THE FIRST CENTURY of the Christian era probably marked the high point of the games. The spectacles had grown to such an extent that it seemed incredible that they could ever be surpassed. The dictator Sulla (93 B.C.) had exhibited one hundred lions in the arena.
Julius Caesar had four hundred. Pompey had six hundred lions, twenty elephants and 410 leopards which fought Gaetulians armed with darts. Augustus in 10 A.D. exhibited the first tiger ever to be seen in Rome and had 3,500 elephants. He boasted that he had ten thousand men killed in eight shows.
After Trajan’s victory over the Dacians, he had eleven thousand animals killed in the arena. The cost of the games also steadily increased. In 364 B.C., the total cost of the games was $10,725. In 51 A.D., they cost $92,530.*
This was the sum paid by the emperor; no record has been kept of the games put on by private individuals or politicians, but Petronius speaks of a magistrate who was going to spend $20,000 on a three-day show to keep him in office.
* I am computing the Roman sesterce as having the purchasing power of about 25¢ today.
The buildings designed to hold these shows have never been surpassed either for size or for perfection of functional design. The oldest and largest of these vast structures was the Circus Maximus. Although I’ve described what the arena looked like I haven’t said much about the building itself.
It was built in the Vallis Murcia, a long valley between the Palatine and Av-entine Hills which had been used for chariot races from remote Antiquity. Eventually wooden stands were erected, which could be removed after the races were put up on the slopes of the hills for the audience.
The first permanent stands were put up in 329 B.C. together with stalls for the chariots. Only the first tier of seats was of stone; the rest continued to be wood. As a result, the stadium was burned down several times, one of the times being when Nero burned Rome.
After each burning, it was rebuilt with fresh splendor. Julius Caesar enlarged it to such an extent that some historians date the true Circus Maximus from his time. Caesar put in a ten-foot moat which protected the people from the wild beasts in the arena. A stream was diverted from the hills to feed this moat and still runs near the Via di Cerchi.
Augustus is generally given credit for having completed the circus although later emperors continued to enlarge the building. Claudius had the wooden chariot stalls replaced by marble and the cones made of gilt bronze.
During the time of Anto-nius Pius, the stands were so crowded that the upper wooden tiers collapsed, killing 1,112 people. As a result, the stadium was rebuilt completely of stone. Trajan covered the whole building with white marble inside and out, relieved with gold trim work and paintings.
He also added columns of colored Oriental marble and statues of marble and gilt bronze. Eventually the Circus Maximus came to measure 2,000 feet long by 650 feet wide and held 385,000 people—a quarter of the population of Rome.
Constantine gave the circus three additional tiers of marble seats supported on concrete arches. These arches still remain and form part of the foundation for the church of Saint Anastasia.
They were made seven feet thick to support the great weight of the stands. The circus continued to exist through the Middle Ages but was used as a vast quarry, and many of the early churches in Rome were built with stone taken from it.
As late as the sixteenth century part of the structure still stood but now only the site and a few of the seats can be seen.
The Colosseum, started by the Emperor Vespasian in 70 A.D. and completed by his son, Titus, ten years later, was the most perfectly equipped amphitheater that the Romans or anyone else ever built.
As Vespasian and Titus were members of the Flavian family, it was known to the Romans as the “Flavian amphitheater” and it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that it was called the Colosseum because of its size. Unlike the, Circus Maximus (which was open at one end), the Colosseum formed a complete oval.
It measures 615 by 510 feet and the arena alone is 281 by 177 feet. It covers six acres. Archeologists think it could hold about 50,000 spectators although the Romans claimed that 100,000 people saw the shows, packed into the aisles. (Madison Square Garden in New York holds 18,903.)
Its walls originally rose 160 feet high and may have been topped by wooden scats as bleachers. The arena could be flooded for sea fights. It was equipped with a system of elevators, raised and lowered by counter-weights and pulleys, which brought up the wild beasts from their underground cages to the arena at the right moment.
Even today, when two-thirds of the building are gone, it remains one of the, most impressive structures in the world.
The building has eighty entrances; seventy-six were used by the general public while one was reserved for the emperor and one for the Vestal Virgins, a group of chief priestesses whose duty was to guard a sacred flame which was kept burning continuously.
