Today on Museum Bites we’re continuing our road trip through ancient Rome via the Cranbrook Institute of Science. Our next stop is Rome’s arts and entertainment scene. From board games to the gladiatorial games the Romans liked to have a good time. Join me for a look at the behind-the-scenes technology used to produce Rome’s spectacular games. We’ll also take a stroll down Rome’s streets to feast our eyes on a popular art form. We begin on the arena floor…
Let the Games Begin: The Amphitheatrem Flavium, aka Colosseum was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian in 72 CE and completed by his son, Titus in 80 CE. Emperor Titus kicked off the Colosseum’s grand opening with 100 days of games. In addition to gladiators, spectators took in wild animal hunts, chariot races, and mock naval battles.
Putting on these Cirque du Soleil type shows required meticulous choreography, an army of staff, and cutting-edge technology. The hypogeum was the Colosseum’s secret weapon. This underground maze of tunnels included animal pens, staging rooms, and elevators. Using a pulley-winch system with counterweights, gladiators, wild animals, scenery, and props could be hoisted up and deposited on the arena floor via one of several trap doors. With the demand high for more spectacular shows, the hypogeum went through a series of upgrades. At its peak in 117 CE, it boasted 2 levels, 36 trap doors, 60 elevators, and a support staff of 300.
Aboveground, the 50,000+ spectators enjoyed a number of perks such as free entrance and free stadium food. A retractable awning called a velarium, shielded fans from the sun and required several hundred Roman sailors to retract and extend it.
On the arena floor, the gladiatorial games played out like an ancient version of World Wrestling Entertainment. Spectators were thrilled by a colorful cast of characters and costumes, except in ancient Rome’s version, the blood and gore were real. Gladiators came in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and gender. Many were slaves from conquered lands. Others were criminals, military vets, and professional fighters who trained in special schools. Some fought with the iconic gladiator helmet and short sword (aka gladius for which the gladiator is named). The Celts entered the games covered in blue war paint, while the Numidians of Northern Africa, battled on horseback using spears and shields. Gladiatrix or female gladiators were allowed to use the same weapons as their male counterparts but were denied body armor.
Emperor Septimus Severus banned women from the sport in 200 CE and the gladiatorial games were eventually outlawed in 404 CE by Emperor Honorius. Since then, the Colosseum has been ravaged by earthquakes, lightning strikes, vandalism, and looting. And at one point was even used as a quarry. Conservation of this extraordinary structure was initiated by Pope Pius VIII in the 19th century. Today, approximately 7 million visitors tour the Colosseum each year.
Fun Gaming Fact: If defeated a gladiator could beg the audience for mercy by pointing an index finger toward the sky. The audience would respond with either a thumbs up, which meant death—Yes, a thumbs up in ancient Rome meant death—or a closed fist signifying a gladiator would be spared and live to fight another day.
Mad for Mosaics: When it came to the art scene, the ancient Romans were mad for mosaics. The earliest mosaics date back to the Bronze Age and the Minoans (c2000 BCE- c1500 BCE) an ancient civilization located on the island of Crete. The ancient Greeks also used this technique, but it was the Romans who transformed mosaics from a high art to street art. Like flashy neon signs, the Romans used mosaics to lure customers in or warn them off. Ranging in style from monochromatic to multicolored murals, the Romans coated their floors, walls, baths, and fountains with these tiny tiles.
The painstaking process of pressing tesserae (i.e., small geometric blocks of stone, glass, pottery, marble or shells) into mortar was conducted by contractors, not artists and thus there is no record of who created many of these masterpieces. Fortunate for us, mosaics are a robust art, surviving even Mt. Vesuvius’s wrath (click on Museum Bites: Pompeii What A Blast to learn more). They are not only pleasing to look at Rome’s mosaics are also a treasure trove of historical information. These ancient pixels depict everyday life in ancient Rome and provide clues about lifestyle, lore, business, and fashion.
Ancient Roman mosaics can be found throughout the empire. Examples of these lovely designs still exist today in Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. If you’d like to learn how to make your very own ancient Roman mosaic click on this English Heritage video clip.
Fun Arty Fact: A wealthy Roman’s version of a selfie was often created in the veristic style. Portraits and marble busts highlighted a devout citizen’s craggy features (think: wrinkles, large nose, receding hairline, gloomy expression). No airbrushed or filtered selfies here. These über natural pieces emphasized a subject’s age and wisdom in order to show off one’s dedication to the republic.
That wraps up our brief look at Roman arts and entertainment. Next week we’ll conclude our Roman road trip with a fashion show. In the meantime, have a great week!