Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Concerning NOVA on Colosseum

This is from one of my own old slides,  probably from the 1980s.  It does show the whole oval at one of the rare times when it wasn't covered, as for some performance.

These are both very old textbook diagrams, old enough to have been in the early editions of Bannister and Fletcher, but they are just scans from my teaching files and were taken from old slides that didn't bother to cite the sources.  Not that they are bad, though.

Some Ineluctable Questions 
Quite rightly, NOVA presumes no previous knowledge; their historical archaeology pages themselves can serve as invitations to study the subjects.  So the following are offered just because it is useful to have them at hand, in a medium that holds still and provides a different context.
•• On the relationship of Vespasian's Amphitheater (in the parts of it covered in the NOVA program), to parts of Nero's Domus Aurea, see (in the second volume of the Pelican History of Art's 1994 pb edition), J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture, pp. 59–61 and for the site of the artificial lake fig. 26, also for the position of the colossal statue of Sol which gave the Flavian amphitheater its nickname).
•• For a good, convenient translation of the original texts relevant to the Domus Aurea, pp. 140–144 and to the Flavian works, pp. 153, ff, and for the key passage from Martial, p. 158, see J. J. Pollitt, The Art of Rome (in the Sources and Documents series).  It is better to read through the whole section for Flavian architecture.
•• For a good picture of Roman contractors at work, with pulleys and all, see the relief from the Tomb of the Haterii (itself late Flavian).  This is a little hard to interpret literally, but should be considered if you have any doubts about how Roman builders might work.  It is illustrated, full-page, in the first edition (1991)—but not later ones—of the Ramages' fine textbook, Roman Art, fig. 5.16.
Though a NOVA program is not very long, this one could edit all its general Social Studies comment and gain at least 10 minutes without losing anything germane to historical engineering and architecture; background if desired for middle-school use should be relegated to the web site.

I found the study by Heinz Beste (of the DAI, Rome) and the work of the engineers who realized it so interesting that I promptly recommended the program to all my like-minded friends.  Then, awaking in the middle of the night as persons of my age often do, the questions began to arise.
  • Do any of the other large, Imperial amphitheaters have such deep and complicated hypogaea as the Colosseum?  Did the program even mention the artificial lake (yes, in passing), let alone its practical relevance?
  • Why was the hydrologist who discovered that the huge water tunnels found while digging the new Metro line led straight to the Colosseum so surprised?  Why were the scriptwriters for the program surprised when experiment showed that (after a major cloudburst filled the Colosseum) opening these tunnels emptied it so rapidly that a morning naumachia could be followed by afternoon chariot races?  (I had to wonder whether the hydrologist really had been surprised).
  • Why was the geographical site for the find of gladiators' skulls that clearly had been perforated by the trident-like weapons not named?
  • Why was the dedicatory inscription of Vespasian changed much later in the Empire—I'm sure this is known. and young people are going to want to ask?  And why not show one or more of the other inscriptions that, now lacking their bronze letters, have been convincingly elucidated by the study of the holes in which the bronze letters were pinned?
  • What is the evidence for saying that the funds for Vespasian's amphitheater, finished and dedicated by Titus, came from booty, from Titus's sack of Jerusalem?  All due respect to David and Solomon, could anything in Jerusalem have been rich enough for that job?  Even if Titus hadn't been building new Baths and restoring central Rome after another great fire—and all this in the space of his two-year reign.  
I'd never fuss about details in the answers to such questions.  What bothers me is that questions that hold together the whole presentation weren't even raised.  If other amphitheaters were not so large and deep, doesn't Nero's lake come into the question?  I can't pretend to have checked every big amphitheater, and probably most had a tunnel or two for delivering animals (old Greek theaters sometimes have a tunnel for some deus ex machina). Considering all the Imperial waterworks hereabout,  how can supplying the naumachiae have been a problem, anyway?  The Romans were masters of water management.  Why, even the Hellenistic Greeks were good at it.

It is good to consider the Colosseum as part of Flavian history.  Problem is, they failed to do so.  OK, babble if you wish about the populus participating in the glory of Rome.  But not at the expense of the purported subject of the TV program.  And not using those last-century illustrations of gladiatorial sport that used to be in all the Latin I textbooks.  If you want some extra images, the Circus Maximus is available near by.  You could even go to Piazza Armerina  (though it is confusing to use it, or North African mosaics, as if the Games in Rome were just the same, necessarily).

The readers should study this program for themselves, which is so good a beginning to figuring out how the animals actually were managed (not only how they were brought up to the arena level).  Having done Heinz Beste's part so well, it is a shame that they wasted footage on the sort of stuff that tour guides rejoice in.  How does it happen?  Without any authority I suggest that parts of three essays (on Heinz Beste's work, on the Austrian work on the wounds and weapons of real gladiators, and on the waterworks of central Rome) were available, and the editors / writers who put it together were neither well informed nor closely supervised, while the professor who spoke of the Romans in general may not have truly collaborated with any of the others.
In sum, as so often when one is disappointed in a newly published book, this is a program without an author.
P.S.  I learned how to stream the program and must report that Heinz Blest is an architect rather than an engineer and that the person who provides most of the interpretive narrative is Katherine Welch of NYU.  Also, the later dedicatory inscription is dated to the 5th century.  And it is not to imply that they are wrong that I posted this but to share questions.