Reinventing the Colosseum

People died here.

The trapdoor would open, and out would come a monster—a wild boar, a wolf, a lion, a rhinoceros. The slave or prisoner trapped in the arena had only two choices. Fight or die.

The watching crowd would roar with approval, their blood lust spurred on by the intensity of the battle below. The slaves weren’t people; they were objects. And if they were ever seen as humans, the horror of realizing a fellow man was about to die only made the spectacle greater.

Today, this location—the Roman Colosseum—has been turned into a tourist attraction. Last month, the reconstruction of one of the Colosseum’s 23-foot high lifts was completed, and visitors can now explore the passageway under the monument and see the spot where slaves would use the lift to winch the cage containing the wild animals into the arena.

It’s interesting to me how we turn places where people die into monuments and museums. We only rarely commemorate the places where people live—maybe because bedrooms, living rooms, and marketplaces are not as exciting as arenas and battlefields. And there is, without a doubt, value in learning the horrors of history so that we can avoid them in the present. But I wonder how often we, like the Romans, turn death and gore into entertainment.

(For the record, the following thoughts are musings, not firmly set opinions. I’m not sure I even know what my answers would be to the questions I’m posing.)

The world of writing and news involves an especially fine line in this area, and it’s difficult to tell when you’ve crossed it. I remember several discussions in college journalism classes about which photos or stories were appropriate coverage and which paid excessive or insensitive attention to the tragedy or violence of a situation. I read or watch the news now and wonder why. Why do we follow shootings, beheadings, and bombings so much more closely than random acts of kindness?

When I first read The Hunger Games series, I thought Suzanne Collins did an admirable job of drawing attention to the potential future of a society obsessed with drama and violence. (Unfortunately, I think this message was lost on most of her tween readers who read the stories for the adventure and romance.) However, I find it ironic that the stories have now been made into movies displaying the very violence the people living in the fictional capital of Panem thirsted for.

I’m a writer. I know that every good story includes conflict—has to include conflict. Who really wants to read a story that’s all green meadows, puppies, and butterflies? But I wonder where we draw the line . . . .

Have we fallen into the same trap as the bloodthirsty Romans? Well . . . not the same trap. We don’t (yet) draw crowds of thousands to watch the real life slaughter of a human being. But it’s frightening how many other comparisons we can draw.

I have to laugh a little as I write this. I sound like a stodgy old man, grumbling about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Probably I’m a naïve dreamer to hope the world can be different. Probably . . . but still, it would be nice, wouldn’t it, to cheer louder for love than for hate?

What are your thoughts on the similarities between our culture and Rome’s? Do you think it’s a problem to highlight the violences of the past? Why or why not?

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