The Colosseum: First Impressions and Edgar Allan Poe

We all have our memories of first impressions – of people, of feelings, of almost every activity we undertake or situation we encounter.

For me, the first impression of an historical site is always something that is seared onto the memory of my heart and mind. Some sites leave more of an impression while the memories of others linger for a short time before melting away to form part of my broader perception of a period or place.

Back in 2000, one such site that left a titanic, long-lasting impression upon me was the Colosseum in Rome.

I remember it vividly, walking along the thick paving stones of the via Sacra from the Forum Romanum, past the arch of Titus. I was busy talking with my wife when I looked up to find that most famous of Rome’s monuments staring down at me.

It literally stopped me in my tracks.

Prior to that, I had read much about Rome and the Colosseum, but nothing can really prepare you for the moment you come face-to-face with such a creation.

It reached to the sky, arch upon arch, dominating the entire area. The moment I looked upon it, I could hear the cheering and jeering of the crowds, the clang of gladii, and the roar of wild beasts.

This monument of stone and bloody memory came to life, no…exploded into life!…before my very eyes.

It was at that moment that many parts in my books Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra began to take shape. In fact, my first visit to Rome to see the Colosseum, and indeed the vast ruins of the Forum Romanum and the Palatine Hill, helped me to truly understand the might and majesty of the Roman Empire.

I explored that ruin as much as I could from the outside to the interior corridors and sloping walls of the inside where upwards of 50,000 ancients once sat. I was ignorant of the masses of tourists, the myriad foreign languages being spoken, or the hucksters in cheap ‘Roman’ armour who charged unsuspecting tourists for a photo op while groping them.

It was the Colosseum that had us spell-bound.

It was a true wonder to me, and that first impression set me off on a journey into the past that has led me on many an adventure, both creative, cerebral and physical.

In a way, that first meeting made the world of ancient Rome my home.

Model of Ancient Rome

A couple of months ago, I was reminded of my first impression of the Colosseum when reading another work inspired by this magnificent relic of history.

I was reading from the works of that father of American Gothic poetry and literature, Edgar Allan Poe, and came across his poem The Coliseum published on October 26, 1833, in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter.

I hadn’t read the poem before. In truth, I didn’t even know about it.

Of course, I read it and, well, it made me realize that the Colosseum has likely left an impression on everyone across time who has come across it since the inaugural games of A.D. 80.

I’m not going to analyze the poem here, but rather leave you to read it for yourself and experience a first impression through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe

I hope you enjoy…

The Coliseum

By Edgar Allan Poe

Type of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary
Of lofty contemplation left to Time
By buried centuries of pomp and power!
At length- at length- after so many days
Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst,
(Thirst for the springs of lore that in thee lie,)
I kneel, an altered and an humble man,
Amid thy shadows, and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory!

Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!
I feel ye now- I feel ye in your strength-
O spells more sure than e’er Judaean king
Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!
O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee
Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the horned moon,
The swift and silent lizard of the stones!

But stay! these walls- these ivy-clad arcades-
These moldering plinths- these sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures- this crumbling frieze-
These shattered cornices- this wreck- this ruin-
These stones- alas! these grey stones- are they all-
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?

“Not all”- the Echoes answer me- “not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,
As melody from Memnon to the Sun.
We rule the hearts of mightiest men- we rule
With a despotic sway all giant minds.
We are not impotent- we pallid stones.
Not all our power is gone- not all our fame-
Not all the magic of our high renown-
Not all the wonder that encircles us-
Not all the mysteries that in us lie-
Not all the memories that hang upon
And cling around about us as a garment,
Clothing us in a robe of more than glory.”

The Coloseum c.1870 (Wikimedia Commons)

Isn’t that wonderful?

If you have had the chance to visit the Colosseum yourself, please do tell us what your own first impressions of it were in the comments below.

Thank you for reading.

 

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The World of Killing the Hydra – Part III – Thugga: Walking through a Roman Ghost Town

The World of Killing the Hydra

We’re heading back into the province of Africa Proconsularis this week with a brief look at one of the best preserved ‘small towns’ of Roman North Africa – Thugga.

I visited Thugga (also spelled ‘Dougga’) a few years ago, when I was doing research in Tunisia for Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra.

I was with a small group that headed out in two 4x4s from the ruins of Carthage, south to Thysdrus (El Jem), across the great salt plains of Chott El Jerid and into the soft, sand-seas of the Sahara.

douz-desert

When we turned north again, skirting the edge of the guarded Algerian border, we came once more into the lush plains of northern Tunisia where grey mountains sprout from green, olive-dotted valley floors, and where low clouds hovered comfortably around their peaks in what was the mildest January I’ve ever experienced.

The countryside was beautiful and lonely, and I missed the desert dunes very much by that point, our time in the South having been all-too-short.

Countryside of Northern Tunisia

Countryside of Northern Tunisia

Admittedly, I had not heard of our next destination, ‘the place of Dougga’ as our guide called it. Our truck pounded along the winding, potted roads, climbing higher and higher, the land getting greener by the mile.

I also had a fever at this point in the journey, the result of having opted for what I thought was boiled soup, rather than camel meat a couple nights before.

Quick tip: they don’t boil the soup, and eating it is equivalent to drinking a murky glass of Saharan tap water.

A public latrine in Thugga

A public latrine in Thugga

Nevertheless, the historian in me could not help but spot the distant ruins perched on a hillside in the distance. As we came closer, and the road got rougher, it became apparent that there was much more to ‘the place of Dougga’ than we had been led to believe.

The sprawling remains of Thugga

The sprawling remains of Thugga

This wasn’t a small gathering of weathered ruins – it was a city! Or rather, it felt as such in that lonely, windswept place.

