Open Eye: Open View - BBC Learning Zone: Old Trafford fans would feel at home in Ancient Rome

Simon Newton previews one of the highlights of the new Arts foundation course
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If it is true that bread and circuses keep people content then it was the Roman Coliseum where the theory was first tested.

The world's greatest amphitheatre was commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian in AD72 on the site of a lake near Nero's palace. Gladiatorial fights to the death, wild animal battles and Christian martyrdoms were presented free of charge by the emperor and other wealthy citizens for public viewing.

The Emperor's Gift, a programme in the new Arts foundation course, takes a close look at the awesome structure and explains the significance of the Coliseum in Roman society and what it said about Roman power.

Regular occupants of director's boxes at Old Trafford and Highbury will recognise the Coliseum's design based on social power and wealth. The front rows were separated from the rest and were reserved for magistrates and benefactors.

Special corridors led to ring-side boxes. A complex system of different entrances and staircases allocated different levels to different levels of society. Citizens were placed according to rank with women and slaves restricted to the upper tier.

Fifty thousand spectators were protected from the sun by a huge awning which was hoisted into position with ropes anchored to bollards outside the stadium.

Beneath the main arena, a honeycomb of passages enabled lions and tigers to be kept in underground cages, winched up, and then driven along corridors by a firebrand to leap through a trap door to confront the gladiator. Archers stood by in case any escaped.

Often slaves or prisoners of war, successful gladiators became glamorous figures living on the margins of society. From training camps they would be brought to the arena to fight to the death. The emperor's shows would often begin with music and animal tricks before the main feature. When a gladiator was killed, attendants dressed as Charon, the mythical ferryman of the dead, would carry the body off and rake the bloodied sand ready for the next bout.

The Emperor's Gift shows graffiti on a Pompeii wall which suggests the kind of spectacle taking place in Roman arenas: "There will be a procession, a wild beast show, a display of athletes. The awning will be pulled across. Good luck to Nigra!"

Exotic animals were brought from outposts of the Roman Empire in North Africa and the Middle East. Rome demonstrated its command over the natural world by bringing rhinos, tigers and lions to fight in the premier amphitheatre of the Empire.

The games held in 248AD to mark the anniversary of Rome saw the death of lions, elephants, hippos, zebras and elks. The image of Hercules, clearing the land by hand of monsters and wild beasts, became a central metaphor for the Roman conquest of the animal kingdom.

Although good examples of Roman arenas still exist at Verona, Arles and Nimes, the Coliseum remains the finest model for stadia across the world. Even Wembley, built to celebrate the British Empire Exhibition of 1923, copies both the architecture of the Coliseum and its celebratory role.

The Emperor's Gift shows how the Coliseum became a statement of imperial wealth and status. It was a permanent and central reminder of who held power and controlled the known world. Sponsoring shows increased the prestige and influence of those who financed and organised them.

Even commentators such as Pliny and Augustine felt the Coliseum's power and never touched on modern concerns of animal rights or the ethics of capital punishment. They were occasionally concerned with the effects on spectators but never on the victims.

Bede, the English monastic writer, said: "While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand. When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall. And when Rome falls, the world!"

The Emperor's Gift suggests that the Roman people felt much the same.

The Emperor's Gift is shown on BBC2 at 00.30 on Tuesday 11 May.