Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre of Cruelty

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre of Cruelty

Article excerpt

Theatre of cruelty THE COLOSSEUM by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard Profile Books, £15.99, pp. 209, ISBN 1861974078 £13.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

'The Colosseum is the most famous and instantly recognisable monument to have survived from the classical world.' In the 19th century the thing to do when in Rome was to visit the Colosseum by moonlight, and quote Byron. This is no longer possible. The ruin is closed at dusk, and anyway the moon will have been obscured by the combination of street lighting and traffic fumes. Thronged with tourists, the Colosseum is not the place for Romantic reveries. Perhaps they were always inappropriate.

Everybody knows the Colosseum, but far less is known about what went on there than many of us may suppose. Misconceptions abound. Thanks to Quo Vadis? we know that the Emperor Nero watched Christians being devoured by lions in the arena. We know this the way we know that Cnut ordered the waves to recede. It's the sort of common knowledge that is either dead wrong, or at least without foundation. There is no record, Hopkins and Beard tell us, of any Christian being eaten there by any lion. Moreover Nero never entered the Colosseum, which was built by his successors, the Flavian emperors, in the gardens of Nero's Golden House. This was a popular political move. Land taken by Nero from the people was restored to them as a place of entertainment.

The Colosseum means gladiators. Yes, well, indeed it does, but here too we know less than we think we do. 'The fighters entered, hailed the emperor with the famous words, "Those who are about to die salute you" and the real fun started...' Well, perhaps, but then again perhaps not. There is no evidence,' Hopkins and Beard say, 'that the famous phrase was ever uttered in the Colosseum, still less that it was the regular salute given by gladiators to the emperor. Ancient writers, in fact, quote it in relation to one specific spectacle only, and not a gladiatorial one.' Sad, really; it's a grand phrase which the 19thcentury painter Jean-Léon Gérome gave to one of his works. Another, 'pollice verso' (thumb turned) inspired Ridley Scott's epic movie, Gladiator. …

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