Naughty Roman Frescoes Uncovered In Colosseum

Colosseum
Archaeologists working on a conservation project at the Colosseum in Rome have discovered ancient frescoes of gladiators and erotic scenes, Agence France Press reports.

The brightly colored fragments were found on the walls of a corridor currently closed to the public for restoration. The scenes show gladiators being honored with laurels. There are also erotic scenes, although the researchers didn’t go into detail about what they showed.

The popularity of erotic art in the Roman Empire has led to the perception that it was a permissive society. Actually that was only half true. Many Romans were straight-laced and sexually conservative. A good parallel is the modern United States, where a large number of people frown on public displays of nudity or sexuality, while on the other hand Americans produce and consume vast amounts of pornography. Often these are the same Americans. A 2009 study found Utah has the highest per capita consumption of online porn.

Archaeologists are still working on uncovering the delicate pictures and hope to have them preserved and on view to the public by 2014.

Ancient, Renaissance, and early modern graffiti was also found, raising the question of how old graffiti has to be before it stops being vandalism and starts being of historic interest.

The Colosseum has been quickly decaying in recent years, with bits falling off and archaeologists discovering that the building is beginning to lean.

[Image of gladiator fresco from the Roman amphitheater in Mérida, Spain courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Gladiator died because of ref’s error, says archaeologist

gladiator, gladiatorsA gladiator who fought 1,800 years ago may have died because of a bad call from a ref.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over a line in the epitaph of Diodorus the gladiator’s gravestone. It reads, “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.”

The summa rudis was a referee who oversaw gladiator games. Unlike what we see in the movies, real gladiator fights were highly ritualized and had strict rules. One rule was that if a man pleaded for mercy, it was up to the sponsor of the fight (a local bigwig or even the Emperor) to decide if the defeated gladiator should live or die. Another rule was that if a gladiator fell without being pushed down by his opponent, he was allowed to get up and retrieve his weapons before the match continued.

Now gladiator expert Prof. Michael Carter says he knows what this inscription means. His theory is that Diodorus knocked down his opponent and backed off, waiting for the sponsor’s orders to either kill him or let him go. The referee, however, ruled his opponent fell down on his own. He was allowed to pick up his weapons and fight on. . .and ended up killing Diodorus.

Whoever wrote Diodorus’ epitaph seems to have believed the ref did it on purpose. We’ll never know for sure, but it just goes to show that among the countless dusty old inscriptions preserved in museums and archives, there are stories of real people and how they lived, and died. So next time you’re shouting at a ref for making a bad call, think of poor Diodorus and remember that some bad calls are worse than others.

The gravestone was originally found in Turkey and is now in the Musee du Cinquanternaire in Brussels, Belgium. The best place to see where gladiators fought and died is, of course, Rome, where the Colosseum has opened its underground tunnels to show where gladiators, prisoners, and wild animals waited their turn to entertain the crowd. There’s also a well-preserved amphitheater in Mérida, Spain.

[Photo of gladiator grave courtesy Wikimedia Commons. No photo of Diodorus’ grave was available at press time, but you can see a photo of it here.]

Tod’s shoe company to restore Rome’s Colosseum

Rome, romeThe Colosseum in Rome will get some much-needed repairs thanks to the sponsorship of Tod’s, an Italian luxury shoe manufacturer, the BBC reports.

The restoration will cost about 25 million euros ($34 million). The iconic gladiator arena is right next to a busy road in a polluted city, and a subway line runs close by. Many stones have shifted and require bracing, and the whole things needs a good wash.

Don’t expect to see a dramatic change soon, though. Restoration won’t even begin until the end of 2011 and will take two and a half years to complete. The Colosseum will remain open the entire time, although some parts will almost certainly have to be put off-limits on a temporary basis.

Many of Italy’s monuments are in a sad state of disrepair. The problem received international attention last year when several ancient structures collapsed in Pompeii.

[Photo courtesy user AlexSven via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!

House of Gladiators in Pompeii collapses


Italian Archaeologists are enraged at Saturday’s collapse of the House of Gladiators in Pompeii. The 40 ft. wide structure had recently undergone reconstruction work on its roof, which might have contributed to its total collapse during heavy rains early on Saturday morning. An even greater culprit may turn out to be the Italian Arts Ministry. The ministry’s secretary general, Roberto Cecchi, admitted the building hasn’t had routine maintenance for more 50 years.

Now archaeologists, environmentalists, and conservationists are calling for the arts minister to resign and are demanding an investigation.

The Schola Armaturarum was buried like the rest of Pompeii when the nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. There is some debate about the building’s original use, with archaeologists unsure if it was a school, an armory, or something else. A series of frescos of winged Victories bearing weapons has led many researchers to draw the conclusion that the building was reserved for gladiators. Pompeii receives millions of visitors every year and while the building wasn’t open to the public, it was next to a walkway. If the collapse had happened during opening hours, archaeologists warn, people could have been injured or killed.

State prosecutors are already investigating how funding for the site has been used and if there has been any Mafia involvement. Huge cuts to arts and culture funding has prompted a Italian museum strike on November 12.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]