Tag Archives: rome

No Christians Fed to Lions and Other Things You Might Not Know About the Colosseum

Christians never battled lions in the Colosseum. It is thanks to that  notorious Italian villain Mussolini that the Colosseum became one of the most visible landmarks in the world. Paul McCartney gave a concert in the Colosseum.dave inside the colosseum

We took a tour of the Colosseum in Rome and I learned some interesting things from our guide Elizabeth, a knowledgeable young woman with a PHD in archeology.

Elizabeth cleared up some misconceptions I had about the Colosseum. One of these was that Christians battled lions there. The Colosseum, which was built largely with the labor of thousands of Jewish slaves brought to Rome by the emperor Titus after he destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, was certainly an arena for death.  marylou inside the colosseumThe wildlife of northern Africa was significantly depleted by the three hundred years of savage sport staged in the Colosseum, featuring animals and gladiators fighting to satisfy the blood lust of the up to 80,000 fans in the audience. However, our guide Elizabeth made it clear there is no historical proof for the exciting tales of early Christians being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Historians now believe those stories were invented to glamorize the suffering of early Christians at the hands of the Romans. Despite the fact there are no written records of Christians being martyred in the Colosseum it remains a holy site for the Catholic church and every Good Friday the Pope leads the stations of the cross procession at the Colosseum, commemorating the fourteen stages of Christ’s passion.

marylou outside the colosseumElizabeth also told us the fascist dictator Mussolini despite his villainous reputation was responsible for the restoration and protection of many of Rome’s archeological sites including the Colosseum.  Mussolini wanted to return Italy to its former greatness at the height of the Roman Empire so he designated substantial government funds for the excavation and preservation of the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon and other important ancient landmarks. dave outside the collosseum He staged quite a number of rallies in the Colosseum to stir up nationalistic pride and Italian patriotism among his people.  Mussolini was eventually murdered by Italian partisans and hung upside down for public viewing since he was considered such a disgrace to his own nation.  He’s not a celebrated hero in Italian history but had he not led the country from 1922-1943 I might not have toured the Colosseum.

the colosseumThousands of people visit the Colosseum every year but care must be taken to balance the need for income from tourists with the need to preserve and maintain what is left of the structure. Consequently the Colosseum is no longer the site of huge public events but occasionally special concerts are still held there. interior colosseumOur guide Elizabeth said a few years ago four hundred people paid close to $2000 each to attend a charity concert Paul McCartney gave inside the Colosseum.   Later he staged a free show just outside the Colosseum for 300,000 fans. The money generated from ticket sales and television rights was donated to various charities including one for landmines removal and another to rescue artifacts ransacked from museums in Iraq.

the colloseum in romeI learned the Colosseum has been the site of many historic spectacles in the last 2000 years including rock concerts, papal processions, fascist rallies and gory battles. It’s intriguing to think about what else archeologists might discover happened there and what future events might take place in this famous building.

Other posts about Rome…….

The Catacombs- Myth and Reality

Questions at the Vatican

Visiting Pompeii

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Filed under History, Italy, Travel

The Catacombs- Myth and Reality

Last week the movie Angels and Demons, based on Dan Brown’s novel of the same name was on television. At one point in the movie its hero Robert Langdon is chasing a murderer in the catacombs and it reminded me our visit to the catacombs in Rome.  Here’s what I wrote about it in my journal. 

Our tour group in the catacombs

It’s just a myth.  Movies and novels have popularized the idea that underground catacombs were used as hiding places for Christians escaping persecution. I learned on my visit to Rome this is a myth. My husband and I toured the San Sebastian catacombs, one of sixty catacomb complexes just outside of Rome. Nearly 7 million people were buried in these subterranean chambers between the second and fifth century.

    In ancient Rome burial was not allowed within the city walls so most Romans were cremated. However Christians preferred burial because they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Christian estate owners outside of the city provided land that could be used for burial. In order to make maximum use of the property the catacombs were dug very deep. The San Sebastian catacombs had five levels and stretched 17 kilometers. 

Our catacomb guide

The first thing our guide did was turn off the lights so we could experience how pitch-black it would have been in a catacomb. That combined with the 95% humidity and the overwhelming stench of all those rotting bodies would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to hide in a catacomb for long. While the catacombs were being constructed skylights provided ventilation and light but when the building was complete these were closed. Our guide also told us there were detailed blueprints showing the layout of the catacombs. The Romans knew where all the entrances were. If Christians had tried to hide there they would have easily been discovered.      

Fish symbol on the catacomb walls

The catacombs were big business. People paid lots of money to be buried in them especially in a coveted spot close to a martyr.  Constantine spoiled that economic opportunity when he endorsed Christianity as the state religion, thus ending martyrdom. If families wanted a painting or a special symbol like a cross, a dove or a fish on the rock face near the burial spot they had to pay quite a bit extra.   

Burial room

 We toured different kinds of burial sites. Families could purchase an entire room and be buried together. We saw longer shelves in the walls for adults, although not that long, because in the third century the tallest Roman was only five feet. There were larger arched nooks where seven or eight people could be buried together.  The kind of burial opening that seemed most prevalent was the small one for children. The infant mortality rate at the time was very high.

Catacomb corridor

  The catacombs continued to be used till around 540 when barbarian Goths and Vandals began attacking Rome making it too dangerous to leave the city for burials. It became more common for people to be buried in or near the churches and basilicas inside Rome. These invaders looted the catacombs and many were flooded over time. By the 8th century most of the saintly relics from the catacombs had been moved to churches in Rome and the catacombs were abandoned. They were rediscovered by accident in 1578 but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Italian archeologists began excavating them. This was dangerous work. Our guide told us one archeologist got lost in a catacomb maze for five days and nearly died

Dave in catacombs

Five Roman catacomb complexes have been partially opened and fortified to make them safe for visitors. Mussolini gave control of the catacombs to the Catholic Church in 1929 so they are in charge of maintaining the sites now. Having only seen the catacombs vicariously in movies like Angels and Demons I appreciated the opportunity to tour them in person and learn both the myths and facts about them.

You might want to read some other posts about our visits to Italy…….

Visiting Pompei      

A Bizarre Museum in Florence  

Galileo’s Grocery List    

Michelangelo’s David                      

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Filed under Italy, Movies, Religion