Thoughts on the ruins of the Roman Empire

The Coliseum in Rome

The Coliseum in Rome

My first picture today of the ruins of the Roman Coliseum is also my favorite. During our tour today, it seemed like everything we wanted to take a picture of was backlit or otherwise at exactly the wrong angle to the sun to be photographed. But this picture was taken early this morning while the sun was low enough to give things a glow and I caught that glow coming through one of the arches.

I can’t really blame our tour guide for the time of day or the angle of the sun, those things were out of her control. And I have to say I don’t think we could have had a better tour guide. She is deeply interested in archeological history. I would have happily sat in a classroom and listened to her lecture for three hours. She had a rare gift of bringing the minutia to life, like explaining the waterworks of the coliseum and the other elements of the construction that can be inferred from what little remains. And of course she told us a lot about the mechanics of the events like the floor of the coliseum and its system of trap doors to let in the gladiators and wild animals.

But she really shined (heh) when it came to talking about the political importance of the events at the coliseum. They weren’t just entertainment. The events were sort of the TV of their time. They were the chance for Romans to see exotic animals and races from far off lands. Ans yeah they were there for the blood sport too. But the events were also a way to bolster the egos of Romans. To show the people of the lands that the Romans had conquered. They events were a form of boosterism, to ensure support for the military campaigns of whoever was the emperor of the time.

And as we toured the remnants of the Palace on the hill, the talked about how the emperor at the time had the house incorporate both the site of the original settlement of Rome and the site of a temple to Apollo into his grand palace at the top of the hill specifically to bring together the Roman history and the appropriated Greek culture into one thing.

She talked at length of the betrayal of Julius Cesar and how the following emporer, who had been a leader in the senate, rarely used the term emperor but instead referred to himself as “the first among equals” specifically to distance himself from the bad rep that Julius Cesar had earned. She also discussed how he had turned on Brutus and the other leaders of the revolt and found excuses to execute them to eliminate the negative political connections. She talked about how one emperor had his young 9 year old son deified on his death so he could have a presence inside the city of Rome.

She talked about how the state had careful roles of each Roman citizen and what they owned. Presumably for taxation purposes, though she didn’t say. But all of the public works such as the coliseum, public baths, the circus maximu,s the forum, etc etc. were only available to Roman citizens and you had to show your “pass” to be admitted to these things. There were lots of people who lived in Rome where were not allowed at these places unless they were a guest of a Roman citizen.

And of course the whole empire was built of bothe second class citizens (non-Romanas and women) and slaves, who were referred to as “tools with hands.”

Every public work was an aggrandizement of The State in one way or another. Every marble column represented a land that was conquered. Names of rulers who had fallen out of favor were literally erased from the books and their monuments renamed in favor of the currently in-power rulers. Every carved picture on every facade had a political purpose of some sort.

Interesting note, the armies of Rome and its various divisions, were not allowed to bring weapons into Rome itself because the emperors’ were afraid of a coup.

The more she talked about the way rulers jockeyed for power, the more she talked about the heavy hand of the state power, the more she talked about the military dictatorship, the more she talked about cultural appropriation (especially of its transition from paganism to Christianity), the more she talked about who stabbed who in the back both figuratively and literally. the more she talked about how the state stayed in power, the more I realized how human nature and human politics have not changed one bit over the centuries. Languages, religions, technology all change, but apparently human politics doesn’t.

Not an original thought, I know. But today it became real for me thanks to a really good tour guide as she babbled at me while I took pictures of crumbling marble buildings from thousands of years ago.