Majestic view? Do you see what I see in the The Colosseum
When Brandon Mitchell, who served on the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial gave his first television interview he said “you’re literally, throughout the trial, watching somebody die on a daily basis.” He noted it was stressful to watch the video of former Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd was unarmed and in handcuffs, lying face down on the ground, and died after crying out that he couldn’t breathe. Eye witnessed to the ongoing stress they suffer for having not done more to intervene. Darnella Frazier, the teenager who shot the video in May 2020, testified that she’s “stayed up nights apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more.” Both Mitchell and Frazier demonstrate what is called the appropriate affect: they are feeling the right thing. When watching a person die we are rightly horrified.
But what if we’re not?
What if watching people die becomes entertainment?
What happens when such bloodsport becomes state sanctioned and taxpayer dollars are used to construct a sporting venue where thousands of people can gather to watch a 1000 people die a year, every year, for 400 years. What would we say about such a place and such a culture?
The nation was Rome and the place was the Colosseum.
What we call the Colosseum was first known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, named after the dynasty of emperors who ruled when it was constructed. Vespasian, who ruled from 69-79 CE, initiated the project; Titus, his older son, dedicated the Colosseum and presided over the opening ceremonies in 80 CE. Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian, completed construction in 81 CE. And how did they pay for it? The funding for the Colosseum came from the spoils of war. Specifically the war with the Jews.
It was Titus Flavian who laid siege to Jerusalem and ultimately destroyed the Temple in 70 AD. The historian, Josephus claims that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, of which a majority were Jewish. An additional 97,000 were captured and enslaved. Upon his return to Rome in 71, Titus rode into the city accompanied by his father, Vespasian, and his younger brother, Domitian. They were preceded by a parade of captives and treasures from the war, including those taken from the Temple of Jerusalem. Leaders of the Jewish resistance were executed in the Forum, after which the procession closed with religious sacrifices at the Temple of Jupiter. With the spoils of the war, the Colosseum was built.
For what purpose? To entertain the people of Rome by watching people die. Some 400,000 individuals would die in Rome’s Colosseum over the next 400 years. Some of those people were Gladiators who fought one another to the death. Others were Christians who were placed unarmed on the Colosseum’s stage as lions, who had been starved, were released upon them like prey.
That stage is now being rebuilt.
People will be able to stand upon it and imagine…
The AP headline about the project reads, “New stage in Rome’s Colosseum will restore majestic view.”
A majestic view? Did the person who wrote that headline actually know what happened in the Colosseum? How can we be rightly horrified at the death of George Floyd and see the restoration of the Colosseum’s floor as providing a ‘majestic view’?
Consider for moment the very concept of a majestic view.
Who or what possesses majesty and therefore, a majestic view? Would not the majestic view at the Colosseum be from the vantage point of the Emperor who sat with his family along the minor axis of the ellipsis – understood to be the best seat in the house. But by design, there wasn’t a bad seat in the Colosseum. Each of the 50,000 spectators was able to see each – every death.
And how did people die in the Colosseum? Let us count the ways:
Gladiators were the main event but there were also wild animal hunts, chariot battles, and at intermission, when the upper classes went to lunch, executions were held to entertain the poorer classes, women and slaves who remained in the stadium. And what might happen were someone to intervene on behalf of life? Well, Telemachus, a Christian monk, did just that. He sought to separate two gladiators as they fought to the death. And the spectators themselves stoned him to death.
This is the stage being reconstructed today. This is the stage described in the AP headline as providing a “majestic view.” One wonders how the Majesty on High views it all.