View Page: The Colosseum: Power, Brilliance, and Brutality
University of Washington Honors Program in Rome

The Colosseum: Power, Brilliance, and Brutality
Section Six 6 of 7

  Personal Observations
The First Martyr
St. Ignatius was the first Christian to be martyred in the Colosseum. jgglad.jpg
Jean Leon Gerome's Rendition of the Colosseum
The famous thumbs down gesture may not have been entirely accurate. tomas2/obrzk.htm
Commodus' personality was well portrayed in the movie Gladiator. However, contrary to popular belief, he Russell Crowe did not kill him.
This is an artist's rendition of a mock naval battle, or the Greek word naumachia, that could have taken place during the inaugural games of the Colosseum.
The Colosseum has always been a monument surrounded by mystery and legend. In researching this monument, I found it interesting to be able to corroborate or dispel some of these legends and see the extent to which they have been exaggerated.

Were Christians really fed to the lions? Yes, Christians were fed to half-starved lions, burned alive, and hacked to death, but the most interesting aspect of this was that the Christians who died in the Colosseum wanted to die there as martyrs. At that time in the Roman Empire, Christians had a choice to sacrifice to the Roman gods or even have one of their slaves sacrifice to the Roman gods and avoid persecution. St. Ignatius, the first Christian who died in the Colosseum, chose to die for his religion in front of tens of thousands of people rather than escape persecution or die in a less public place. About 3000 Christian martyrs in all died in the Colosseum.

An image of the Colosseum that many of us remember is from the Jean Leon Gerome painting where vestal virgins and the rest of the crowd are screaming with their thumbs down asking the gladiator to put his defeated opponent to death. However, the thumbs down gesture may not have been entirely accurate. Some scholars believe that the gesture may have been a thumb to the throat, mimicking the path of the dagger that the gladiators would use for a swift, relatively painless execution.

Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, had his arrogant and self-important personality portrayed accurately in the movie. Commodus loved to join in the games; he would don a royal crown and cloak to make himself look like Hermes. He slaughtered thousands of animals and boasted of winning over 620 matches as a Secuter, a type of gladiator. Commodus’ fascination with strength and combat even led him to erect a statue of himself to resemble Hercules.

However, much like the movie, Commodus was a coward that was never in any danger. There would often be a large, yet inconspicuous fence separating him from the lions and tigers that he slayed. When a gladiatorial opponent managed to wrest his sword away from him and challenge him to a battle of fisticuffs, Commodus had him taken away rather than fight him.

Another mystery of the Colosseum is the flooding of the area for the staging of large naval battles. Martial describes a large naval battle being held during the inauguration. The water was 5-7 feet deep and the wooden stage was removed to flood the underground area. Recent studies give good evidence that these battles actually took place. Waterproof mortar was not used in the current underground of the Colosseum. However, there are large, unused square holes in the underground providing evidence that a different underground preceded the one we see today. Hydraulic analysts calculated that the aqueducts could not provide water fast enough to fit Martial’s description of the Colosseum filling in just one day. Historians postulate that the water was taken from a lake or river that used to be in the area. Most of the participants of the naval battle were prisoners already sentenced to death. Most of the ones that died are said to have drowned and the survivors were given mercy.