Here’s an audio version of this post
I’m hardly what you’d call a seasoned traveller, but I’m pretty sure I’m safe in saying there’s nothing quite like visiting the Colosseum as a tourist. Most historic sites that draw crowds do so because of great art or architecture, cultural significance, historic importance, their ability to inspire awe, or their meaning as a place where people exhibited heroism suffering and death. I can’t think of any other tourist attraction that blends all of these things in the way the Colosseum does.
As we walked around and inside it, it was almost impossible not to crack a joke or two about gladiators and spectacle. We talked about how time is what makes this so. One wouldn’t dream of making jokes about the holocaust in Berlin, and yet thousands suffered and died in numerous cruel, savage and inventive ways right where we were. And their deaths were sport and entertainment. I felt the profound, macabre disconnect between the place the Colosseum held in the public life of Rome, and the savage ends that so many people and animals found on the floor of the arena. I’m sometimes thought by others to be a serious person, and I know I have a thin skin, but I experienced a deep disquiet when fellow tourists posed for photos, smiling in front of a ruined column or an old wall, which was built to showcase the torture and gruesome deaths of thousands. The three selfie-stick venders outside the gates added an incongruous layer to this that I don’t even know how to comment on. As my portable audio guide device described the various ways in which executions were carried out as a sort of half time show before the main event of the gladiator fights, (stabbing, malling mauling by animals, crucifixion, burning at the stake,) I felt quick tears for all the suffering. Suffering as entertainment for 60,000 spectators is even more difficult and painful to comprehend.
Fortunately, in the afternoon we went to the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, which was a balm to the spirit, as all baths are meant to be. The grounds of this enormous structure were wonderfully peaceful in contrast to the bustling and crowded stadium of death. There was a wonderful portable audio guide which, unlike the one in the Colosseum, was accessible for blind people, so we could operate it ourselves. As with the Colosseum, the political agenda of the architecture is clear. Thirty metre ceilings and vast arches are clear statements of the power ancient Rome could command both in terms of raw labour, and the sophisticated science of large-scale design. Hot pools, cold pools, Olympic size swimming pools, saunas, libraries, gardens, restaurants, sports areas, they knew how to enjoy themselves. And refreshingly, it wasn’t just the wealthy. The baths were built by Emperors and aristocrats, but were open to all. You would have to pay for the massage or depilation services offered upstairs, but when hasn’t that been true?
Civilization is a complex concept. Why build an empire? So that you can offer your citizens the chance to watch defeated enemies die brutally, or so you can develop the infrastructure necessary to build an aqueduct system capable of sustaining public baths? The baths we visited burned ten tons of wood per day in order to heat the pools and sauna: a triumph of infrastructure. The Colosseum was the sight of thousands and thousands of brutal deaths carried out for sport over centuries. The Colosseum was terrible and impenetrable to me, a place iconic of the absolute worst in human nature. The baths, which thankfully we visited last, suggested some of the best. I’m sure the slave labour involved in building and sustaining the baths was brutal too, but at least it wasn’t brutality for its own sake. There’s a satisfying symmetry for me that even after 2000 years, a visit to the baths is still a peaceful and restorative experience.