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In Ancient Rome there were no televisions, no cinemas and no internet to distract the masses. What they had instead was innovation on a grand scale, a monument so astounding that it took ten years, the reign of two successive emperors, and the sweat and toil of 15,000 prisoners of war to complete.

Foreign kings and dignitaries flocked to its arched entranceways, to be seated alongside Roman aristocracy. Above and all around them, the commoners and the rabble, relegated to the cheap seats (free in this instance, but without the prestige or the view). And presiding over them all, the emperor himself, there to enjoy the show, and to display his generosity and the might of empire to the civilised world.

Inaugurated in the year 80 CE by the emperor Titus, the Colosseum hosted the type of entertainment that we can only marvel at. According to the ancient historian Suetonius, 5,000 animals were slaughtered on the first day. Because of the ancient Romans’ love for diversity, and the lengths they went to to procure it, many species went extinct. Lions, tigers, even elephants, were paraded before the crowds, before being dispatched in elaborate and evermore ingenious methods.

The immense construction has enthralled and captivated visitors down through the centuries, perhaps becoming even more of a tourist location since its heyday in the first century CE. Archaeologists have long admired the ambitious design, the work that went into the draining of the artificial lake which was there previously, and the laying of foundations, which by a modern comparison would rival the excavation for New York’s Twin Towers.

To visit the Colosseum today is a unique experience. The exterior, although collapsed and eroded in places, is still awe-inspiring to behold. The original arched exterior, grey with the residue of age and exhaust-fumes, stands as a reminder of the splendour of its day, when its white marble and gold statues would have reflected the sun, dazzling visitors and citizens alike.

What is equally enthralling, and more disturbing, is the purpose of the building itself. Designed on a elliptical basis, the banked seating focussed on the arena, which provided the entertainment. A capacity crowd (estimated at around 50,000) would have gathered to watch a programme of wild beast hunts, the execution of common criminals, and the much-anticipated gladiatorial bouts that headlined the bill.

The gladiators themselves occupied an unusual place in Roman culture. Drawn from the lowest and most despised sections of the population – criminals and prisoners of war – they fought in pairs, or in groups, dressed in distinctive armour to symbolise vanquished Roman foes. Such was the extent of their training that they would submit to their opponent’s deathblow – demanded by the crowd- without flinching, a measure of courage and fortitude often remarked upon by members of the Roman elite.

The Colosseum was the centrepiece for Roman extravagance. Although similar buildings existed throughout the empire (including one discovered in Britain), they lacked the prestige and scale of the construction in the capital. In Rome, the games were conducted with all the pomp and ceremony of today’s global events, like the Olympics or the World Cup.

The winners of gladiatorial bouts were often feted like pop stars and given lucrative prizes. Some even retired, having won enough contests in the arena to earn them the rudius, wooden sword of victory. These fortunate few experienced the same temptations faced by modern celebrities. Bored by inactivity and away from the glamour and excitement of the arena, they often fell prey to the bars, bordellos and gambling dens, passing away in relative obscurity.

Although set in the future, the 1975 film Rollerball has a distinctly Roman theme. The hero, Jonathan E, is forced to retire from the brutal sport in which he has become a star. In one evocative scene, a ruling executive explains that the purpose of the game is to highlight the insignificance of the individual, and to emphasise the power of the state.

The ancient Romans celebrated their heroes who fought and died in the arena, gladiators who remained, at best, symbols of the might of Rome, proponents of a perverse kind of artistry. The Colosseum was the grand auditorium, the stage where these grim spectacles were played out. The watching crowds came seeking and demanding entertainment, but the rulers understood too well, how quickly the entire edifice of rule could crumble if the delicate balance between power and altruism wasn’t maintained.

The poet Juvenal called the state-sanctioned largesse, ‘bread and circuses’, the extent to which Roman rulers went to secure the support of the masses. Politicians and world leaders today understand only too well how precarious such positions of power can be. They only have to look at history to be reminded.

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