A swift overview of the history, design and functions of one of the world’s most recognizable buildings.
Although Hopkins (Ancient History/Univ. of Cambridge) did not live to see the publication of this work (he died in March 2004), his collaboration with Beard (Classics/Univ. of Cambridge) is a happy one. Part of Harvard University Press’ “Wonders of the World” series, this volume does well what all such summary works should do: tell a compelling story, correct historical errors and common misconceptions, animate readers to pursue the subject further. The authors begin with some comments from a Victorian guidebook, then whisk us through some well-known literary works that involve the Colosseum (The Marble Faun, The Innocents Abroad). They also refer occasionally to popular culture—Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000), Paul McCartney’s 2003 concert in the ruin—and they endeavor, always, to keep in mind that most readers are not classical scholars. We learn that colosseum is a medieval term (the Romans called it the “Amphitheatre” or the “Hunting Theatre”); that Nero neither sat nor fiddled there (it was erected after his death); and that there is no contemporaneous evidence that Christians ever fed lions there (these accounts were written some centuries later). The authors explore what is known about gladiatorial combat, pointing out that there is more to these deadly contests than Hollywood would have us believe. It’s not definite, for instance, which way the Romans turned their thumbs to signal life or death. The authors attempt to explain the overall design of the building (above and below ground), but their efforts are hampered not only by the great ongoing debate about that very complex question but also by an insufficient number of supporting illustrations. A final chapter offers practical information for tourists.
Brisk and illuminating, with much surprising information.