Of lions and gladiators and vestal virgins

Roman Coliseum: photography by J Gerald Crawford. You can find more of Crawford's work on the art pages of Caleb and Linda Pirtle
Roman Coliseum: photography by J Gerald Crawford. You can find more of Crawford’s work on the art pages of Caleb and Linda Pirtle

It wasn’t where I expected it to be, although I had no idea where it was.

Photographer Gerald Crawford and I were walking down the sidewalks of Rome, two barefoot country boys adrift in a land where we didn’t speak their language, and they didn’t speak ours, and they didn’t care, and we did.

After awhile, Crawford and I could barely understand each other.

We turned the corner, and there it was.




The Coliseum.

It looked exactly the way it was supposed to look.

Photography: J Gerald Crawford
Photography: J Gerald Crawford

But it was larger than it had been in pictures, an antique in stone and cement, scarred by centuries of death, destruction, turmoil, and intrigue.

The old man said he would tell us about it for a fee.

How much? I asked.

He didn’t understand.

I handed him a handful of lira.

I don’t know how much it was.

I expected some change back.

He stuffed it in his pocket and started talking.

He spoke English better than we spoke Italian, so I guess it was money well spent.

I could write it off, I thought.

I had no idea how much I could write off.

There was a time, he said, when the sand in the floor of the coliseum was red.

With blood? I asked.

No, he said, they painted the sand red.

To fool the crowd? I asked.

No, he said, to soak up the blood.

I read where they threw Christians to the lions, I said.

The Christians said they did, the old man said. The Romans said they didn’t.

Who was lying? I asked.

Both of them, he said. But men did fight each other.


Gladiators and convicted criminals and prisoners of war, he said.

To the death?

Not always, he said.

Why not? I asked.

You play football where you come from, he said.

We do.

What would happen if the football teams played to the death? He asked.

We’d run out of football teams, I said.

Same with gladiators, he said. The man who ran the coliseum had a dilemma.

What’s that?

He had to keep enough gladiators alive so the gladiators would keep coming back, the old man said, and he had to kill off enough to keep the crowds coming back.

That’s the way it is with football, I said.

He nodded.

Time changes. People don’t.

How many people would this place hold? I asked.

Fifty thousand, more or less, he said.  The senators and knights got the good seats. The poor got the bad seats. The women sat way up on top. The emperor had the best seat.

Emperors always do.

The old man grinned.

The emperor sat with the vestal virgins, he said.

Did he ever run out? I asked.

Of what?

Vestal virgins.

He tried.

What stopped him? I asked.

He was an old man, the old man said.

The Christians had been martyred there on the floor of the coliseum, I had read. But God had the last word. He hit the coliseum with fire. He nailed it a time or two with earthquakes. He watched it crumble, and the church stole the stones from the ruins to build the cathedrals of St. Peter and St. John Lateran.

The coliseum has been around since 74 AD. It would have been among the Seven Wonders of the World, the old man said. But it had one serious problem.

What’s that? I asked.

The Seven Wonders had been chosen two hundred years before the coliseum was built.

The jury jumped the gun, I said.

The old man nodded. That’s what I think, he said.

He walked away and took my lira with him.

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