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The Glory and Horror of the Roman Colosseum

Similar to the first time I saw a Seahawks game at Century Link Field, goose bumps raced down my neck and through my arms as I felt an indescribable excitement for what I was about to see. This was the day marked on my calendar long ago when I was accepted to study abroad in Italy. Considered one of the greatest places of history known to mankind, it was built nearly 2,000 years ago under the Flavian Emperors, and took eight and a half years to complete. Today was finally the day I would stand inside the great Roman Colosseum.

Of all the incredible historical sights in Italy, this is the one I found most fascinating. Funny, I remember standing in what is left of the Colosseum, listening as the tour guide explains the history behind it … I felt conflicted. It was impossible not to marvel at the creation of the place that exemplified the glory of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, it was a rather eerie feeling to be standing in an arena that is estimated to have taken roughly 500,000 lives from the days of both gladiator battles and human sacrifice. To put that number in perspective, that is roughly the same number of Americans who lost their lives in both World War I and World War II combined. Worse, these poor souls who died in the Colosseum did so with virtually no chance of long term survival, as avoiding death one day likely meant facing an equally gruesome task another day.

Despite the terrible things that occurred in the Colosseum, it was impossible to not acknowledge the beauty and significance of the building. Two thousand years ago mankind proved itself capable of building something so significant that people to this day visit from all around the world for a chance to see it. The structure is not what it once was as people, earthquakes, and other forces of nature have ravaged this once pristine building. Still, it is easy to imagine this arena hundreds of years ago filled with a bloodthirsty audience of 50,000-80,000 cheering for a battle to the death. This was a sport to the Romans. The Colosseum was the blueprint for the sports arenas that would come several hundreds of years later. You can still see the connections modern day sports and the gladiator days. The University of Southern California has one of the richest histories in all of college football, and the name of their stadium? The Colosseum.

Whether the Colosseum deaths were those of gladiators, Christians, or animals, their primary purpose was solely for entertainment. Therein lies the moral conflict I was having on this unforgettable day. I thought to myself that this has to be the only spectacle in the world where a place that was responsible for a half million human deaths remains celebrated today as a popular sightseeing destination. Countless people wait eagerly in line to pay hefty sums of money just to walk through and admire the remains of this place. This is an everyday occurrence with hundreds of people waiting for their chance to see the great Colosseum, scalpers everywhere trying to make a quick buck at the expense of the tourists. Upon leaving, I walked out to a balcony looking out onto the arena. I think to myself, could there be another place on this planet that has seen more deaths than here?

Why was the glory of this place the only thing people remember? Has history been blurred by the media’s portrayal of gladiators and the Colosseum? Hollywood blockbuster movies such as “Gladiator” by Ridley Scott convey gladiators to be talented fighters, who earn their glory with their mounting victories. While this movie is loosely based on a true story, the portrayal of gladiators is mostly exaggerated. Gladiators were mostly slaves and were looked down upon by the social classes above them. The Christians were faced with near impossible tasks, such as fighting a lion with nothing more than a wooden sword. Are we so far removed from this history that we as a society refuse to acknowledge the prevalent evil that occurred in this building?

It got me thinking. As I lay in bed the night after visiting the Colosseum, I wondered if our society celebrates anything that injures, maims or in extreme cases, even kills people for our entertainment? Of course not, as today we are much more civilized. We go to unprecedented lengths to teach our children that hurting others physically, mentally, or emotionally is not right. However, I considered America’s love of competition, especially violent sports. Boxing and mixed martial arts are the first that came to mind. Although rare, several people have died in boxing arenas, and with the recent surge of popularity in the gruesome, bloody sport of Mixed Martial Arts, few could doubt that deaths are in its near future. Beyond that are the countless others who have suffered from long-term effects of these sports. Muhammad Ali, considered by many to be the best boxer of all time, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 42. While doctors say it is unclear if boxing caused this disease, it is hard to imagine that the repeated blows to his head had nothing to do with it. Although MMA does not have the number of known fighters with long-term injuries, the sport is relatively new. The smaller gloves and sheer savagery of the sport are sure to bring about former athletes with severe and life-altering injuries. The difference from the gladiators hundreds of years ago is that present day athletes are looked up to and admired by our society. They are rewarded handsomely with millions of dollars to compensate them for their sacrifice in exchange for our entertainment.

If that is not enough, consider America’s most popular sport, football. Despite rule changes in the NFL that are designed to make the sport safer, players continue to suffer serious injuries, including head injuries/concussions that have been known to all but destroy some former players’ lives. So serious are these head injuries that several former players, including Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Mike Webster, have committed suicides that doctors believe were attributable to depression brought on by repeated head injuries sustained in their NFL playing days. The NFL and its Players Association recently agreed to a $765 million settlement, which is sure to be only the tip of the iceberg in what is likely to be an ongoing legal battle between the players and the league for years to come. Through it all, the NFL is more popular than ever. America clamors for its modern day gladiators.

Now, I remember the day I first saw the Roman Colosseum and the goose bumps that accompanied that sight. I wonder if some day far into the future people will look at our current athletic stadiums and arenas with goose bumps … and remember the injuries, the maiming, the horrors that we so zealously cheer for today.

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