The Colosseum

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Overview

Read the Bldg Blog interview with Mary Beard about the Wonders of the World series
(Part I and Part II)

Byron and Hitler were equally entranced by Rome's most famous monument, the Colosseum. Mid-Victorians admired the hundreds of varieties of flowers in its crannies and occasionally shuddered at its reputation for contagion, danger, and sexual temptation. Today it is the highlight of a tour of Italy for more than three million visitors a year, a concert arena for the likes of Paul McCartney, and a national symbol of opposition to the death penalty. Its ancient history is chockfull of romantic but erroneous myths. There is no evidence that any gladiator ever said "Hail Caesar, those about to die..." and we know of not one single Christian martyr who met his finish here.

Yet the reality is much stranger than the legend as the authors, two prominent classical historians, explain in this absorbing account. We learn the details of how the arena was built and at what cost; we are introduced to the emperors who sometimes fought in gladiatorial games staged at the Colosseum; and we take measure of the audience who reveled in, or opposed, these games. The authors also trace the strange afterlife of the monument--as fortress, shrine of martyrs, church, and glue factory. Why are we so fascinated with this arena of death?

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This slim but extremely well-researched volume attempts to answer two questions-"How should we respond to the bloody images that have come to define the Colosseum in modern culture?" and "Why is it so famous?" A professor of ancient history at the University of Cambridge at the time of his death, Hopkins (A World Full of Gods) and Beard, editor of Harvard's "Wonders of the World" series, of which this title is part, succeed remarkably in dispelling many of the myths surrounding the Colosseum. They refer specifically to Ridley Scott's film, Gladiator,to suggest that the gory spectacles and heavily armored combatants depicted there, as well as in other sources, are not always historically accurate. In fact, the building, originally known as the Amphitheatre, has been the venue for a variety of gatherings throughout its existence-from passion plays to midnight strolls by Victorian tourists to present-day visits from the Pope to perform the rituals of Good Friday. Lively writing brings the Colosseum and its denizens to life in great detail. Highly recommended for academic libraries; while not necessarily the book for those planning a casual vacation to Rome, it is also recommended for public libraries.-Rita Simmons, Sterling Heights P.L., MI Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A swift overview of the history, design and functions of one of the world's most recognizable buildings. Although Hopkins (Ancient History/Univ. of Cambridge) did not live to see the publication of this work (he died in March 2004), his collaboration with Beard (Classics/Univ. of Cambridge) is a happy one. Part of Harvard University Press' "Wonders of the World" series, this volume does well what all such summary works should do: tell a compelling story, correct historical errors and common misconceptions, animate readers to pursue the subject further. The authors begin with some comments from a Victorian guidebook, then whisk us through some well-known literary works that involve the Colosseum (The Marble Faun, The Innocents Abroad). They also refer occasionally to popular culture-Ridley Scott's film Gladiator (2000), Paul McCartney's 2003 concert in the ruin-and they endeavor, always, to keep in mind that most readers are not classical scholars. We learn that colosseum is a medieval term (the Romans called it the "Amphitheatre" or the "Hunting Theatre"); that Nero neither sat nor fiddled there (it was erected after his death); and that there is no contemporaneous evidence that Christians ever fed lions there (these accounts were written some centuries later). The authors explore what is known about gladiatorial combat, pointing out that there is more to these deadly contests than Hollywood would have us believe. It's not definite, for instance, which way the Romans turned their thumbs to signal life or death. The authors attempt to explain the overall design of the building (above and below ground), but their efforts are hampered not only by the great ongoing debate about that verycomplex question but also by an insufficient number of supporting illustrations. A final chapter offers practical information for tourists. Brisk and illuminating, with much surprising information.
The Independent

Racy and occasionally confrontational...This book revels in the accretions of detail and myth. The improbable animal fights; the unfeasibility of flooding the arena to stage mock sea-battles; the claims of Christianity to the place, with a crucifix and 200 days' indulgence accruing in memory of the early Christians who (probably) didn't get torn to pieces by the lions who (probably) weren't there in the first place; the thunder of footsteps on the wooden floor, deafening those in the undercroft with its winches and ramps and the stink and racket of animals and fighting men; the heat in the arena despite the probable shade offered by great cantilevered canvas awnings: first-class scholarship and an engagingly demotic style bring all this into sharp focus.
— Michael Bywater

