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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‘Pompeii’ – A Poem by Jenn Blair

Pompeii aerial 2

When it comes to the Roman Empire, few things fascinate us as much as the destruction of Pompeii and the host of archaeological treasures that have been preserved by Mt. Vesuvius’s pyroclastic eruption.

We’ve all read the books, and seen the documentaries, artistic recreations, and recent film that have attempted to bring this ancient city back to life. They help us to understand, and live safely through, one of the greatest cataclysms in Roman history.

Pompeii movie poster

Pompeii movie poster

When I think of Pompeii, some of the first things that come to mind are the frescoes of the newly-restored Villa of Mysteries, the Temple of Apollo in the forum, or the Great Lupanar, Pompeii’s largest brothel. The artistic and architectural treasures that have been preserved by the ash are myriad.

Fresco from Pompeii's Villa of Mysteries

Fresco from Pompeii’s Villa of Mysteries

However, it is the people of Pompeii that haunt me most.

Unlike neighbouring Herculaneum, where the populace seems to have escaped, Pompeii’s ruins were littered with human remains.

Many of you will recognize the shades of these fallen Pompeians from the plaster casts that now represent them.

In 1863 the head archaeologist at Pompeii, Giuseppe Fiorelli, noticed unusual voids in the ash layer of the site. He realized that these voids contained human remains, and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into the spaces to recreate the forms of Vesuvius’s victims.

A Pompeian Family

A Pompeian Family

These are the most haunting artifacts Pompeii has to offer: its people.

Today I have something very special to share with you.

My friend and fellow author, Jenn Blair, recently had a triad of poems about events that took place on February 3rd, 1863 published in The Cossack Literary Journal.

The first of these poems is entitled ‘Pompeii’, and the first time I read it I knew I had to share it with you.

It takes us back in time to the excavations of Pompeii and gives us an intimate glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of Guiseppe Fiorelli:

February 3, 1863

Pompeii

The wells went dry. But they did not suspect, even then,

walking, to prayers, to market – swimming along in

strange morning light whose quality was already

changing. I kneel down and fish out the bones carefully,

with slender tongs, before pouring gesso in the hardened ash.

Some sculpt out of the air, but I persist in believing there are

forms already present, absences which are too telling-

a chance to become intimate with curdled hands or

even the downcast eyelashes of the woman and man

and child long ago cast down. Perhaps they will have

amulets and goddesses in arm, or perhaps they will

hold nothing, except themselves, that one last possession,

all limbs pulled in as if to ask the gods for respite now

that their small bodies inhabit even tighter boundaries.

Frescoes, vases, temples, carbonized loaves of bread: important.

But enough of artifacts. I want to see a living face.

Uncovering the Dead of Pompeii

Uncovering the Dead of Pompeii

I love this poem.

Having worked as an archaeologist, I remember getting excited about ancient people’s rubbish, about broken pots, coins, and crushed decorations, but in reading Jenn Blair’s poem above, I imagine the great sadness that must have descended on Fiorelli as he unearthed his plaster casts of the dead.

Uncovering the people of Pompeii was not like discovering an intentional burial, where the dead are at peace, surrounded by prized grave goods.

In Pompeii, when the bodies were unearthed, they appeared in pain and despair, “all limbs pulled in as if to ask the gods for respite…”

Pompeii and its disaster will, I feel sure, fascinate and haunt us for generations to come.

Vintage Postcard of Pompeii

Vintage Postcard of Pompeii

Be sure to CLICK HERE to read the rest of Jenn Blair’s February 3, 1863 poems to find out what else was happening on that date as the people of Pompeii finally came into the light of day…

Thank you for reading.

Jenn Blair

Jenn Blair

Jenn Blair has published work in the Berkley Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, Superstition Review, Kestrel, Cold Mountain Review, Blood Orange Review, Tusculum Review, New Plains Review, Tidal Basin Review, Southloop Review, Clockhouse Review, and The Newtowner among others. Her prose manuscript Human Voices was a finalist for Texas Review Press’s 2014 George Garrett Prize. She teaches at the University of Georgia and lives with her family in Winterville, GA.

