After our Pompeii excursion, we finally had a day without having to rush to catch a train. Today we would be touring the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill area with an actual tour guide. Steve the Translator’s daughter Flavia would be taking us to see the sights of Rome.
Flavia would be arriving at 8 a.m. and we’d cab around Rome where needed. We were still residing at the Casa di Accoglienza Suore di Santa Elisabetta, which will once again be forthwith referred to as “the convent.”
This was a working convent rather than a hotel, so I guess the amenities were intended to be more spiritual than practical. More icons, fewer blow dryers. The usual hotel room blow dryer was missing which resulted in a follicle crisis for Joanne fresh from the shower.
We had a fan so I went to work and in not time, we were ready to roll. Flavia arrived at eight driven by her mother Stefania, who had the day off of work and kindly offered to drive us around.
Trafficking in Risk
We didn’t want to inconvenience her, but she insisted. When Italians insist nicely, they smile when they yell at you and make chopping motions with their hands like they’re dicing invisible onions. It seemed prudent to graciously accept and we were very grateful for the drive and as it would turn out, their delightful company.
We hopped into the car and headed to the Colosseum. It didn’t take long to realize we were participants in Death Race 2018 Rome Edition. Lord love Stefania, she is a delightful conversationalist, an extremely intelligent woman but her driving was literally, quite terrifying. I should qualify that by saying EVERYBODY’S driving in Rome is terrifying.
We have been through in this intersection on our way to the colosseum:
Later in the day on the way to the Catacombs of San Sebastian, we were approaching an intersection just as the light turned green and she kept rolling at 60 kph and pulled a U-turn into already moving opposing traffic and a cacophony of honking horns.
This was a six lane thoroughfare, mind you. To this day I have no idea how I came out of that with clean underwear. However, for the most part… she seemed to be a decent driver for Rome.
In a short time, we parked on a side street next to the Colosseum. It was a beautifully sunny day and the gigantic structure stood out in strong relief against the bright azure of the morning sky.
The popular, ancient, hip hop group Flavian Dynasty built the Colosseum between LXXII and LXXX a.d. The group was comprised of M-prorZ Vespasian, Titus and Domitian and they required a venue for gigs that could hold up to 80,000 fans. K, that’s not true but it’s more fun that what Wikipedia will tell you on the matter.
Flavia tells us it’s constructed from travertine and tuff, so it’s made of rocks. Here’s an article on the construction which will reveal the mysteries of Roman cement for those who require concrete evidence of the build.
She also informs us marble was also used extensively, but had been stripped and cannibalized for other buildings in Rome. Not only was the marble taken, but bronze fittings holding the marble facade were stripped, leaving the edifice with a pockmarked look.
Mybad! It’s Dr. Flavia!
Steve had mentioned his daughter Flavia gave tours. I apparently missed the part where she gave tours to her graduate students. It turned out she’s an archeologist with a PHD and had worked on the forum dig.
Aside from being a river of knowledge, her status meant she could ferry us past what felt like a kilometer long line of tourists waiting for the Colosseum to open. We were booking it on the ground level, Doric columns blowing by like telephone poles on the highway.
Along the promenade on the next level are a line of static, museum displays of antiquities and information on all aspects of the Colosseum and Roman life. It offers sensible context for what you’re seeing. It was here our education on Roman history began.
While passing the displays, Flavia would offer context in terms of vivid descriptions of how people lived in Rome in whatever period was relevant for a particular display.
This would come into play for me later in the day in an unanticipated fashion. However, in that moment I was just soaking up as much of the moment as I could.
The Dynamic Duo
Stefania did an admirable job of listening without interjecting. At least she didn’t interject in English, but… well. She’s a mom and a woman fiercely proud of her Italian heritage. I’m sure she was just adding supplementary information in Italian.
I don’t know if Flavia was upset by this as I had no frame of reference. Seeing Italians interact by flailing at the air with raised voices wasn’t necessarily an indicator of “content” as I’d learned at the train station with Steve the Translator.
In truth, Italians aren’t always this animated, but at minimum there’s always that potential, passionate energy as sub-text in any interaction no matter how mundane.
Both Ladies Strut Their History Stuff
They finished their discussion and the tour continued. The day would prove to have a warm dynamic flow as we grew to know our new friends. In truth, Stefania and Flavia were more like family given my relationship with Steve the Translator.
