Our visit to Italy this summer found us standing in the Coliseum listening to our guide tell us about the construction of Rome’s first permanent amphitheater, built to seat 50,000 spectators and covering 6 acres. He said, “It has eighty entrances so huge crowds could arrive and leave easily.”
It was completed in just seven years. Below the wooden arena floor there was a complex set of rooms and passageways for wild beasts who could be raised from underneath and set loose.
On the one hand it was one of Rome’s great architectural monuments, with its three-levels built with Corinthian columns on the upper level and half-columns of Doric and Ionic orders on the lower levels. I had only seen the ruin from the outside, before. This time I was able to see it from the inside. What a marvel.
Our tour guide told us in detail about the destructive uses to which it was put, the thousands upon thousands of slaughtered animals and the gladiators who often fought to the death or were killed at the spectators’ behest: thumbs up was a signal to kill. Our guide’s comments reminded me of Edward Gibbons’ colossal work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The guide said, “The barbarity of what took place here was the beginning of the fall of Rome.”
That comment sent me back to Gibbons to try to discern the disturbing connection between the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of America, especially indicated by the huge mistake in Vietnam, repeated with the disaster in Iraq and the hubris that got us there.
It’s interesting to note that the first of Gibbons’ several-volume work was published in 1776. In his memoirs Gibbons said that it all started when he was a young man standing where I stood, in the Coliseum in Rome. There, he said, he felt a deep urge to dig into the history behind the massive structure. He would eventually devote more than 20 years to the project.
Daniel Boorstin says that Gibbons ‘was an amateur in the original sense of the word – he was simply a lover of his subject.’
Gibbons’ work came in several volumes, the first was published in 1776, and the final volume completed in 1787, the year our Constitution was completed. Gibbons’ love affair with his subjected ended when the last volume was complete. He writes, “It was on the night of June 27, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page feeling the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom.”
History repeats itself. Great nations rise and fall. Individuals who rise to great heights often fall hard. The Age of Reason, when Gibbons wrote, was optimistic about our human capacity to think, to break the bonds of what Gibbons referred to as ‘fanatical religion,’ which, from his point of view, included Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We can visit historic sites like the coliseum but we have to journey inward to understand the deeper truths that are still being revealed.