For in truth such an amphitheater is perfectly suited for impressing the populace with itself, for entertaining the populace with itself.

Goethe: Italian Journey

Verona, September 16, 1786


Fab-2From the Caravan Journals: Rome 1994. Sitting on stone steps that are part of what little remains of the monumental Circus Maximus, I am pondering the Roman formula for public entertainment some 2000 years ago. The book I am writing, called In Search of the Circus, looks at the ways the human race has entertained itself over the last two millennia or so. My tentative conclusion is that Rome is the place to anchor my search. Off to my right, along the banks of the Tiber, is the Theater of Marcellus. Down the street behind me, just past the Arch of Constantine, are the massive ruins of the Colosseum, more properly called the Flavian Amphitheater. In my notebook, I have drawn dark lines between these three places on a map of ancient Rome and called it the Fabulous Triangle.

The oldest of these three structures is the Circus Maximus. It was not a circus by modern definition but a stadium for chariot races, which owes much of its concept to the Greeks. The same is true of the Theater of Marcellus. Theater presentation owes its life to the Greeks, while the Romans merely added refinements to the facility. The Colosseum, on the other hand, is a much more uniquely Roman arena. It was the largest amphitheater in the Roman Empire and it still survives in ruined magnificence. No other spot rivals this one as a venue for observing human propensities as they are reflected in our choices of entertainment.

There are other amphitheaters that predate the Colosseum, but there are none that are as notorious. The primary business of this iconic oval was gladiator combat and related spectacles. Part of the notoriety for the Colosseum is undeserved. It was built after the time of Nero and the early persecutions of Christians happened elsewhere in the city. Saint Peter was crucified at the Circus of Caligula and Nero located on Vatican Hill. All that is left of that circus today is the obelisk that sits at the center of St. Peter’s Square. The Sign of the Cross (1932) ends with an extended sequence of Nero’s persecutions. More of this, including the crucifixion of Peter, can be seen in Quo Vadis? (1951). In Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), the Christian hero must fight in the small arena on the Palatine Hill. In Barabbas (1961), Anthony Quinn is forced to fight as a gladiator in an unidentified arena during the time of Nero (see Biblical Movies). The scenes of Christians facing the lions in various versions of The Last Days of Pompeii are set in the older amphitheater of that city (see Movies about Pompeii).

Under the floor of the arena, there were cages for animals and slaves; and elevators that rose to trap doors.

Under the floor of the arena, there were cages for animals and slaves; and elevators that rose to trap doors.

The age of the mad emperors ended with the death of Nero. After a period of confusion, relative stability was restored by the Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 CE).  It was Vespasian and his two sons, also emperors, who gave Rome the landmark Colosseum, completed in 80 CE, a year after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius covered the amphitheater at Pompeii with volcanic ash. Slave labor for the building of the Colosseum was provided by captives from the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The best picture so far on the uses of the Colosseum by subsequent generations of Romans is Gladiator (2000). The fictional foreground story follows Maximus (Russell Crowe) into a life or death battle on the floor of the arena. The background story sets the scene in the times of the admirable Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his less admired son, Emperor Commodus (r. 180-92). I am posting a full summary of this movie not out of admiration for its historical accuracy, which is deplorable, but because it reflects so much of the cultural psychosis that brought Rome down.

Gladiator  (2000)

This film dwells on the paradox of entertainment 2000 years ago, and today. The theme of the drama is vengeance but the undercurrent of the spectacle is concerned with the power of entertainment to control the mob. Critics complained of the “computer game” quality of the Colosseum re-creation, but that perhaps is the nature of our age of simulated entertainment. This is not good history, but it is good metaphor. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Crowe won Best Actor.

Director Ridley Scott did not set out to manufacture a metaphor of the root entertainment equation of Western Civilization, but in the end he did. The guiding spirit of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and his desire to restore Rome to the ideal of the Republic sets the tone for the film. Marcus Aurelius was not a fan of the Games, but his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), filled with resentment at not living up to the ideals on his father, returned the Colosseum to the center of the Roman cultural experience.

The film begins in 180 AD in Germania. The Germanic tribes have sent back a Roman emissary without his head. General Maximus (Crowe) leads his troops against the barbarians with Shakespearean words of inspiration. It is a fiery and brutal battle. The Romans win the day, and the emperor is most grateful to Maximus. Commodus arrives on the front too late for the battle, with his sister, Lucilla. He is politely snubbed by his father.

The Emperor and his general meet in the royal tent, and talk of republic. Commodus is not to rule upon his father’s death; he is not worthy, and Maximus has the job pressed upon him. He wishes only to return to his farm and his family. There is a painful scene between father and son, when Commodus is informed that he will not be allowed the throne. Rome is to be a republic. It ends with the son killing his father. Maximus cannot hide his mistrust of the new ruler, and for this he is sent to be executed. He escapes, and rides to save his wife and child, arriving too late. They have been horribly murdered; crucified. The fictional story of Maximus has now taken the movie far from the historical track.

