The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins & Mary Beard

In the arena of truth and myth
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The Independent Culture

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The Colosseum in Rome remains, as it began, a recreational battleground. Originally, the battles (gladiators, slaves, lions, Christians, elephants, ships) took place within its arena; now they are fought over the thing itself. The physical Colosseum, like all the great monuments of our culture, is no more than the grain of sand around which, layer by layer, the pearl of speculation and appropriation is formed.

Facing this reality, classicists and ancient historians draw up their own battle-lines. On the one hand are those who would scrape away layers of accretion in the hope of finding the original, "true" meaning of the thing-in-itself; and, on the other, those who regard it as almost an organism, altering over time, but remaining itself throughout. Both inhabit a Schrödinger world where the observer changes the observed; but while one side rails against this diachronic depredation, the other, fascinated, studies its workings and, of course, wreaks further change.

Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, in this racy and occasionally confrontational book, try to steer a middle course. It is appropriate that Hopkins, who died last year, is publishing from beyond the grave. He brought to the craft of ancient history his training as a sociologist, which manifested itself as a willingness to trawl through apparently unpromising sources (in this case, second-century Roman taxation figures) to arrive at illuminating conclusions.

He found that there were 16,000 gladiators, empire-wide; and most Roman amphitheatres were used for gladiatorial combat five days a year. There were 4,000 gladiatorial fatalities a year outside Rome, and 8,000 deaths a year in the arena overall. That means about 1.5 per cent of all 20-year-old men dead for fun. To contextualise the figure, around 3,500 people were killed on UK roads in 2003.

Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum was started by the Emperor Vespasian sometime between AD70 and 76, and finished by his son Titus in AD80. Nor was it just the traditional case of an emperor founding public buildings to make his mark and please the people. Vespasian was not only putting up an amphitheatre, but two imperial fingers to his predecessor: the infamous (by then; he started off wildly popular) Nero, on the site of Nero's vast ornamental lake and opposite his eerily vast, and speedily-demolished, palace - the Golden House.

It didn't work, and still doesn't work. Nero is more commemorated than obliterated by the Colosseum, which even takes its medieval name from the giant statue of Nero which stood nearby. And so the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

Byron oozed romantically over the building in Manfred, Dickens thanked God that it was a ruin, the priggish Oswald in Madame de Staël's Corinne "could only see the masters' luxury and the slaves blood", Henry James's Daisy Miller saw it by moonlight, Mark Twain satirised the blood-and-slaughter preoccupations of Victorian tourists in The Innocents Abroad and, mystifyingly, its image served for over 70 years as the emblem of the modern Olympic Games. Or perhaps it's not that mystifying. Outside the Colosseum, you can buy Colosseum snowstorms, but also Parthenon snowstorms. Colosseum and Parthenon: these sites have become our interchangeable emblems of classical antiquity.

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.

In the end, it's impossible to see why some structures become iconic while others remain merely buildings. For me, the stone epitomes of Rome would be the gargantuan Thermae of Caracalla and the tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way, which speak more eloquently, because more liminally, of power and death; and the awful underpinnings of the Palatine Hill as seen from the Circus Maximus. But these are just themselves; the Colosseum is us.

The bourgeois aesthete might see it as whorish, but great monuments are like great whores: they can be whatever we want them to be. That the Colosseum can survive its depiction, on a popular postcard, filled with blood-red spaghetti Bolognese, suggests that it is perhaps the greatest monumental whore of all.

Hopkins and Beard show it to us with the slap off and the meretricious garments slung in the laundry-basket. But they also show us ourselves, the punters, shuffling in the queue with all our different fantasies ready to be fulfilled.

Michael Bywater's 'Lost Worlds' is published by Granta

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