A ringside seat for the bloody circus

The Colosseum
February 24, 2006

At the moment, "Rome" has come to mean the TV soap opera Rome , whose main interest lies in what new variety of sexual partnership Octavia can explore or what differently gratuitous form of killing can grace the city's streets. Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard's The Colosseum offers a terrific vindication of this image (though there is more violence than sex, to be sure), supported by an impeccably marshalled but never obtrusive evidential base.

It is beautifully written and highly readable. Theirs is a jaunt through the killing fields of Rome, cast as the biography of the city's most recognisable monument. From the medals used in the modern Olympics (at least until the Sydney Games of 2000) via the romantic panegyrics of the Grand Tour and medieval mythologies of martyred Christians, the authors trace their way through the long litany of images and appropriations of the Colosseum back to the original foundation.

The great amphitheatre, planned by the Emperor Vespasian and dedicated by Titus in AD80, was built to replace the private extravagance of Nero's personal city-centre lake (reputed rendezvous for numerous crimes and debaucheries) with a public extravaganza of bread and circuses for the populace.

The gladiatorial atmosphere of the arena - evoked by reference to all kinds of material remains from phallic ball chimes, street graffiti and funerary memorials to the modern fantasies of Spartacus and Ridley Scott's Gladiator - is particularly well captured.

In his previous book, Hopkins played with presenting Roman history through fiction and even sent Beard (thinly disguised as a time traveller called Martha) back in time to examine first hand what ancient Rome was really like. Here, the two team up, with Beard taking over and completing the unfinished manuscript left by Hopkins on his untimely death in 2004.

The result of their endeavour might best be characterised by reference to the recent discovery of the Colosseum's original dedicatory inscription. This block of stone bears dowel holes into which long-lost bronze letters appear to have been affixed, and can be read - if one measures the holes and joins the dots with enough care - to affirm Vespasian's original order to construct the amphitheatre. Hopkins and Beard are rightly sceptical about whether such joining of the dots is brilliant academic detective work or a combination of vivid imagination and wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, their book - imaginative, lively, learned but wearing its learning lightly - joins the dots of our knowledge according to the expectations of a modern Rome -educated readership with panache.

Jas' Elsner is senior research fellow in classical art and archaeology, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

The Colosseum

Author - Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 213
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 1 86197 407 8

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