The grieving Maximus is picked up by a slave caravan, and finds himself a slave in a gladiator school in North Africa. The school is run by the cynical Oliver Reed, a former gladiator. Meanwhile, Emperor Commodus has returned to Rome where he plays with a model of the Colosseum, which dissolves to an aerial shot of the real thing (simulated). Commodus makes a show of populist motives, and bases his decisions on the principle of giving the people what they want.

Success in the school arena leads Maximus to Rome, the hub of gladiatorial combat. In his first appearance at the Colosseum, he organizes his fellow fighters and defeats a troop of chariot-mounted Roman soldiers in a re-enactment of The Fall of Carthage. Views of the interior of the Colosseum are spectacular. Commodus greets the victor on the arena floor and forces Maximus to reveal his true identity. The gladiator vows to have his vengeance on the man who ordered the murder of his family. The crowd is chanting to let the gladiator live, and Commodus gives thumbs up, then retreats. Lucilla, sister of the Emperor, is drawn to the hero, whom she remembers from the time of her father.

Commodus arranges the ultimate combat for his mortal enemy. Maximus must face an enormous opponent, the only undefeated gladiator in the history of the arena. He wears a silver face mask. When they fight, chained tigers are raised from trap doors in the floor of the arena to harass the combatants. Maximus defeats his opponent but when the Emperor gives thumbs-down he refuses to kill the man. The crowd cries, “Maximus the Merciful.”

The Emperor grows increasingly paranoid, while Maximus hatches a plan for escape and revolt. He will make a run to Ostia on the seacoast, with help from Lucilla. There he will form an army and return to Rome to restore the ideals of Marcus Aurelius. The plan is foiled and Maximus is put in chains. Commodus has learned of the betrayal of his sister and threatens the life of her young son, heir to the throne.

In the end, Commodus confronts Maximus chained in the chambers beneath the floor of the Colosseum and challenges him to one-on-one combat. To assure his success, he runs a knife into the ribs of his opponent. The two fight a pitched battle before the awed crowd and Maximus, though half dead, kills the Emperor. And then he dies. The gladiator is carried from the arena with full honor, while the dead Emperor lies in a pool of blood on the sand. Lucilla delivers the obligatory eulogy honoring the dead hero.

The Colosseum becomes mythical in this film and Russell Crowe nails it when he turns to the rabid crowd in an early scene of murderous battle at his gladiator school and shouts contemptuously, “Are you not entertained?” He is recapitulating the defiance of Spartacus, and calling the core values of Rome into question. Two thousand years later, we are still entertained by cruelty.

The character of Maximus is fictitious and everything around him bends to accommodate the fiction. Marcus Aurelius and his son are real, but the movie dramatically distorts their lives and deaths. Neither man died as the movie says. Commodus was not his father’s assassin. He ruled for 12 years and is most remembered for his eccentric forays into the Colosseum as a gladiator, emulating Hercules. He slew many humans and animals for the entertainment of the mob.

Great care was taken in creating the computer graphics that show the Colosseum in both interiors and exteriors. It is often mentioned that director Ridley Scott was inspired to make this film when he was shown the painting, “Pollice Verso” by Gerome. If you Google this painting, see also The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer by the same artist. This one is set in the Circus Maximus, where Christians are being delivered to the lions or crucified and set on fire.


The Fall of the Roman Empire  (1964)

This movie will be covered in Fall of the Western Empire. It only needs to be noted that the central historical characters are the same as those in Gladiator, and it follows the same storyline.

The only film I have found that places the persecution of Christians in the Colosseum is Androcles and the Lion. It is well-known that Christians were subjected to horrific public torments over the years between the opening of the Colosseum in 80 CE and the Roman embrace of Christianity in the fourth century. In the movies, however, the spotlight has been taken by the persecutions practiced by Nero some twenty years earlier.

Androcles and the Lion  (1952) 

Based on the short play by George Bernard Shaw, this film was produced by a devoted friend and associate of the playwright. GBS died two years before the film was made. The story is set in the year 161 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius. It is a childish and amateurish production that seems more suited to a children’s theater or a Sunday school class. Alan Young plays Androcles (say Andro-klees), an innocent tailor with a very unpleasant shrew for a wife.

When word comes that the Romans are collecting Christians to be taken to the Colosseum, Androcles and his wife escape into the countryside where they meet a lion. Androcles realizes that the animal is in distress and removes a large thorn from its paw. He engages in baby talk with the lion, referring to himself as Andy-Wandy and naming the lion Tommy. When Androcles is captured by the Romans, his wife drops out of the picture. He is now in the company of other devout martyrs. Some of them have been brought from Syracuse in Sicily. Among them are Victor Mature and Jean Simmons who take this film to a different level. Simmons would join with Mature in The Robe (1953). They engage in some pithy dialogue on the advantages of Christianity versus paganism. Robert Newton adds his signature style to the role of a Christian gladiator, conflicted on whether to fight or not to fight. Jim Backus is a centurion in charge of the slaves. Maurice Evans plays the Emperor in his classic melodious style. As might be expected, things work themselves out when Androcles is sent alone into the arena and ends up ballroom dancing with his friend the lion. Here the role of the innocent fool never ascends to anything more than light comedy.

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