Book review: The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins & Mary Beard

From the glory days as one of the Roman Empire’s most iconic arenas to a manure dump and a glue factory, the Colosseum has witnessed almost 2,000 years of incredible history within its bulky walls.

The architectural wonder still towers over Rome and in its heyday held more than 50,000 spectators, all of them hungry to watch the deadly gladiatorial games.

It now attracts four million tourists a year and over the centuries has been visited by the likes of Lord Byron, Mark Twain and even Adolf Hitler who was entranced by the building and saw in its design a model for his mass gatherings.

Functional as well as awe-inspiring, the Colosseum could disgorge its thousands of spectators in less time than most modern football stadiums.

Hopkins and Beard’s newly revised and updated illustrated history of Rome’s greatest arena tells how it was built, looks at the gladiators who fought there and the emperors who staged the games and reveals its strange afterlife as a fort, store, church and botanical garden among others.

Lively, quirky and full of fascinating anecdotes, The Colosseum offers a new perspective on one of the world’s most blood-soaked amphitheatres which took just eight years to build, opened in AD 80 and would cost£28.5 million in today’s money just to build the foundations.

Cambridge Classics Professor Beard has become adept at busting many of the myths that have grown up around some of our ancient monuments and the Colosseum gets similar treatment.

There is no evidence, she and co-author, the late Cambridge ancient history professor Keith Hopkins, assert that gladiators saluted the emperor with the phrase ‘Hail Caesar. Those who are about to die salute you’ and there are no genuine records of any Christians being put to death in the Colosseum.

And visitors can often be disappointed, they warn, because although the outside walls are an amazing sight, inside there is the disconcerting vista of ‘a jumble of dilapidated stone and rubble’.


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But rubble or not, this ancient piece of architecture is steeped in was here that each stratum of imperial Rome played out its role.

The emperor seduced enthusiastic crowds with the prospect of violent death, the elite paraded their status and sealed deals, alliances and marriages, and the crowd used their power as the people to chant for the end of wars or simply more shows.

It played a pivotal role in Roman political life; to be there, to be seen there and to watch others there was to be at the heart of the empire.

With a final chapter that offers invaluable advice and notes to the 21st century tourist, this is the perfect illustrated guide to the Colosseum both past and present.


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(Profile, paperback, £8.99)