Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Anachronistic Colosseums

The Colosseum is iconic.  It is the symbol of ancient Rome.  And even though it was relatively late on the scene in terms of Roman history, (ca. 800 years late!, if one counts from the legendary founding in 753 B.C.E.), it still pops up from time to time in modern recreations of earlier Roman eras.  

Yesterday, I learned (thanks to a tweet from the rogueclassicist!) that Warner Brothers has purchased the rights to a time-travel story created on reddit in response to a post asking if the entire Roman empire, during the Augustan period (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), could be destroyed by a modern Marine battalion.  James Erwin responded with a series of posts that tell this tale, which he entitled Rome Sweet Rome.  The story itself has potential; The Final Countdown was pretty awesome 30 years ago.  Will Warner Brothers actually make the movie?  We'll have to wait and see.

The story now has its own reddit and facebook page, and there is some cool concept art as well.  The main poster (see the concept art here) depicts three togate men flanked by military standards overlooking a mass of Roman troops.  There are several temples in the background, helicopters in the sky, and looming over it all - the Colosseum.  It screams "ROMAN!" 

But Augustus never knew the Colosseum, despite the fact that Vespasian supposedly (according to Suetonius) began the work on the amphitheater after discovering that Augustus had favored such a project.  During Augustus' lifetime, the first permanent, stone amphitheater was built in Rome by Titus Statilius Taurus, one of Augustus' generals in the civil war and dedicated in 29 B.C.E.  It was destroyed by the great fire of 64 C.E. and Nero supposedly planned to rebuild it, but the Domus Aurea seems to have moved the amphitheater to the bottom of the emperor's to do list.

You can read more about Rome Sweet Rome here and here

What other anachronistic Colosseums are out there? 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Now Showing: Nero at the Colosseum

In June I had the chance to revisit the Colosseum, which is currently home to part of an exhibit on the Roman emperor Nero (reigned 54-68 C.E.).  The exhibit, Nerone, running through mid-January 2012, is also staged throughout buildings in the Roman Forum and on the Palatine Hill. It's a great exhibit and I suspect that Nero himself would have enjoyed it immensely, especially seeing his portrait projected, larger than life, on the back of the Curia Julia.  Or visiting the Temple of Romulus, where various cinematic Neroes were screened and Nero receives the epithet "Superstar" which he so longed for in life.

I don't know which part of the exhibit Nero would have liked best, but surely he would have felt a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his own name, Nerone, emblazoned across the facade of the Colosseum.  And perhaps Vespasian (reigned 69-79 C.E.) and his sons Titus (reigned 79-81 C.E.) and Domitian (reigned 81-96 C.E.) are rolling over in their graves, having gone to such effort and expense to erase the memory of Nero and gain popular favor by building the Amphitheatrum Flavianum, as the Colosseum was known prior to the Middle Ages. 

The portion of the exhibit on display inside the Colosseum focuses on the great fire of 64 C.E. and Nero's Golden House.  There is a certain, rich irony in this.  Nero began construction on a vast, palatial complex, the Domus Aurea, stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline, making use of land cleared by the fire of 64.  The project was not popular and the biographer Suetonius (ca. 70-130 C.E.), in his Life of Nero, reports that the saying "Rome will become a house..." (Roma fiet domus) was popular in verse and graffiti at the time.  At the heart of the palace was a great park, with wild and domesticated animals; vineyards, fields and forests; and a lake, like a sea, surrounded by Disneyland-like, miniature cities.  It was here that the Flavian emperors built their amphitheater, supplanting Nero's private, luxury palace with a venue for public entertainment and largess. 

