“The Colosseum. The Roman Empire distilled to its most basic essence. It is a symbol of conquest. It’s a symbol of dominance. It’s a symbol of imperial power radiating throughout the Roman world. Any emperor had the Colosseum at his disposal to use as a tool to reassert his power and authority. The message of the Roman people is that life is a combat. It was also a judicial warning: do not test the power of Rome.”
After over 2000 years of both heavy use and neglect, much of the structure still remains. It survived the many sacks of Rome and its rebirth as a Christian empire. The building survived the bombings and invasions of two World Wars, and it remains. Its history is a testament to the best and worst of human nature. Now History has given us a series of eight television episodes that explore both the mystery and the majesty that was the Roman Colosseum.
“Welcome one and all to the greatest games ever witnessed. A spectacle unlike any seen before.”
The episodes start at the beginning, and we get to see the evolution of the building itself, which was an almost impossible feat of architectural engineering at the time. By 80AD Emperor Titus would be the first to hold the infamous gladiatory games. He presided over 100 days of games. These were not merely displays for the rich and privileged. There were seats for the poor. It was the day of bread and circuses, a philosophy whereby the people are made content and distracted from the flaws in the system through plenty of food and entertainment. It still works quite well over 2000 years later. It wasn’t just used for games. Criminals were executed here, and Christians were eventually killed horribly here. This is where you were likely to end up if you were considered an enemy of Rome. Treason was particularly brutally punished here.
The episodes then take us through the system of the games. There were arenas in the hundreds in the days before and after the Colosseum. They became the kind of local minor leagues for local champions and productions. Once the Colosseum was built, it became the goal of every slave-owner and gladiator slave. In Rome you could win fame, fortune, and most of all, your freedom. The series takes us through the various empires and how they used the games and these promises of fame, fortune, and freedom to feed the machine. Several episodes focus on specific elements like the advent of the female gladiators and the innovative evolution of the building itself. Eventually there was an elaborate sub-basement and a system of pullies eventually delivered surprise dangers in the forms of wild animals that appeared suddenly in the arena space to the wild applause of the audiences. I was somewhat disappointed that the water abilities are not explored here. That appears to be the one element neglected here. Otherwise this is a pretty complex assortment of people, innovations, and sport.
The material is delivered in several ways. Campbell Scott offers the narration has he has done on many History projects. We also get to hear from many credited historians who bring their own various perspectives to the material. Of course, there are plenty of dramatizations where actors play out the various stories at work here. It’s actually one of history’s better examples of this multimedia approach.
I was particularly pleased to see an annoying new trend in academia resisted here. The show officially uses the designations BC and AD. While a couple of the subjects insisted on BCE, the show maintained the traditional order. I have to admit I resist the call to change the dating system because of a perceived religious indoctrination. Thank you, History, for keeping things … real.
A history of the Colosseum is really a history of Rome itself, and episodes focus on the trials of the empire including the arrival of plague and the constant wars of conquest. Much of it is told through the words of the poets of the day, both Roman and Greek. It’s great hearing such contemporary sources. I found this to be more educational and entertaining than many of the shows recently produced by the network. This is getting back on track, and I look forward to much more. “Let the games begin.”