I stepped out of the truck, grateful that the ‘Couscous Beats’ soundtrack our driver had been torturing us with since the beginning of the trip finally stopped. Everything was quiet, but for the wind, and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet as we approached the small, shuttered kiosk.

When I saw no one was there, I wondered if we would be able to get in, and craned my neck to try and see the tantalizing view beyond the gates.

From the side came a man with a shot gun slung over his shoulder. We had just woken him from his obviously important duty. He smiled however, and spoke in hushed tones with our guide who evidently knew the man, or appeared to know him.

Our man turned to us and nodded. “You have one hour,” he said, and the gates opened.

One of the main streets of Thugga

One of the main streets of Thugga

I’m not going to go into the history of Thugga a great deal here – there is an uncharacteristically good Wikipedia page on this site which you can read by CLICKING HERE.

But, before we walk the streets of this Roman ghost town, there are a few things worth mentioning.

Thugga has had a long a varied history of settlement, having gone from its origins as a Numidian-Berber settlement, to a place under Punic control during the ages of Carthaginian hegemony, to a major Roman town, and finally under Byzantine control prior to Arab dominance in the region.

In the first century B.C., the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus mentioned the “beautiful enormity” of Thugga.

The Forum of Thugga

The Forum of Thugga

It is a big site – about sixty-five hectares (about 161 acres) – which makes it surprising that Thugga is considered a ‘small’ Roman town. Its population when it was at its most prosperous in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. is said to have been about five thousand residents.

UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1997, and cited it as the “best preserved Roman small town in North Africa”.

Thugga was a thriving settlement because of agriculture, its location on the fields of northern Tunisia ideal for crops. But its fortunes took an even better turn in A.D. 205 when it was made a municipium by order of Septimius Severus and his son, Caracalla, acquiring the title of Municipium Septimium Aurelium Liberum Thugga. After that, Thugga received more rights and freedoms, and magistrates of the town were made Roman citizens.

Thugga didn’t enjoy the imperial favour that Severus’ hometown of Leptis Magna did, but it did prosper under Severus, aided by the fertile landscape that surrounded it, olives, oil, and grain being key to the running of the Empire.

Theatre of Thugga

Theatre of Thugga

I didn’t know any of this however, as I stepped through the gate of the archaeological site and entered the labyrinthine streets of Thugga as our guide settled himself beneath an olive tree and left us to our own devices.

One hour was not nearly enough time!

Our small group quickly broke apart as people set about exploring the site with confidence, as if they were walkers in some sort of past-life recollection, certain of where they needed to go.

For myself and my friend, it was more a feeling of overwhelm that snared us. The streets stretched out before us in great slabs of polished white and grey stone. We didn’t know where to start, so we headed in the direction of the biggest monument near the entrance – the theatre.

The theatre of Thugga is incredibly intact, and as we climbed the concentric rows of seating to the top, the picture of Thugga became much more clear as it spread out before us.

The Capitol of Thugga - the Temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva

The Capitol of Thugga – the Temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva

From the top row of the theatre I could see the high part of the town with the capitolium and agora beside it, the market place, the curve of one of the main streets passing the baths and going farther down into the residential part of ancient Thugga.

Five thousand residents may not seem like many, but when you look at a sprawling site like this, so quiet and complex, you begin to hear the voices of the past in a way that makes visiting an isolated archaeological site a truly unique experience.

To me, Thugga is a place of ghosts.

At every turn, I felt like I was intruding upon someone – a priest sacrificing in the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, a slave buying supplies in the marketplace, a couple of locals discussing business in the agora, or two ladies whispering in hushed tones in the baths where they stand upon the black and white geometric mosaic floor that was open to the sky. From the marble-framed doorway of a private domus, a mother watches me pass while her child plays on the stoop at her feet… It was the same, everywhere we went.

Inside one of the public baths, mosaics open to the sky!

Inside one of the public baths, mosaics open to the sky!

As we walked around, the voices Thugga’s residents became louder in my ears, their shades passing around me as they went about their daily business.

I was blown away by the fact that this almost completely intact city was just sitting there, deserted, its mosaics open to the sky.

Even more shocking was that as I walked around, the seeds of my story began to take shape in my mind. I saw Lucius walking through these very streets, visiting the temple, the marketplace, being pursued by local thugs.

What I didn’t see was the young prostitute who would approach him on that very street I was walking on, and how she would be the only person who could help him in a time of need.

Wandering with the ghosts of Thugga down the main street

Seeing my characters wander down this main street…

As a writer, it’s a magnificent experience to have your story take shape like that. I didn’t realize it fully at the time as I stepped into the ruins of the brothel, or the public latrine, following the road down toward the second century B.C. Libyan-Punic mausoleum to look out over the valley.

As I stood there, our short, almost cruel, hour hard upon us, I can’t recall hearing any birdsong, tractors in neighbouring fields, or distant cars.

What sticks with me from my time in Thugga, apart from the wondrous physical remains, is the sound of the wind and the ghostly whispers of its citizens in my ears.

It really is one of the most amazing places I have ever travelled to, and the fact that it was deserted was a gift.

View of the lower town from the baths

View of the lower town from the baths

Reluctantly, I climbed back into the 4×4, my fever quite forgotten for the past hour, and the engine erupted, intruding on my reverie, drowning out the voices and the wind.

As we drove away from this ancient ‘small town’, I thought about how much that trip was a journey of discovery and inspiration, and how it helped me to realize that the Roman Empire was much more vast than I had ever imagined.

I knew I would go back to Thugga, but next time, it would be on the pages of my book.

thugga-forum-map

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