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.
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.
Countess Bathory isn’t that well known outside of her native Slovakia but she really ought to be. This was a real-life female vampire aristocrat who had young women round for dinner – and then, literally – had them for dinner.
She indulged her vampiric passions with gusto!
The other day, I met a Slovakian gentleman called Lukáš in the English town of Farnborough who had seen me on TV talking history and was very keen to share the story of this murderous noble woman from his country.
Yes – you didn’t misread that – six hundred and fifty women.
Most infamously, the vampire Countess Bathory was accused of bathing in the blood of victims who were virgins at the time of their death. The reason? To remain young of course!
It may not be surprising therefore to discover that her uncle was the highest ranking official in Transylvania – the mountainous land where the fictional Dracula had his castle. Well, that’s according to the nineteenth century Anglo-Irish author Bram Stoker.
Eventually, crimes of the blood soaked countess were brought to the attention of the Holy Roman Emperor who ordered an investigation. Some three hundred witnesses all but fell over each other to spill the beans on the vampire princess.
They had seen the vampire Bathory abducting peasant girls and biting at their flesh or burning them with red hot tongs – before ending their lives.
Worse, from the point of view of the aristocracy, this ghoulish killer had even enticed girls of high birth to her castle. She had promised them lessons in etiquette. What they actually got was a lesson in why not to trust the vampire countess Bathory!
She tried to plead her innocence but the evidence was pretty overwhelming. Although the death penalty was called for, it was decided that as an aristocratic woman, she would endure something more refined but equally terminal.
The vampire Bathory was walled up in a small series of rooms with a big enough gap to pass her food. It took four years for this royal serial killer to die.
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.
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.
So what was the difference between slavery in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago and slavery in the American south 150 years ago. The answers may surprise…
American slavery was very real – here is the grim evidence!
First of all – this is me holding a copy of the Richmond Enquirer – a newspaper from Virginia. This is an original newspaper from 1840. I bought it from an antique dealer a few years ago. And on the front page are some grim reminders of American slavery.
The front page is not like newspapers or websites today – it’s full of small ads and announcements. And shockingly, there are ads for forthcoming slave auctions. Plus there are pleas from slave owners to help them retrieve their runaways.
So – how did American and Roman slavery differ?
The American South defined slavery in racial terms. In the Roman Empire, anybody could end up a slave regardless of skin colour. The Romans, you could say were equal opportunities slavers! So, you might be a Roman citizen living in Syria of Arab ethnicity who owned a Germanic slave captured in one of Rome’s wars on the Rhine frontier.
In other words, a man of Middle Eastern complexion could own a man of blonde and blue-eyed appearance. To the Romans, your status was everything – your race was a lesser factor.
Roman slaves did what we regard as high status jobs. If you went to a doctor, had your accounts worked on, watched an actor at the theatre or met the manager of a local business – all those professionals could have been slaves in ancient Rome. There were slaves in the fields and mines kept in chains and subject to unbelievable brutality. But there were also slaves in what we would regard as white-collar and managerial roles.
This was simply not the case in the American south. The idea of a white family going to an African-American doctor for a consultation would have been unthinkable in early 19th century Virginia. Ditto having your accounts done. Slaves were overwhelmingly in menial, agrarian roles on the plantations. The variety of roles you’d have found in Rome didn’t exist in the American south.
Routes to becoming a slave were very different. In Rome it might involve:
Being a prisoner of war
Born into slavery because your parents were slaves
Abandoned babies often were reared as slaves
You were the citizen of a city that had rebelled against Roman rule and you and your neighbours were carted off as slaves
Your debts had forced you to sell yourself into slavery
American routes into slavery tended to be less subtle:
You were an African American in the southern states
You had been captured or sold in Africa and sold on to slavers who then transported you to the New World – the Caribbean, Latin America or deep south
Freed slaves could be very successful in ancient Rome. The Romans borrowed a practice called manumission from the Greeks. This was a very smart idea. Slaves were encouraged to earn a wage on the side – maybe doing something like basket weaving – and they would save some of their money. At an agreed date, they would approach their master and buy their freedom at a pre-determined price.
For the master, this was great. Slaves were depreciating assets – as all that work wore them down. So now, the master had a tidy sum of money with which to pop down to the slave market and get a replacement. The freed slave still had social obligations to the former master but could otherwise pursue a successful career. Some freed slaves did surprisingly well. The emperor Claudius made considerable use of clever Greek freedmen as advisers.
Slaves were freed in the American south from the 17th century onwards but on nothing like the Roman scale. In fact, American slave owners seem to have been more reticent to give slaves their liberty. The only reason I can think of is that by this period in history, slavery was so obviously a rotten institution. By the early 19th century, the United Kingdom – once an enthusiastic slave trader – had outlawed it.
I suspect American slave owners thought that emancipating one slave could lead by degrees to freedom for all. That kind of concern never bothered a Roman in a world where all societies had slave ownership. There was simply no economic alternative. Whereas by the late 18th and 19th centuries, modern industrial capitalism was arriving on the scene with people hiring their labour to factory bosses.
The chances of freed American slaves succeeding while they remained in the south were pretty poor because of the strong racial element. An American ex-slave was easily identifiable whereas a Roman ex-slave could blend into the population. Most manumitted African Americans retained a very servile status compared to Roman freed slaves.
American slavery made less and less economic sense. New farming technology and the growing of a wider variety of crops made slavery a bit redundant in economic terms from the mid-18th century onwards in the American south. However, studies have concluded that for some landowners and slave traders, investing in human beings was extremely lucrative.
Bluntly, if nobody had been getting rich out of it – slavery would have collapsed long before the American civil war. The investment yield on “slave capital” could be as high as 13% – comparable to investing in the 19th century railroads. It might seem both distasteful and odd to us now, but there were little old ladies in Worcester, England who invested in slaves in the Caribbean or Virginia in much the same way you might invest remotely in shares or bonds today. You can find these records online.
This kind of investment in slaves required a level of financial sophistication and technology unknown to the Romans. They simply bought a human being and put him or her to work. End of story. It was the economic norm and there was no other known way of powering a ship forward (galley slaves), heating a posh house (the hypocaust) or quarrying all that marble to build lovely temples to the gods.
Whereas American slavery could be replaced instantly by harnessing industrial methods and hiring workers. There was simply no good reason for continuing a pre-feudal form of labour in the 19th century. By the end, when the south lost the civil war, plantation owners who had supported the Confederacy just seemed to be flaunting their slaves like trophies as opposed to making a profit and running a proper business.
Sexual abuse of slaves. In both Roman and American slave systems, sexual abuse was common. The main difference would have been that certain sexual practices were condemned by Christian doctrine – sodomy for example – whereas in ancient Rome, no such restriction was in place.
Slaves in Rome could be openly advertised for their sexual capability – heterosexual and homosexual. Ointments were applied to remove body hair and, it was thought, to delay the onset of puberty. For example, a hyacinth bulb dipped in sweet wine and applied on a teenage slave’s body was thought to keep it artificially youthful. Boys might also be castrated to satisfy the demand for young eunuchs.
Sex between slaves and owners was tolerated in ancient Rome and even celebrated on The Warren Cup – a goblet you can see at the British Museum in London. But there were social conventions. The owner had to be dominant and not passive in the sexual act. The slave had to be in very much the submissive role. Some of these relationships may have been consensual – but you can bet a great many more were not.
Sexual abuse also happened to slaves in the Americas but not openly advertised. In one case, an African American man was forced to rape a slave woman in front of the owners for their amusement. Families were split up at slave auctions with women and children then left exposed to their new owner’s whims.