The Spectator

It is a work of scholarship written with the general reader in mind. The scholarship is worn lightly, and the book is a pleasure to read. It sums up all that is known, and makes it clear that much must remain conjectural. Anyone visiting Rome and making the obligatory sightseeing tour of the Colosseum will do well to read it in advance and keep it to hand; enjoyment will be much enhanced.
— Allan Massie

Irish Times

The book covers a wide variety of topics, including—to give but a few examples—the life of a gladiator, which was distinctly unglamorous, the exclusion of women from vast areas of the auditorium, the means by which wild animals were brought to Rome, the duration of the 'shows' (123 days for a Trajan bloodbath, according to one observer), the splendid flora (420 species in 1855, although now diminished by weedkiller), and practical tips for any visitor. The book is a great read.
— John McBratney

Evening Standard

Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, eminent classical historians, have written a superb new cultural history of the Colosseum. As well as documenting the variety of flowers that once grew wild among the ruins, they offer pithy and occasionally hilarious accounts of the three million tourists who descend on the monument each year.
— Ian Thomson

Booklist

A fascinating account for the Rome-bound traveler as well as the fan of European history.
— George Cohen

San Francisco Chronicle

A lure for travelers since the days of the Grand Tours, this majestic ruin in Rome was, of course, the scene of murderous spectacles in ancient times. The writers, a pair of British academics, recount the origin of the Colosseum on the site of a private lake in Nero's palace, reveal how it was built and operated and draw on archaeology and classical writings to detail the lives of the gladiators. The magnificent, crumbling building still holds pride of place in the Eternal City, and this book provides a readable and informed introduction.
— David Armstrong

Chicago Tribune

It has been, and continues to be, the object of myth as well as the defining symbol of ancient Rome; a romantic ruin to ongoing popular tourist attraction. Filmmakers, too, from Cecil B. DeMille to Ridley Scott, have used it for their own creative impulses. Although work on the building started in AD 72, it did not officially open until AD 80. Authors and classical historians Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard explain how it was built—and at what cost.
— June Sawyers

Newsday

This architectural icon of the classical world probably has been the subject of more myths and half-truths than any other building surviving from antiquity...This slim book, which would fit into a pocketbook or a knapsack, would make a worthy travel companion for anyone visiting Rome because it sheds so much light on "what is likely to seem at best a confusing mass of masonry, at worst a jumble of dilapidated stone and rubble."
— Spencer Rumsey

New England Classical Journal

In her concise portrait Beard shines a torch into the dark recesses of the building's long history and illuminates a gladiator here, a fresco there, a medieval bullfight there...Here there is a sophisticated interpretation of the Colosseum's meaning and a survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century responses to the Colosseum, with quotations from Byron, Mark Twain, Henry James and Hitler.
— Debra Aaronson Lawless

New York Review of Books

Gives a sprightly, entertaining account of this archetypal building in all its various incarnations, from the "killing fields" of antiquity to the pilgrim's goal of the sixteenth century, the botanist's paradise of the nineteenth, and the archaeologist's puzzle of today—four different construction crews worked on separate quarters of the building, with conspicuously differing results.
— Ingrid Rowland

