A few nights ago, the City of Rome was treated to a revival of the ancient Greek drama Oedipus Rex. While not the stuff of Broadway, or even Appian Way theatre, the play does have its moments, or else Sophocles' tragedy wouldn't have been around for something just over twenty-four hundred years. What makes this retelling unique is its venue, amid the architectural rubble of one of the greatest landmarks in the history of mankind--Rome's Coliseum. Foot for foot, yard for yard, it's probably the bloodiest site on the whole planet, which would seem not at all inappropriate for a play in which a man unknowingly kills his father then marries his mother, who later commits suicide upon this realisation, leading her son to blind himself in retribution for his maternal incest. It's what one might call ancient Greek "tabloid theatre."
The news media proclaims "Oedipus Rex" as the first performance in the venerable old pile of rocks in fifteen hundred years. That's at least somewhat inaccurate. While it's true, the last "games" were held in the Coliseum in 523, bullfights were held there in the 1300s; and as recently as 1951, it was the site of a concert given to commemorate the anniversary of Verdi's death. And before that, during the Renaissance, passion plays were often held amongst the half-destroyed remnants of the Roman Emperor Titus' magnificent arena.
Begun in 72 CE, the stadium held could hold more than fifty thousand bloodthirsty Roman spectators, starting with a full one hundred days of gladiatorial games to celebrate it's opening in 80 CE. Bigger than two present day football fields, the stands once rose 164 feet high; while the oval arena floor, which was the only part of the structure made of wood, covered some 29,000 square feet. Everything about the Coliseum was colossal in size beginning with the enormous, 120-foot tall statue of Nero outside its gates (from which the arena first derived its name 630 years later). Though not completed until after the suicide that ended his reign, nor actually bearing his name, this was very much Nero's kind of place.
The Coliseum is most well known as a death pit. Many of its victims were, of course, wild animals since most of the time the Gladiators won. Even women gladiators played the Coliseum...until they were banned in 200 CE. The first Christian (St. Ignatius) died there in 110 CE. Estimates range from five to as high as ten thousand others followed in his path. The last, St. Telemachus, was martyred within its walls in 404. Since then, nineteen hundred years have not been kind to the place. A lightning strike in 320 began its trek down hill, followed by no less than six earthquakes (the last as recent at 1703) all of which inflicted varying amounts of damage.
But without doubt, the most devastating damage has been done by the Romans themselves, who for centuries considered its ageing walls a handy stone quarry for the building of many present day structures; including over 2,500 cartloads of stone hauled away to construct the walls of the Vatican. What to do with the deteriorating structure has been a perennial problem for centuries too. Proposals to turn it into a church, and later, a cemetery did not mature, but the Coliseum has, at various times, been a woollen factory, a dumping ground for gunpowder refuse, a fortress, a den of thieves, a patch of weeds, and for the past two hundred years or so, a major tourist attraction. And now, with part of its wooden floor rebuilt, but with its seating capacity reduced to a mere seven-hundred, once more the Coliseum is a venue for tragedy, though despite Sophocles' Oedipal plot, not the quite so lethal variety.