How did the design of the Colosseum give form to its public function and to its symbolic meaning

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The design of the Colosseum speaks to us on a number of levels. Functionally, it operated as the greatest public entertainment venue of the Roman Empire. Socially, it served as a place of punitive control, whilst politically it was a permanent reminder of the benevolence of the Emperor and the power of the Roman Empire.

The Colosseum was built according to a set of architectural conventions developed through the construction of other amphitheatres, such as the Theatre of Pompey (Connolly, 2003)1. However, the invention of materials such as concrete, and the use of vaults and arches, enabled the architects to build a huge structure that satisfied complex functional demands. For instance, it provided for the speedy access and egress of up to 50,000 spectators. Its oval shape allowed for an uninterrupted view of events, whilst its system of continuous, hierarchical seating met the demands of this heavily segregated society. The Colosseum’s form was also strikingly different from most Greek and Roman public buildings of the time. Though not original in design, the use of superimposed half-columns of Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian orders were symbolic of tradition; the combination of wide arches and columns provided elegant articulation and interest, and gave the structure a sturdy yet welcoming fa�ade and instilled a sense of openness.

The Colosseum, like all other Roman amphitheatres, was a tool of Romanization, not merely in terms of its outer form, but also as an ideological exhibition of power (TV6). Built on land previously occupied by Nero’s palace, it is as a political emblem that its design achieves a perfect fusion of form and function. The huge size and central position are symbolic of the supremacy of the Roman Empire, whilst its articulation epitomises imperial grandeur, and gives the Colosseum its meaning as a great public monument of Imperial Rome.

‘The Roman games were cruel and degrading, and cannot be justified’. How far do you agree with this opinion?

The Roman games, or ‘munera’ (Auguet, 1994)2 stimulate debate because they involve fundamental moral questions about how a society that considered itself “an elite nurtured on Greek philosophy” (ibid. pg. 209) could engage in such depraved acts. These huge popular spectacles attracted large crowds across the social spectrum of Roman society, who came to the amphitheatre to be dazzled and amazed by the sight of gladiatorial combats and wild animal hunts. However, they also featured public executions of slaves, rebels and criminals, which were carried out in ways that, today, would be deemed cruel, degrading, and inhuman, and go beyond mere retribution.

Evidence from ancient sources provides a glimpse of these events: Martial speaks of a robber who is crucified and torn to pieces by wild beasts (Resource Book 1, pg. 92), and goes on to describe the re-enactment of a mythical mating between the goddess Pasiphae and a bull. Seneca describes how the crowd was offered “sheer butchery. The combatants wear no protection: their whole bodies are exposed to strokes and they never aim a blow in vain (Ibid. pg. 99). Therefore, the overall impression is that the games were violent and brutal, and that the crowd lacked concern and empathy for the suffering of both humans and animals involved.

It may be argued that all cultures embrace the idea that killing is absolutely wrong and immoral, regardless of the beliefs and ideas of the culture that may engage in such a practice. This appears to be the opinion of Pearson, who describes the festivities held to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum as “the largest, most disgusting, organised mass binge in history” (Resource Book 1, pg. 107). In fact, Roman society seems to have had some reticence about the munera. For instance, Cicero wrote, “[…] what pleasure can it be to a man of refinement when either a powerless man is torn by a very powerful beast, or else a magnificent beast is spitted on a hunting spear?” (Ibid. pg. 97). Moreover, Wiedemann claims that, “the games engaged the emotions of the spectators to an extent that made them temporarily incapable of rational thought (Ibid. pg. 102).

However, it may be claimed that to condone brutal and pornographic acts, as the crowd apparently did, is a sign of a corrupt and uncivilised society that has become desensitised from its own brutality. In fact, Seneca made a devastating comment on the spectators, writing “in the morning men are thrown to the lions and bears, and at midday to their own spectators” (Ibid. pg. 99). He also provides cautionary advice on the pull of the crowd, stating that this should be avoided because associating with it can transform men into cruel and inhuman beings (Ibid. pg. 99). Indeed, the crowd’s lust for cruelty and blood is hard to understand, and seemingly not even Christians were immune to its power, as St Augustine bears witness to in describing the effect on his friend Alypus, recording that “as soon as he saw the blood, he therewith drunk down savageness […]” (Ibid. pg. 100).

However, in stating that killing is regarded by most as morally wrong and unacceptable, we are applying a moral absolute to ancient Roman society, thus judging it by the ethical, and possibly religious, standards of our modern age. The underlying brutality of the arena was compatible with the Romans’ own system of values, and the vision of the Empire as struggling against forces of nature and disorder. For instance, the gladiators were the embodiment of military skill and bravery; they brought danger and excitement to the spectators, for whom the ‘kill’ in the arena was beautiful, noble, and symbolised all that was virtuous in the Roman character (Ibid, pg. 113).

Moreover, as Auguet explains, “the Roman attitude cannot be explained without admitting from the start that it is conditioned by the existence of slavery, that is to say, by the idea that a human being can simply be an instrument” (Auguet, 1994, pg. 197). Indeed, as Guttman (1998)3 contends, negative attitudes about the victims contributed greatly to the enjoyment of humiliation and disparagement. Therefore, as these tended to be men and women generally considered inferior and already ‘socially dead’ (Wiedemann, ibid. pg. 104), there could be no moral backlash against the munera. For the Romans to die admirably and courageously was the pinnacle and ideal of civilisation, and the normal way of proving oneself Roman.

In conclusion, opposition to the munera is based on modern values that maintain that to kill and torture humans and animals is morally wrong, that doing so precludes a society from calling itself cultured and refined, and that witnessing such savageness and cruelty depraves and corrupts its spectators. However, today’s standards cannot be applied to a society that had strikingly opposite values to ours. Furthermore, our society indulges in many of the same practices: killing is a legitimate form of justice in our society; the death penalty is an accepted way to punish criminals, and public executions still take place regularly in many countries. Moreover, whilst being fully aware of its influence, violence and pornography in our visual media fascinate many of us. Therefore, though cruel and degrading, ultimately the Roman games can be justified because, were we to do otherwise, we would be ignoring significant cultural and ethical differences, and lay claims of moral superiority that our own violent and voyeuristic society cannot justify.

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