Be sure to check out Jenn’s poetry chap books too at the links below:

All Things are Ordered : from Finishing Line Press, and Amazon

The Sheep Stealer : from Hyacinth Girl Press

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The Ruin – An Anglo-Saxon Poem of the Past

Ruins of the Roman Baths

Ruins of the Roman Baths

When I write about history my work is inspired by human behaviour and the people of the past, but a large part of my inspiration comes from the remains of civilizations that I have seen.

Whenever I have been fortunate enough to travel, the memories of my visits to ancient and medieval ruins have stayed with me as a sort of vivid library of information and emotion through which I can browse whenever I need to.

Often, sites will give me a particular feel or ‘vibe’ for lack of a better term. I can well imagine the voices of a crowded agora, or the cheers of a packed amphitheatre. You can’t help it. The past speaks to you in these places.

Roman Bath

Roman Bath

The other day I read a fragment of an 8th century old-English Saxon poem called ‘The Ruin’. This fragment, which survives from the Exeter Book, is a sort of elegy for the Roman city of Bath. It is incomplete, but very interesting to read, even a little sad. Here it is in translation:

 

The Ruin

Wondrous is this foundation – the fates have broken

and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.

The roofs are ruined, the towers toppled,

frost in the mortar has broken the gate,

torn and worn and shorn by the storm,

eaten through with age. The earth’s grasp

holds the builders, rotten, forgotten,

the hard grip of the ground, until a hundred

generations of men are gone. This wall, rust-stained

and moss-covered, has endured one kingdom after another,

stood in the storm, steep and tall, then tumbled.

The foundation remains, felled by the weather,

it fell…..

grimly ground up ….

……cleverly created….

…… a crust of mud surrounded …

….. put together a swift

and subtle system of rings; one of great wisdom

wondrously bound the braces together with wires.

Bright were the buildings, with many bath-houses,

noble gables and a great noise of armies,

many a meadhall filled with men’s joys,

until mighty fate made an end to all that.

The slain fell on all sides, plague-days came,

and death destroyed all the brave swordsmen;

the seats of their idols became empty wasteland,

the city crumbled, its re-builders collapsed

beside their shrines. So now these courts are empty,

and the rich vaults of the vermilion roofs

shed their tiles. The ruins toppled to the ground,

broken into rubble, where once many a men

glad-minded, gold-bright, bedecked in splendor,

proud, full of wine, shone in his war-gear,

gazed on treasure, on silver, on sparking gems,

on wealth, on possessions, on the precious stone,

on the bright capital of a broad kingdom.

Stone buildings stood, the wide-flowing stream

threw off its heat; a wall held it all

in its bright bosom where the baths were,

hot in its core, a great convenience.

They let them gush forth …..

the hot streams over the great stones,

under…

until the circular pool …. hot…

…..where the baths were.

Then….

….. that is a noble thing,

how …. the city ….

 

(translation by R. M. Liuzza)

The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book

I’ve often wondered what people in the Middle Ages might have thought of the Roman ruins that were all around them. They probably used the Roman roads (and we still do today!), walls, foundations, and town plans, but I had never really read a primary medieval source that lamented the ruins of Rome’s past in Britain in such a way.

Artist's reconstruction of Aquae Sulis

Artist’s reconstruction of Aquae Sulis

I have to admit that I was a little surprised to read ‘The Ruin’ and detect a hint of sadness as the poet describes what remains of the once-great town of Aqae Sulis. I feel as though he is expressing how I might have felt seeing that wondrous, crumbling city.

The poet has resuscitated Roman Bath for us at a moment in time, after the days of its glory. I can see the grass growing out of the cracks of the paving slabs, and the moss filling the spaces where mortar has crumbled from walls. I can hear ravens cawing from atop the city’s carcass as terra cotta roof tiles slither and slide from their perches to crash on the ground below.

This is yet another interesting perspective to keep in mind when visiting ancient sites – how might other people in history have viewed these places, depending on the perspective of their own age in time?

It’s something worth thinking on.

Thank you for reading!

Let us know what you think about this poem by leaving a comment below.

Anglo Saxon poet

Anglo Saxon poet

If you want to hear what the poem sounds like in old-English, here is a video of a young historian reading it. She speaks for about a minute before she starts reading the poem, but hang in there. It’s well worth the wait! What a beautiful language.

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