Stefania had a wealth of historical information and I was completely captivated by her pride and intense love for her country and culture. Her energy was incredibly compelling. I felt completely charmed listening to her speak to these matters so dear to her heart. Through the day we’d change things up and I’d spend some time with Flavia and her incredibly detailed insights on not just the history, but the process of how history has been revealed.
More History Stuff
The primary focus of Colosseum history is of course, gladiatorial contests. We all saw “Gladiator,” “Ben Hur” and other sand and sandal epics, so we’re going to skip that part for now. So what happened to the Colosseum after Rome fell?
Whatever it was hadn’t piqued my interest up until that moment. I’m tempted to take a survey to see how many people know the history beyond the spectacles Hollywood has shown us. Obviously, I’m guilty of the charge of being uneducated. I just wonder if I’m in the minority?
I’ll just list stuff and feel free to comment on how many of these would have immediately come to mind. The primary facts here are all true. Let’s check out the timeline.
It’s a busy one. Let’s see… two lightning strikes, fires, sacking by the Visigoths, earthquake, a bigger earthquake then sacking by the Vandals, we’ll pick it up in year D.
D – DCCC (500-800) or so a.d. The Colosseum was alternatively a quarry, vagrant housing and a barnyard before a small chapel was built and it became a cemetery.
DCCC – MLIII (800 – 1083) or so a.d. If I was a municipal planner, I would say it was re-zoned Residential A and B with Commercial (C1) subzoning. The vaults under the seats became apartments. People lived here.
MLIV (1084) a.d. Sacked by Normans. When the Normans left, the Frangipane family took over and only Frangipane’s or friends of the Frangipanes resided within. Fort Frangipane established and it becomes a military base.
MCCCXLIX (1349) a.d. A bigger earthquake than the rest brings down an entire side. Until the mid 16th century the Colosseum was used again as a quarry.
MDCCL (1750) a.d. Pope Benedict XIV begins restoration work.
During the 15th century, Pope Sixtus V wanted to make it a wool factory to employ prostitutes but died before this plan could unfold. In the 17th century a Cardinal wanted to turn it into a bullring, but public outcry killed that particular plan. Eventually we made it through the museum displays and emerged into the arena.
We emerged into the bright, sunlit of the arena and initially, the sight is jarring. The original sand covered, wooden arena floor is gone revealing the cells that held animals and people beneath.
I feel compelled to break with my usual silliness and be serious for a moment.
I’d mentioned that Flavia’s descriptions would offer an unexpected emotional moment. A chill overcame me as she described the “filler” entertainment between the gladiatorial bouts and animal hunts, centuries before, in this area immediately in front of us.
Imagine you’re being held in a dark cell under the arena floor. It’s sweltering. The fetid stench of sweat, fear and feces thicken the air. The roar of terrified animals in cages nearby is occasional punctuation for the muted sound of throngs cheering above. The lift comes down and the light from above reveals the platform covered with torn and bloodied flesh that was once living human beings. Then it’s your turn to head up the lift.
If you were a Christian or a criminal, you might be taken to the arena floor and bound to a stake. A bear trained to tear out your liver and eat it before your eyes before you die would be released to entertain the crowd with your death.
A Moment of Clarity
In that moment, I felt more horrified than I’d ever been from anything I’d seen or read in TV, movies and books. In this case, the immediacy of geography was the great leveler. Despite the fact this occurred roughly 2000 years ago, I found the fact it occurred directly in front of where I was standing deeply distressing. Just writing about it is upsetting.
I have an difficult time understanding how people can treat one another with such savagery. The fact it occurred so long ago is irrelevant. In another week Joanne and I would be standing in Auschwitz where cruelty and inhumanity became industrialized.
The trip to Europe had moments of what I can only describe as spiritual epiphanies along the way. As a 4th stage prostate cancer patient I’ll just say I’m on an unintended journey in that respect and leave it there for now. I leave it there because it’s too long and complicated a topic for this particular post but I may visit the topic another time. I mention it because it’s relevant to the experience and gives a bit more context.
After we left the arena that anxious, gut wrenching feeling passed. At least temporarily. There would be much to ponder later on. I listened to the ladies chat as we headed up to Palatine Hill. There was a lot more Roman history to see and learn that day. I’ll leave this post with photos with real captions for a change.
Last time on TTWTH: Pompeii and Circumstance Parts B, C and 4