Politicos Have Built Stadiums for Millennia

April 05, 1992|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,Michael Hill is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

The designers of Oriole Park at Camden Yards have tried to evoke an earlier era of baseball parks that goes back about a century. But the green paint, bricks and wrought iron of that era were actually part of the re-emergence of a 2,000-year-old tradition that had disappeared for more than a millennium.

In the year 70 A.D., the Roman emperor Vespasian was looking for something to do for the people of his city. He decided to build them a stadium -- the Colosseum.

In one form or another, similar decisions have been made by 20th century politicians, and similar monumental structures have resulted.

The Colosseum was only one of scores of such stadiums that the Romans built all over Europe and North Africa in the early decades A.D. You can find them in France -- the best are at Arles and Nimes -- in Spain, Germany, Yugoslavia, Algeria and, of course, throughout Italy with beautiful examples in Verona and Pompeii.

"Part of the process of making a city part of the empire was to build Roman structures, and amphitheaters were such structures," said Lori-Ann Touchette of the Classics Department at Johns Hopkins University. (In the technical jargon of 'u classicists, a stadium is a long, narrow structure used for chariot races; a place like the Colosseum is called an amphitheater, its playing surface an arena.)

The Colosseum was among the last of these to be built, which seems odd for the capital city. "The emperors were afraid that there might be trouble at such a large gathering," Dr. Touchette said, noting that a riot did take place at Pompeii's arena.

"The Colosseum was built on ground that had been what we would call today a terrible slum," she said. "The area was burned in a big fire, the one that Nero was supposed to have fiddled through."

Nero made the the place his personal garden, complete with a lake and a 99-foot-tall colossus of himself, moves that didn't sit well with his successor Vespasian, a more populist kind of emperor.

"He wanted to make a grand gesture of giving the land back to the people," Dr. Touchette said. "Building the Colosseum was seen as doing that."

It was one of the largest Roman amphitheaters, holding somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 people, depending on how many stood. These Roman structures resemble today's circular stadiums -- ironically the ones usually dismissed as cold, modern structures -- but most of them were actually elliptical. The Colosseum's dimensions are 200 by 170 yards. It did have an early version of a dome, a huge cloth that kept out the sun.

Seating was by class -- you went in the entrance designated by your social standing, and it took you to the proper level. Women were allowed only on the topmost level, where they had to stand. There is evidence that the choice seats given to the Roman senators had the names of these season-ticket holders carved in them.

The action on the field was provided by gladiators who lived and trained at a complex next door and entered the arena to fight each other or wild animals. The animals also were set upon one another to entertain the crowd. There is little evidence that Christians were ever thrown to the lions.

"A lot of people react in horror to what went on in the arena," Dr. Touchette said. "But I like to try to put myself in the place of the Romans, to try to see it as they saw it. Just think of the brutality and violence of some of the sports we go to see."

While gladiators did not sign big-money contracts, they did live a dream analogous to today's kids who hope sports will be their ticket out of the ghetto. Gladiators were slaves or prisoners, and the best were sometimes rewarded with their freedom.

They did not perform in regularly scheduled contests, but during festivals put on by the Roman political bosses -- the patrons -- as an expected benefit for their constituents, or clients. The festivals, often tied to religious holidays, could last for days or weeks.

As with sports today, the contests were an important part of day-to-day life. "That's evident from the many images of gladiatorial combat that are found throughout Roman society," Dr. Touchette said.

Gladiators in action were carved in relief sculptures and immortalized on pots and in bronze statues. You can find them fighting animals on elaborate mosaics. There's gladiator graffiti. And, while there might not have been gladiator trading cards, young fans may well have swapped knife handles, buttons and small lamps that came decorated with pictures of their favorite fighters. Some have written names; Bellerefon might have had a season as good as Cal Ripken's.

But as important as the gladiatorial contests were, they disappeared from Roman society with the first Christian emperors around 400 A.D. After the sack of Rome in the 7th century, the Colosseum and its ilk began the journey to ruin status. And their like were not seen again for 1,200 years.

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