The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard

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The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A concise history of Imperial Rome's greatest monument and arena, from its early days as the venue for gladiatorial games to its status as a present-day tourist attraction and cultural icon.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846684708

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The Colosseum is the most famous and instantly recognisable monument to have survived from the classical world. Most readily associated with the gladiatorial games and contests between the Christians and the lions so beloved by imperial Rome, it originally held over 50,000 spectators, a number now completely dwarfed by the four million or more visitors who come each year.

This concise volume, as with other titles in the Wonders of the World series, strikes a very good balance between describing the architecture of the building, the history it has witnessed over the centuries (in this case, around twenty of them), and its significance in contemporary culture. Even in Victorian times it was a magnet for tourists, during an age when the tourism industry was coming into its own, and at the same time it regularly appeared in 19th century literature as a site of tragedy and an emblem of death. More recently it has been a concert venue, staging everything from Verdi's operas to performances by Paul McCartney and Billy Joel, and advertisements featuring Britney Spears and Beyonce Knowles. In 2000 it was re-created by computer-generated imagery to restore it to its 2nd century glory (for the movie world, at least) in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator.

Its initial construction was begun around 70 AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian, but without regular maintenance, it was severely dilapidated by the 6th century, and by the time of the Renaissance era it was seen less as a monument than as a quarry, ripe for plundering. Only then did antiquarians and some more influential members of the Christian community realise that it had special, even unique religious significance and that it was in their interests that what was left should be preserved. It is largely thanks to them that so much remains today. We are reminded of the famous axiom of archaeologists, that the more famous a monument is, sadly the less likely any of its original structures are to survive.

While some of the finer detail has since gone, enough remains to reveal much of the architectural beauty of the original whole. At the same time we also have to salute the ingenuity of the Romans who created such an appealing structure, yet still had the organisational skills to build something functional enough to be filled with people and yet emptied more quickly than most modern football stadiums.

One chapter is taken up largely with a vivid account of the gladiatorial contests with which the building was most associated, quoting the death oratory of St Ignatius, a 2nd century Bishop of Antioch, who had been 'condemned to the beasts'. Let me be fodder for the wild beasts, he said, that is how I can get to God. I am God's wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ. There are also descriptions of the lifts and hoists, moved by an intricate network of cables and pulleys by which wild animals were brought up to the arena level.

A final chapter provides useful notes for present-day tourists, not least a suggestion that one should either arrive at the Colosseum at least thirty minutes before it opens, or alternatively wait until later in the day, after most of the coach tours and large groups have gone.

For tourist, historian, student and general reader alike, this book fills an excellent gap. Black and white illustrations are integrated with the text, though the reader who wants more will doubtless wish to look elsewhere. A 15-page section on further reading will point the way.

Our thanks to Profile for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For another read in similar vein, and from the same series, why not also try St Peter's, by Keith Miller.

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