Old Masters Academy

Elegant Art Jokes: THE COLOSSEUM.




The Colosseum, or Coliseum, was commenced by Vespasian, and completed by Titus, (A. D. 79.) This enormous building occupied only three years in its erection. Cassiodorus affirms that this magnificent monument of folly cost as much as would have been required to build a capital city. We have the means of distinctly ascertaining its dimensions and its accommodations from the great mass of wall that still remains entire; and although the very clamps of iron and brass that held together the ponderous stones of this wonderful edifice were removed by Gothic plunderers, and succeeding generations have resorted to it as to a quarry for their temples and their palaces—yet the “enormous skeleton” still stands to show what prodigious works may be raised by the skill and perseverance of man, and how vain are the mightiest displays of his physical power when compared with those intellectual efforts which have extended the empire of virtue and of science.

The Colosseum, which is of an oval form, occupies the space of nearly six acres. It may justly be said to have been the most imposing
building, from its apparent magnitude, in the world; the Pyramids of Egypt can only be compared with it in the extent of their plan, as they each cover nearly the same surface. The greatest length, or major axis, is 620 feet; the greatest breadth, or minor axis, is 513 feet. The outer wall is 157 feet high in its whole extent. The exterior wall is divided into four stories, each ornamented with one of the orders of architecture. The cornice of the upper story is perforated for the purpose of inserting wooden masts, which passed also through the architrave and frieze, and descended to a row of corbels immediately above the upper range of windows, on which are holes to receive the masts. These masts were for the purpose of attaching cords to, for sustaining the awning which defended the spectators from the sun or rain. Two corridors ran all round the building, leading to staircases which ascended to the several stories; and the seats which descended towards the arena, supported throughout upon eighty arches, occupied so much of the space that the clear opening of the present inner wall next the arena is only 287 feet by 180 feet. Immediately above and around the arena was the podium, elevated about twelve or fifteen feet, on which were seated the emperor, senators, ambassadors of foreign nations, and other distinguished personages in that city of distinctions. From the podium to the top of the second story were seats of marble for the
equestrian order; above the second story the seats appear to have been constructed of wood. In these various seats eighty thousand spectators might be arranged according to their respective ranks; and indeed it appears from inscriptions, as well as from expressions in Roman writers, that many of the places in this immense theatre were assigned to particular individuals, and that each might find his seat without confusion. On extraordinary occasions, 110,000 persons could crowd into it.

Gibbon has given a splendid description, in his twelfth book, of the exhibitions in the Colosseum; but he acknowledges his obligations to Montaigne, who, says the historian, “gives a very just and lively view of Roman magnificence in these spectacles.” Our readers will, we doubt not, be gratified by the quaint but most appropriate sketch of the old philosopher of France:—

“It was doubtless a fine thing to bring and plant within the theatre a great number of vast trees, with all their branches in their full verdure, representing a great shady forest, disposed in excellent order, and the first day to throw into it a thousand ostriches, a thousand stags, a thousand boars, and a thousand fallow deer, to be killed and disposed of by the people: the next day to cause an hundred great lions, an hundred leopards and three hundred bears to be killed in his presence: and for the third day, to make three hundred pair of fencers to fight it out to the last,—as the Emperor Probus did. It was also very fine to see those vast amphitheatres, all
faced with marble without, curiously wrought with figures and statues, and the inside sparkling with rare decorations and enrichments; all the sides of this vast space filled and environed from the bottom to the top, with three or four score ranks of seats, all of marble also, and covered with cushions, where an hundred thousand men might sit placed at their ease; and the place below, where the plays were played, to make it by art first open and cleave into chinks, representing caves that vomited out the beasts designed for the spectacle; and then secondly, to be overflowed with a profound sea, full of sea-monsters, and loaded with ships of war, to represent a naval battle: and thirdly, to make it dry and even again for the combats of the gladiators; and for the fourth scene, to have it strewed with vermilion and storax, instead of sand, there to make a solemn feast for all that infinite number of people—the last act of only one day.

“Sometimes they have made a high mountain advance itself, full of fruit-trees and other flourishing sorts of woods, sending down rivulets of water from the top, as from the mouth of a fountain: other whiles, a great ship was seen to come rolling in, which opened and divided itself; and after having disgorged from the hold four or five hundred beasts for fight, closed again, and vanished without help. At other times, from the floor of this place, they made spouts of perfumed water dart their streams upward, and so high as to
besprinkle all that infinite multitude. To defend themselves from the injuries of the weather, they had that vast place one while covered over with purple curtains of needle-work, and by-and-by with silk of another color, which they could draw off or on in a moment, as they had a mind. The net-work also that was set before the people to defend them from the violence of these turned-out beasts, was also woven of gold.”

“If there be anything excusable in such excesses as these,” continues Montaigne, “it is where the novelty and invention creates more wonder than expense.” Fortunately for the real enjoyments of mankind, even under the sway of a Roman despot, “the novelty and invention” had very narrow limits when applied to matters so utterly unworthy and unintellectual as the cruel sports of the amphitheatre. Probus indeed, transplanted trees to the arena, so that it had the appearance of a verdant grove; and Severus introduced four hundred ferocious animals in one ship sailing in the little lake which the arena formed. But on ordinary occasions, profusion,—tasteless, haughty, and uninventive profusion,—the gorgeousness of brute power, the pomp of satiated luxury—these constituted the only claim to the popular admiration. If Titus exhibited five thousand wild beasts at the dedication of the amphitheatre, Trajan bestowed ten thousand on the people at the conclusion of the Dacian war. If the younger Gordian collected together bears, elks, zebras, ostriches,
boars, and wild horses, he was an imitator only of the spectacles of Carus, in which the rarity of the animals was as much considered as their fierceness.

Categorized: Elegant Anecdotes , News

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