Friday, March 4, 2011

Roman Arenas

We’ve visited quite a few of the ancient Roman cities in Provence now and they all seem to have the same kinds of ruins: the forum, the circus, the arena and the theatre. They were all built up around 100 AD during the height of the Roman empire for a couple of reasons. One, the emperor wanted to make certain the people knew the power and strength of Rome. Another reason was to impart the culture and values of the Romans to the new citizens. Some of the structures are still there and some are just memories. Probably the most fascinating part was how these monuments have been used over the years.

The Roman Arena in Arles was under renovation but that is not unusual for ancient things in Europe. The entrance had been moved and this caused quite a bit of confusion trying to find our way back out. The exit signs pointed to the wrong place and since all the arches looked exactly the same, it took a bit of walking before we arrived where we needed to be. I think we must have done three loops of the Arena at various levels before finally finding the exit! We were not alone, however, because I saw others asking for help from the construction workers. In Nimes, the arena is similarly laid out but with no construction we were able to avoid the whole “rat in a maze” thing.

Anyhow, that little excitement aside, both arenas were well preserved, although the one in Nimes had a better audioguide tour. During the middle ages, both had been used as a fort and houses were built up inside the walls and lookout towers were built on the outside at a couple of points. We climbed up one of the towers in the Arles arena for the view and watched the roofers across the way fixing tiles. It is ironic how many roofing scenarios we encounter given our own roofing problems at home. These guys were on a five story building and had a long plastic tube hanging down the side. They’d break up the tiles then dump pails full of debris down the tube to land in a loud crash in their truck below. This was good entertainment and we all spent quite a while enjoying the fun. Strangely, the arenas also had a roof back in the day. They had a retractable canvas roof that could be put up to shade the citizens from the sun or rain.

When the medieval types had used the arena as a town, they bricked up the arches to use as walls for their homes. In Arles, some are still bricked up and you can see in the picture a bit above, the gothic window built into one. The town lasted until about the 1800’s when Europe began to become interested in its history. They cleared out all the inhabitants over a twenty year period and then removed the homes and restored the arena. I’m glad they left a couple of the areas bricked up, though, because it is quite interesting to me that the arena had more than one life.

The seating was done by social status and all events were free. The wealthier citizens would pay for the events through taxes or sometimes just as a donation to the city to increase their status. The more important you were in the city, the better your seat and some seats even had names carved into them. The lesser mortals had to get in line early to try to jockey for the best seat. With upwards of 20,000 spectators, it was important to build ways for the audience to flow through the seating areas in and out. Back in the Roman times, fights frequently broke out over seating so the ability to separate people and allow them easy access reduced the violence. This accounts for the many arched entries into the arena which we still have in arenas today.

Arenas started out as wooden seating around a square in town. Gladiators from various training schools would show off their skills to the crowds. It became very popular so the Romans built the arenas. The arenas were based on the same principal as the theatres. Theatres were built against hills to support the weight of the seating where possible. If this wasn’t possible, a large wall was erected using the arches the Romans knew to be strong. Several layers of arches had to be used in order to support the great weight of the stone seats. They put two theatres together to create a circular structure so that no matter where you sat in the audience, you could still see the events. For gladiator fights, this was ideal.

When the events first began, it was a prestigious honour to be a gladiator. The gladiators were almost worshipped and attained star status in the towns. They fought for their training schools and brought their schools honour as well. Gladiators were not soldiers though, and their weapons and shields were different. The events were very popular and would last throughout the day. The beginning of the day was for animal events where people fought lions and bears. Around noon, prisoners and those being put to death came out and were fed to the animals. At the end of the day the most popular gladiator events were held.

It was interesting to me that the mid-day events were not popular. People didn’t like to see the prisoners killed. Some prisoners were tied to stakes so they couldn’t defend themselves. Some were burned. The punishments varied. The crowd left the stands when this happened. Everyone went into the shaded areas of the galleries to get drinks and food and to socialize during the brutality of the massacres. Only a few slaves and poor people were left holding seats for those not there. We thought it was interesting behaviour given the bloodthirsty crowds in the middles ages who made a social day’s event out of going to watch condemned prisoners die.

Another interesting fact was that the thumbs up and down commonly seen in movies is not true. The audience could give their opinion but the final call was left to the editor of the games and most often he would spare the life of the fallen gladiator because he had to pay the training school if a gladiator died. The training schools were paid lots of money to provide a gladiator for the day’s sport. The editor would hold a flat hand up with thumb extended to show the weapon if the gladiator was to die. The editor would hold up a fist with the thumb hidden within to indicate the weapon should be sheathed and the life of the gladiator spared.

It was only towards the end of the Roman empire that the arenas became bloodbaths. The word arena means "sand" and it was used because the arena was filled with sand to absorb the blood that spilled. The sand was turned over after each day to keep the smell down. Lovely, eh?
The training schools were closing due to lack of money and there were no longer well trained fighters so more and more prisoners were used. It was thought that the Christian faith may have influenced the closing of the arenas but it is more likely that there was just a lack of money to support the games.
Today, the arenas are used for bullfighting in both Nimes and Arles. The Nimes arena is the only one outside of Spain where the bulls are still killed. In Arles, the bulls live long and happy lives, often attaining star status themselves. They only hold the events in July and August though, so we won't be able to meet any of the stars this trip.

2 comments: said...

Very interesting...and I love the picture of Rhys and Julia with the Gladiator...Thanks for taking the time to write all this....Did Tom have a happy birthday? With all our chit chat yesterday I forgot to sing to him...he probably got a better sleep...Love Mom

Mynnette said...

Excellent- you wrote things I never knew about arenas AND made it interesting. Did you learn about vomitoriums- the name for the Quick Method od Exiting arenas? Great pictures also- esp of those cute kids. time for ones of you and Tom....Hugs- Mynnette