quite possibly their meat was offered to the populace as this was a society where the poor had a protein-deficient diet.

Finally, gladiatorial games where trained fighters fought in armour depicting traditional enemies of Rome. The gladiators were often well-known personalities like footballers today but their social status was the lowest of the low. They were slaves though if they survived long enough could save enough money to buy their freedom – if their master permitted it.

One final point, the Colosseum earned its name not from the size of building the enormous statue next to it. There was a huge statue of the Emperor Nero, estimated to have been about 98 feet high, that had been in place before the Colosseum was built.

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The site of the Colosseum had been Nero’s palace that covered about a fifth of the city. After his assassination, the palace was built over by the Flavian emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. They were making a public statement that Rome was a city for the people and not the play thing of one man.

But – for some reason – the statue stayed. And the Flavian amphitheatre was named after it. Some historians believe that the statue of Nero may have remained up to the seventh century AD. But at some point, it went. While the Roman Colosseum remained and despite being quarried and vandalised over two thousand years – it’s still with us.

Pompeii destroyed by a volcano!

It was 79 AD when a mountain near the Roman city of Pompeii did something rather unexpected – it exploded into life revealing itself as a volcano.

The green slopes of Vesuvius had hidden its true nature for centuries. But in that year, a cataclysmic eruption tore it apart sending a plume of fire far into the sky.

Pompeii volcano described: “Tree with a flaming trunk”

One contemporary account described it as looking like a tree with a flaming trunk and streaks of fire and smoke high above. That whole area of Italy was plunged into darkness only lit up by thundery streaks.

Death didn’t come instantly to thousands of people living nearby and many chose not to flee straight away. Instead, the stunned citizens of Pompeii decided to stick it out. Maybe they were still overcome with a degree of incomprehension – the sight before them was too much to absorb.

What happened next was the collapse of the enormous volcanic plume sending hot gas and rubble fanning out across Pompeii, Herculaneum and other the surrounding countryside.

At temperatures over a thousand degrees celsius, people were fried where they stood, sat or lay. It didn’t matter if they sought shelter – there was no escape from the Pompeii volcano.

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Pompeii rediscovered

It took 1500 years for Pompeii to be accidentally rediscovered under many feet of solidified volcanic material. Gradually, over the centuries, streets have been uncovered as well as town houses, temples and bath houses.

By pouring concrete into the spaces left behind by vaporised human bodies, we’re even able to see the positions that people died in. Sometimes their hands are raised and you can certainly see their mouths open for one last gasp.

I just visited Pompeii and felt the need to share some great images with you. Hopefully, you will get the opportunity to travel to southern Italy and see it for yourself!

Top Roman movies of all time!

The Roman Empire at the movies has often been great box office. Think Spartacus or Gladiator. Though there have been some box office stinkers too!

From the silent movie era to the CGI laden epics of modern cinema, the Roman Empire has always provided great material for film makers. Rome has gone in and out of fashion but the lure of sword and sandals means it’s always coming back again like a cinematic boomerang.

So – from the early days to our own time – here are the classic Roman movies!

ROMAN MOVIES: The silent era

In the early days of cinema, the Romans on the silver screen were voiceless. The talkies had yet to arrive so there was no audible clash of swords or trundling of chariot wheels. Nevertheless, Rome still gripped audiences. It was always good box office!

The Italian film industry got in early with The Last Days of Pompeii in 1913 – a feature length love story that ends with an erupting Neapolitan volcano. Italian directors never needed a second invitation to make movies about ancient Rome. And the Cinecitta movie studio built under the Mussolini dictatorship has provided convincing Roman backdrops for decades.

The 1913 movie is all about the final days of the Roman city of Pompeii, before the buildings and people of that ancient metropolis were incinerated by spewing lava and fumes from mount Vesuvius in AD 79.  The plot is quite operatic and of course the audience realise that many of the characters will be toast in about 90 minutes. But for its time – a compelling piece of cinema.

Ben Hur – a story written over 130 years ago – has gone through five movie versions of varying quality.  It’s based on a 19th century novel by the US civil war Union general Lew Wallace. The story’s hero is Judah Ben Hur who falls out with his boyhood Roman friend Messala who allows his Jewish buddy to be framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

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Ben Hur eventually gets his revenge by defeating Messala in a chariot race that leaves the nasty Roman mangled and dying. Redemption and happiness returns to Ben Hur when he accepts Christ – who he sees being crucified.

There are two amazing movie versions that I thoroughly recommend. The 1925 silent movie with Ramon Novarro in the lead is beautiful. It’s like art deco meeting ancient Rome.

Charlton Heston took the main role in the subsequent 1959 classic that was deservedly showered with Oscars and is still stunning today. In marked contrast, the 2016 movie is a gigantic turkey that should be avoided at all costs.

ROMAN MOVIES: Golden age of sword and sandals

The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for sword and sandals biblical epics and ancient Rome featured heavily. 1951 saw Quo Vadis  – setting meek and mild Christian heroes against the capricious and evil emperor Nero. It assumed an audience steeped in the kind of Sunday school bible learning that you wouldn’t find in our more secular times – as well as an awareness of the finer details of Roman history.

Then there was Spartacus – a superior example of the genre directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a huge slave revolt that really happened in the closing years of the Roman Republic – before it became the Empire.

The cast includes Kirk Douglas as the slave hero. Tony Curtis as his sidekick. Laurence Olivier as the Roman general Crassus. And Charles Laughton as Gracchus.

In this scene below, Crassus has defeated the rebel slave army. He asks which of the slaves is Spartacus so that he can punish the audacious rebel. In a very moving scene, one slave after another claims to be Spartacus. Watch and weep!

By the mid-1960s, the sword and sandals bubble finally burst. The movie Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton soared over budget. The scenes were opulent and jaw dropping with vast numbers of extras and gargantuan studio sets – but the returns to the studio were too thin. Rome had got too bloated for its own good.

ROMAN MOVIES: The Empire Strikes Back!

For the next 35 years, the Romans were put up on a high shelf and sort of forgotten. As far as Hollywood was concerned, the Roman Empire was past its sell-by date. But then in 2000, UK director Ridley Scott bravely resurrected the imperial glory with his movie Gladiator.

For those of us yearning for some swords and some sandals on the big screen again, this was a miracle. When it premiered, I went to see it three times without being bored once. It’s still a remarkably watchable movie. Tightly scripted and with inspired casting. Russell Crowe’s brooding Antipodean growling suited the lead character. And I loved the campy performance from the late Oliver Reed.

It’s a genuinely good film and you can tell because there are so many memorable lines.