Discovering the Colosseum

A fascinating journey into the world of the largest amphitheater in Roman history to explore its curiosities, stories, characters, animals, gladiators, and much more... I will help you discover the tricks used by the Romans to build this giant of history, describe the atmosphere of the events, the animals employed, and their fate. Who was in the audience? How were death sentences executed? What happened in the hypogeum? I will also describe the great and undisputed protagonists of the games: the gladiators. Where did they come from? Who were they? Why did they fight? Why did they keep their helmets on before being killed? Where did their blood go when they died? I will also take a look at some of the mistakes in the film "Gladiator", starting with the famous gesture of thumbs down... Discover the Colosseum: a monument, once abandoned, that has given shelter to criminals and prostitutes. It has been transformed into a fortress and sacred place, a bomb shelter, and huge roundabout; it has also hosted millions of spectators in its time, along with visitors, tourists, pilgrims, and the many plants that grow within its unforgettable arches.

For the very curious ones of you, please find below an excert of my book taken from the chapter "Death sentences":
"Once the performances with animals were finished, around noon public executions started. Death sentences were publicly conducted as a deterrent, so that everyone could see the consequences of committing serious crimes. Moreover, at the same time, enduring a horrible death in front of thousands of people was a further price to pay for the criminals. Early Christian writers, who witnessed the conviction of their fellow believers because of their faith, are the sources we have today that document death sentences in the amphitheaters of the empire. It is thanks to them that we have more information about the death sentences than the gladiatorial combats. However, we still have no clear evidence that Christians were executed inside the Colosseum. Undoubtedly, Christians were killed in the Colosseum, but, as far as we know, their religion was not the reason for their sentence. The prisoners were presented in the Colosseum during the initial procession, while attendants displayed signs stating the crimes committed for the benefit of the public. Sometimes the sign was placed directly on the condemned himself. Initially, the majority of people sentenced to death were fugitives, deserters, and rebels, but later this punishment was extended to other types of crimes and war prisoners as well. Executions could be of different natures: some were killed with a sword (ad gladium), others were thrown to wild animals (ad bestias), others burned alive (crematio or ad flammas), others crucified (crucifixio), and yet more were obliged to impersonate characters of myth destined to die. In the last case, the set required to represent the myth was recreated on the arena and the main character, then doomed to succumb, was the person to be executed. This kind of execution was probably devised to make the lunch break more exciting, since in many cases the death sentences were considered boring. The re-enactment of the myth of Orpheus, a great singer, who was grief-stricken by the pain of losing his Eurydice, was very popular. Orpheus sang his love in such an enchanting way that the forest animals were enraptured by the beauty of his music. In the reconstruction, the animals approaching the condemned were not gentle at all and eventually he was eaten alive. Another very popular myth was that of Icarus, son of Daedalus, builder of the labyrinth of Knossos, who escaped from the island of Crete using wings designed by his father. However, he came too close to the sun and the wax used to keep the feathers together melted and Icarus plunged to his death. In the Colosseum version, the poor man was forced to climb up scaffolding and then to jump to his death in a flurry of blood and feathers. Re-enactments of historical events related to the origins of the city of Rome were particularly appreciated. The story of Mutio Scevola is an example of this. He was insensitive to pain and faced the Etruscan Porsenna by placing his right hand in a fire without showing any reaction to the pain. The condemned had to do the same thing, but with one difference: if he screamed from the pain, he was burned alive in a pall of burning pitch. It was not uncommon for those sentenced to death to commit suicide before the show to avoid the terrible death that awaited them in the arena. To prevent this, prisoners who awaited their fate in the underground of the Colosseum were always watched by staff working in the underground rooms. It has to be emphasized that there was also a vast difference if the criminal was a Roman citizen or not. If the convicted had Roman citizenship, the most common way to kill him was through decapitation; this was an honorable way to die, which, according to the Romans, avoided public humiliation or a slow or particularly brutal death. Only rarely did one see a Roman citizen sentenced in other ways. Sentences ad gladium could result in beheadings, but also in one-sided fights, with a foregone conclusion, among the helpless condemned who faced the arena and a gladiator. Sentences ad bestias involved a criminal who was mauled by wild animals. The first sentence of this kind was imposed in 167 B.C. on some members of the Roman army guilty of having abandoned the field of battle of Pydna in Macedonia. They were considered culprits of infamy and, as a consequence, were trampled by elephants. Legally speaking, Roman law did not determine which execution had to be inflicted and the judge was free to choose whether to inflict the damnatio ad bestias as the death penalty at his discretion. This was most likely inflicted more frequently if the social background of the offender was low, like for prisoners or slaves. Up to the time of Tiberius (14–37 A.D.), the second Roman emperor, a master could have a slave killed by animals without him being able to appeal or defend himself. With the lex Petronia, it was imposed upon the Court to review the reasons for a particular execution; thus dismissing an easy way for a master to get rid of his slaves.
Execution with animals had to meet specific requirements in the show: the convicts should not take too long to die because this would slow down the program of the day, but, at the same time, they should not die too quickly and spoil the show. The two most common ways to perform the damnatio ad bestias were to tie the naked criminal to a pole and leave him/her for the animals or to let him run around the arena being chased by the beast. The final result did not change, but the public preferred the latter because it was considered to be more spectacular. Was it possible to save someone’s life? Yes, it happened a few times, but the life of the lucky one was not extended by much, since he was used in the next fight or had his throat cut. Grace was extremely rare for those sentenced either ad gladium or ad bestias.
Crucifixion was also used and was a punishment much more ancient than the Romans. This could result in an agonizing death by suffocation because the thorax was compressed (which is why the legs of the condemned were often broken), by asphyxiation, by bleeding, or by cardiovascular collapse through pain. This was without doubt the cruelest sentence staged in the Colosseum. However, those sentenced by crematio or ad flammas did not have a much more pleasant time. The convicts had to wear beautifully decorated clothes soaked with flammable substances and then they had to dance as their clothes were ignited. The resulting dances were anything but pleasant."

1 comment:

  1. It is thought that over 500.000 people lost their lives and over a million wild animals were killed throughout the duration of the Colosseum hosted people vs. monster games. Source: Is that true?