Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gladiators and Tributes

What does it say about a person if one of her travel dream destinations is a place where people gathered to watch public executions in the form of charades, wild animals ripping each other apart, and fights to the death for entertainment? 

Don't get me wrong - I can barely sit through an episode of The Jersey Shore without feeling icky. Schadenfreude isn't really my thing. But the Colosseum has been an item of mystique for me since I was a youngin'. The size, the structure, the history… the way you can be walking down the street in a major modern city, and then boom, it's there.

Cleopatra: A Life, got me amped up to see some of Rome's ancient sites, especially the Forum. It also prepared me for the brutality of its stories. Whatever happened in the Colosseum was yawn-worthy compared to the carnage in the pharaoh's Ptolemaic family history. By the time I passed the gates into the great arena, I was rather freshened up on how sadistic we humans can be.
One thing I learned on the audio tour was how theatrical the events were. Many of the fights were staged as famous battles, and the arena was even flooded for mock sea combat. During the inaugural games, 9,000 exotic animals from around the kingdom - bears, ostriches, elephants, lions - were slaughtered. And one time, after a whale beached on a coastal town near Rome and became a national point of intrigue, organizers of the games constructed an enormous fake whale with a mechanical mouth. When the mouth opened, 50 ferocious bears poured out of it. Timely and fun!
Love those Roman bookshops!

Of course the extravagance mixed with bloodlust made me think about The Hunger Games - not surprising since Suzanne Collins cites ancient Rome's favorite pastime as a significant influence to the trilogy. From the stands where spectators sat to watch gladiators bludgeon each other for days, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that the people of Panem would tune in to see teens do the same. Unless they got mauled by a cheetah first.

On my last day in Rome, The Scientist and I happened to walk by the Colosseum again during sunset, when the light hits it in such a soft, magical way. I did a little digging, and found a fantastic Smithsonian article that makes my audio tour feel like a rip-off. Read it! All four pages, plus the photo gallery. If you liked The Hunger Games, it's pretty amazing/ insane stuff.

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