G. W. Bowersock
This lively book carries the reader painlessly through a complex record of legend and history. By the end the authors have touched authoritatively on architecture, mythological spectacle, imperial patronage, gladiators, sadism, early Christianity, and modern romantic impressions of the Colosseum. A delightful and instructive account.
Robert Harris
A wonderful book, worthy of its subject: horrifying, impressive, blood-soaked, occasionally very funny and always entertaining.
Richard Brilliant
Stripped of so much of its outer shell, the Colosseum reveals the extraordinary ingenuity of its functional design, comprising horizontal floors radiating from a hollow center and channelling the movements of crowds around and into its mass through vaulted passageways, or rising along steep staircases. Long admired by architects, an object of wonder during the Middle Ages and for the modern tourist, the very presence of the Colosseum in the center of Rome marks the power of the material past to grasp our imagination even in its present semi-ruinous state. How this has been accomplished is the well-told story of this book.
Lindsey Davis
Stirring stuff! This is a welcome and well-written book--scholarly but accessible and level-headed. It reassesses the myths, politely debunks many misconceptions about what we know--and what we don't know--to put the fabulous monument in context from its founding to the present. The practical notes for modern visitors made me yearn to be there in Rome again.
The Independent - Michael Bywater
Racy and occasionally confrontational...This book revels in the accretions of detail and myth. The improbable animal fights; the unfeasibility of flooding the arena to stage mock sea-battles; the claims of Christianity to the place, with a crucifix and 200 days' indulgence accruing in memory of the early Christians who (probably) didn't get torn to pieces by the lions who (probably) weren't there in the first place; the thunder of footsteps on the wooden floor, deafening those in the undercroft with its winches and ramps and the stink and racket of animals and fighting men; the heat in the arena despite the probable shade offered by great cantilevered canvas awnings: first-class scholarship and an engagingly demotic style bring all this into sharp focus.
The Spectator - Allan Massie
It is a work of scholarship written with the general reader in mind. The scholarship is worn lightly, and the book is a pleasure to read. It sums up all that is known, and makes it clear that much must remain conjectural. Anyone visiting Rome and making the obligatory sightseeing tour of the Colosseum will do well to read it in advance and keep it to hand; enjoyment will be much enhanced.
Irish Times - John McBratney
The book covers a wide variety of topics, including--to give but a few examples--the life of a gladiator, which was distinctly unglamorous, the exclusion of women from vast areas of the auditorium, the means by which wild animals were brought to Rome, the duration of the 'shows' (123 days for a Trajan bloodbath, according to one observer), the splendid flora (420 species in 1855, although now diminished by weedkiller), and practical tips for any visitor. The book is a great read.
Evening Standard - Ian Thomson
Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, eminent classical historians, have written a superb new cultural history of the Colosseum. As well as documenting the variety of flowers that once grew wild among the ruins, they offer pithy and occasionally hilarious accounts of the three million tourists who descend on the monument each year.
Booklist - George Cohen
A fascinating account for the Rome-bound traveler as well as the fan of European history.
San Francisco Chronicle - David Armstrong
A lure for travelers since the days of the Grand Tours, this majestic ruin in Rome was, of course, the scene of murderous spectacles in ancient times. The writers, a pair of British academics, recount the origin of the Colosseum on the site of a private lake in Nero's palace, reveal how it was built and operated and draw on archaeology and classical writings to detail the lives of the gladiators. The magnificent, crumbling building still holds pride of place in the Eternal City, and this book provides a readable and informed introduction.
Chicago Tribune - June Sawyers
It has been, and continues to be, the object of myth as well as the defining symbol of ancient Rome; a romantic ruin to ongoing popular tourist attraction. Filmmakers, too, from Cecil B. DeMille to Ridley Scott, have used it for their own creative impulses. Although work on the building started in AD 72, it did not officially open until AD 80. Authors and classical historians Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard explain how it was built--and at what cost.
Newsday - Spencer Rumsey
This architectural icon of the classical world probably has been the subject of more myths and half-truths than any other building surviving from antiquity...This slim book, which would fit into a pocketbook or a knapsack, would make a worthy travel companion for anyone visiting Rome because it sheds so much light on "what is likely to seem at best a confusing mass of masonry, at worst a jumble of dilapidated stone and rubble."
New England Classical Journal - Debra Aaronson Lawless
In her concise portrait Beard shines a torch into the dark recesses of the building's long history and illuminates a gladiator here, a fresco there, a medieval bullfight there...Here there is a sophisticated interpretation of the Colosseum's meaning and a survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century responses to the Colosseum, with quotations from Byron, Mark Twain, Henry James and Hitler.
New York Review of Books - Ingrid Rowland
Gives a sprightly, entertaining account of this archetypal building in all its various incarnations, from the "killing fields" of antiquity to the pilgrim's goal of the sixteenth century, the botanist's paradise of the nineteenth, and the archaeologist's puzzle of today--four different construction crews worked on separate quarters of the building, with conspicuously differing results.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674018952
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2005
  • Series: Wonders of the World Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 4.70 (w) x 7.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Keith Hopkins was, at the time of his death, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of A World Full of Gods.

Mary Beard has a Chair of Classics at Cambridge and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement and author of the blog “A Don’s Life”. She is also a winner of the 2008 Wolfson History Prize.

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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • 1. The Colosseum Now…
  • 2. …and Then
  • 3. The Killing Fields
  • 4. The People of the Colosseum
  • 5. Bricks and Mortar
  • 6. Life after Death
  • Making a Visit?
  • Further Reading
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index

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