The poet Martial (ca. 38/41-103 C.E.) composed a series of epigrams, the Liber Spectaculorum, commemorating the building and inauguration of the Amphitheatrum Flavianum.  In his first three epigrams, Martial emphasizes the grandeur of the amphitheater on a global scale; it is greater than Egypt's pyramids, Halicarnassus' Mausoleum and Babylon's gardens. In his second poem, Martial especially contrasts the Flavian's amphitheater with Nero's Golden House:

Hic ubi sidereus propius uidet astra colossus
     et crescunt media pegmata celsa uia,
inuidiosa feri radiabant atria regis
     unaque iam tota stabat in urbe domus;
hic ubi conspicui uenerabilis Amphitheatri
     erigitur moles, stagna Neronis erant;...
Reddita Roma sibi est et sunt te preside, Caesar,
     deliciae populi, quae fuerant domini.
- Excerpted from The Latin Library 
"Here where the starry colossus sees the constellations close at hand and a lofty framework rises in the middle of the road, the hated halls of a cruel king used to gleam and in the whole city there was only one house standing.  Here where the awesome bulk of the amphitheatre soars before our eyes, once lay Nero's pools....Rome has been restored to herself, and with you in charge Caesar, what used to be the pleasure of a master is now the pleasure of the people."
- Kathleen Coleman's translation, Martial: Liber Spectaculorum, Oxford University Press, 2006

So the Flavians are not just trumping Nero's gargantuan  palace, but they are trumping every major monument in the world.  And they are reclaiming Rome for the Romans. 

Now Nero has come home.  I wonder if he would like his new landscaping.  Nero did have a wooden amphitheater built in Rome during his consulship in 57 C.E.; presumably it was built in great haste, as it took only a year to build.  Suetonius also tells us that Nero planned to appear in the arena in the guise of Herakles, fighting a trained lion. 

What would Nero think of the Nerone exhibition? What would the Flavians think now that Nero has been resurrected in their greatest monument? With his name plastered across the arcades, larger than theirs ever was?  Have you seen the exhibit?  What did you think?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Welcome to Amphitheatrum ad infinitum...

The focus of Amphitheatrum ad infinitum is the cultural use and reuse of the Roman amphitheater and gladiator from antiquity to the present day. I'm particularly interested in how the Colosseum in Rome and the figure of the gladiator have become cultural icons and how they have been appropriated to construct meaning in literature, art, architecture and beyond throughout history. I'll be blogging about things old and new related to the Roman amphitheater.

The recent news about the discovery of a gladiatorial ludus, or training facility, at the ancient site of Carnuntum in Austria seems like an appropriate place to start things off.
On September 5th, the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI-ArchPro) revealed their recent discovery of a gladiatorial training complex at the Roman town of Carnuntum, located about 35 km southeast of Vienna. The site was discovered through the study of aerial photographs and the use of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). No excavation has been undertaken yet, but according to LBI-ArchPro, the 2800 m2 complex includes administrative and living space for the lanista, the manager of the school; living quarters for the gladiators; a heated, indoor training room; and small, circular training area. The complex is located near to a local amphitheater that was constructed ca. C.E. 100-150 and there is evidence that the two structures were connected by a walled passageway. From an archaeological perspective this is an amazing find and will undoubtedly provide important new information about the life of Roman gladiators. Very few training complexes are known from their archaeological remains.

As interesting as this archaeological discovery is, the thing I find most interesting is the press coverage of the Carnuntum ludus. It was managed in such a way as to create suspense and play on the modern fascination with gladiator-related things. A statement was released on August 30th by the Carnuntum Archaeological Park about a "sensational discovery" that came across in news reports as the discovery of an amphitheater (for example herehere and here. Details about the site were withheld until a September 5th press conference. The fact that this pre-press conference announcement was picked up by some many news agencies demonstrates the extent of popular interest in the gladiatorial world. Erwin Pröll, the governor of the Lower Austria province, is quoted by the AP as saying that the discovery is "a world sensation, in the true meaning of the word." Other comments by Pröll, reported in a press release from the Carnuntum Archaeological Park, make clear the financial benefits that such a discovery can have. "This discovery brings considerable stimulus...and is proof that our investments in Canuntum are both justified and will have a lasting effect." Carnuntum is the host of a special Lower Austrian regional exhibit this year, still running through November 15th: "Erobern - Entdecken - Erleben im Römerland Carnuntum" (Conquer, Discover, Experience in the Roman Land of Carnuntum). The cost of organizing the exhibit was 42 million euros. The exhibit was expecting its 300,000 visitor at the time of the press conference; it would be interesting to track what effect the announcement of the gladiatorial ludus has on visitor numbers this fall and even into next tourist season.

Are you planning a trip to Carnuntum since this new discovery was announced? Or, like me, have you at least added it to your wish list of places to go?