The other two doors opened directly into the arena. One was called the Door of Life and through it the opening procession marched before the show. The other was called the Door of Death and through it the dead bodies of men and beasts were dragged to clear the arena for the next event.
Ivory tickets were distributed for the shows, each one marked with a seat number, tier number and entrance number. Under the stands was an elaborate systern of passageways and ramps so that when you entered the building you were able to go directly to your seat with a minimum of trouble.
The stands were divided horizontally by flat walks (praecinctiones) and vertically by stairs (cunei). The seats were made of marble, numbered, and with lines inscribed on thei marble showing the limits of each seat. Marble diagrams with the seating arrangements marked on them were set in the walls by the entrances.
One is now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Thers were four tiers of seats, the three lowest represented on the outside of the building by a circle of arches which admitted light and air into the passageways. The “topmost tier has now virtually disappeared. The arches of the ground level tier were used as entrances.
The arches of the next two tiers contained statues of the gods, all except¦ the arches directly above the two main entrances which were bigger than the rest and held life-sized representations of a chariot with four horses and the driver.
The first three tiers each had columns of a different type and the topmost tier was solid masonry with forty small windows flanked by ornamental columns set in the masonry.
An elaborate series of sewers carried off the blood and refuse from the arena and the animal cages below it. A system of small sewers led from all parts of the building to one great circular drain which surrounded the Colosseum. This drain, in turn, connected to the Cloaca Maxima, the main sewerage system of the city.
Around the inside of the arena ran a perfectly! smooth marble wall about fifteen feet high made of carefully jointed blocks so no animal could climb it. Directly above this wall was the podium, a flat area about fifteen feet wide where the emperor had his box and the nobility sat, composed of senators, knights and the civil and military tribunes.
There were apparently no permanent seats on the podium. As in modern boxes, the seats (called curule) were movable and the occupants could stand and walk around as they wished.
The podium was separated from the first tier of seats by a low wall. In this first tier sat the rich merchants and minor officials. After that, came the ordinary people.
As a leopard can jump fifteen feet and a tiger can jump twenty, the podium wall was obviously not enough to protect the spectators. However, elephant tusks about five feet long were fixed to the edge of the podium and nets strung along them in such a way that they overhung the arena.
In addition, a bronze bar ran along the top of the wall that turned on a pivot so if an animal did jump high enough to grab the bar, it would turn and drop him back into the arena. There was also a moat as in the Circus Maximus.
The moat was mainly to break the force of an elephant charge. Without such protection, elephants could easily reach the nobility in the podium—as was discovered when Pom-pey first exhibited elephants in the Circus Maximus in 55 B.C. before Julius Caesar had the moat dug.
Iron gratings had been put up for additional protection but the elephants ripped these down and only fast footwork on the part of the emperor and his friends saved their lives.
These precautions might seem enough but most authorities believe that there was also an inner wall of heavy wooden planks running around the arena about ten feet from the podium wall and that the moat lay between this inner barrier and the central part of the arena.
There arc several reasons for believing this inner wall existed. The Colosseum was so vast that there must have been some way of keeping the animals out in the middle of the arena and away from the podium wall—otherwise the people in the two upper tiers of seats couldn’t have seen them because the edge of the podium would have cut off the view.
The natural instinct of a wild animal turned loose in a brighdy lighted arena full of shouting, yelling people is to hug the wall, and scattered references by Roman writers show that the animals in the Colosseum often did just that.
They were driven away from the wall by arena slaves using hot irons or burning straw but there are no openings in the podium wall through which the slaves could have reached the animals. Also, there are many references to the elaborate scenic effects which acted as backdrops for the shows; the animals issuing from artificial caves, gladiators fighting before a painting representing ancient Carthage, and so on.
It is hard to see how this scenery could have been erected and taken down if it were hung on the podium wall, especially as the changes often had to be made while the arena was full of wild animals and certainly the slaves were not allowed on the podium itself among the noble onlookers.
All these facts suggest that there must have been an inner wall, probably made of heavy planks fastened to poles set into the floor of the arena. The elephant tusks carrying the overhang nets may have been fastened to these poles rather than to the podium wall itself.
This inner wall could be painted, or have painted canvases hung on it, representing any scene desired. It may not always have been a board fence but composed of artificial rocks made of lathes and plaster, tree trunks to represent a forest or any other material that the stage designers of the Colosseum decided to use.
The slaves who changed the scenery could operate between the podium wall and this inner barrier. The barrier must have joined the podium wall at the Gate of Life and the Gate of Death.
The overhanging nets couldn’t be used at these two places but Calpumius says that revolving ivory wheels were set into the podium wall at these points to keep the animals from climbing it.
There must have been at least a circle of tall masts in the arena itself, for the great awning which covered the top of the Colosseum to protect the audience from sun and rain had to be supported in the center by some means.
We know that around the top of the Colosseum ran a circle of 240 masts (the sockets where they stood can still be seen) and these masts held the edge of the awning. However, unless the Romans had some very ingenious method for keeping the awning taut, there must have been masts coming up from the arena to take the weight of the great mass in the center.
There may even have been wooden catwalks running across the top of the Colosseum under this awning, as on a modern Hollywood sound stage, for the ancient writers talk of naked little boys with wings tied to them to represent cupids being swung back and forth across the arena by invisible wires as though they were flying.
Often large animals, in one case a bull, were carried up to the awning (which was painted to represent the sky) by invisible wires to illustrate some mythological incident. To make such stunts as this possible, there must have been platforms at the top of the building equipped with blocks and tackles as well as space for crews of highly trained stagehands.
Yet no matter how complicated were the mechanical miracles that these men had to produce, there was seldom a hitch in the performance. If there was, the stagehands were thrown into the arena to be eaten by wild beasts or killed by gladiators.
The games were worked on a very tight schedule and something had to be going on every minute or the crowd became restless. Anyone who has ever had any connection with a modern circus knows what a tremendous problem it is to get the various acts, especially the animal acts, on and off on time.
The Romans were working with wild animals and condemned criminals so their problem was incredibly complicated. They were also operating on a gigantic scale—the games often ran for a couple of months and sometimes five thousand animals were in the arena at the same time.
Getting such a huge number of animals out of their cages and into the arena must have been a fantastic job.
We have a pretty good idea how the Romans did it from studying the honeycomb of passages under the arena. The Romans used at least four systems. The cages could be dragged up to Ac arena on a scries of ramps and then put into niches under the podium wall.
At a given signal, all the doors were opened simultaneously and at the same time slaves dropped burning straw into the backs of the cages through slots in the I top specially provided for this purpose. If there was an inner wall, the animals must have reached it by runways as lions enter the big cage in a modern circus.
Or perhaps the cages were only kept in the podium niches so they’d be ready when the time came. As soon as the previous act—chariot racing, gladiators or whatever— was finished, the cages were quickly pulled from their niches in the podium wall, dragged to openings in the inner barrier, and opened there.
Another method, probably used with less dangerous animals than the big cats, was to turn them loose in a passageway leading to the arena and then force them on with a movable wooden barrier that just fitted across the passage. There were catches on the sides of the barrier that fitted into holes on the walls so the barrier couldn’t be pushed back. These holes can still be seen.
Still another method was to put the animals into an elevator and take them directly up to the floor of the arena. There were a number of these elevators placed at various spots in the arena like trapdoors on a modem stage.
The elevator went down into a deep well, the animals were driven onto it, and then the platform was hoisted to arena level by pulleys. In some cases, “breakaway” cages were used that would fall to pieces when certain pins were released. These cages were carried out into the arena, the pins jerked clear, and the animals left exposed as the sides of the cages fell to the ground.
The Romans also had cages that operated on the same principle as the chutes used in rodeos; that is, the two sides were hinged so that they could be swung back parallel with the rear leaving the animal completely exposed. All these devices were necessary as it is almost impossible to induce a frightened animal to leave its cage under normal conditions.
In addition to the problems of handling the animals, the arena might in the course of a day’s show be flooded for a sea fight and then planted to represent a forest This might be followed by the erection of an artificial mountain complete with streams, bushes and growing flowers, which then had to be cleared for chariot races and immediately afterwards a gigantic fight might be staged representing Hannibal’s attack on Rome—including elephants and catapults plus a mock city defended by condemned legionnaires.
Thousands of slaves must have been employed in these great spectacles and every last one of them trained to split-second timing.
The sailors from the fleet were used to raise and lower the great awning as these were the only men with sufficient training to handle vast spreads of cloth. The places where die awning lines chafed the stone walls still show.