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.



Ancient Everyday – Mirror Mirror

Woman using mirror

I thought I would try a new series of blog posts looking briefly at everyday items in the ancient world.

Historical fiction is often about great battles, political events, and large-than-life characters.

However, one of the things that anchors these stories more firmly in the past are the everyday items that decorate the homes of the characters around whom the stories revolve, or the tools they use without a passing thought.

We might not notice these items ourselves, as readers, but trust me, if they were missing you would get the impression that the story was not quite authentic, or that it was lacking something you couldn’t put your finger on.

I was going through some photos I had taken the other day and saw this one of some Etruscan mirrors in the display cabinet at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Roman and Etruscan polished bronze mirrors at the Royal Ontario Museum

Etruscan polished bronze mirrors at the Royal Ontario Museum

Today, mirrors are things that we definitely take for granted, though I bet we all glance in them a few times a day.

The first mirrors were probably calm pools of water into which people could gaze at their reflections, or crude vessels filled with water. These are primitive, but they are still mirrors.

Polished stone mirror

Polished stone mirror

The earliest man-made mirrors appear to have been made of volcanic glass, or obsidian, and examples of these have been found in Anatolia which date to about 6000 B.C.

Obsidian Mirror from Anatolia

Obsidian Mirror from Anatolia

Polished copper mirrors have been found in Mesopotamia which date to about 4000 B.C., and some in Egypt which date to roughly 3000 B.C.

Egyptian Mirror

Egyptian Mirror

Dating to around 2000 B.C. there are examples of polished stone mirrors from Central and South America, and bronze mirrors from China dating to the same period.

During the ancient Greek and Roman period, polished bronze mirrors such as those pictured above seem to have been the norm, though these were not something that would have been possessed by the lower classes. Mirrors were probably more of a luxury item, especially the ornate ones. There is also mention of metal-coated mirrors, or glass mirrors backed with gold during the Roman period.

Ancient Greek Mirror

Ancient Greek Mirror

Mirrors such as these have been found among grave goods, indicating that they were, in some cases, prized possessions of the deceased.

When I see these more or less unassuming artifacts, it always makes me wonder who held this mirror, and what did they see, or think, or feel when they saw their own image staring back at them.

This is one of the things I love about archaeology and storytelling.

Every artifact has a human story behind it.


The World of Children of Apollo – Part IV – Rome: Caput Mundi

Colisseum 3

Today we’re going back into the world of Children of Apollo.

The second half of the book leaves behind the dunes and swaying palms of Roman North Africa for Italy, particularly Rome, as well as Cumae and Etruria. For this fourth instalment of The World of Children of Apollo we will focus on Rome itself.

Rome was indeed the centre of the world during this period, the omphalos to which all roads led and from which all decisions flowed. It was the ultimate goal in Severus’ civil war with Niger and Albinus and, despite his favouritism of Leptis Magna, the jewel the Emperor knew he must hold with his massive, loyal Praetorian Guard and the legion he had stationed at Albanum, outside of Rome.

Arch of Septimius Severus - Forum Romanum

Arch of Septimius Severus – Forum Romanum

It would take a whole book to scratch the surface of Rome so this will only be a very brief look at some of the sites that are a focus of Children of Apollo. Rome is one of my favourite cities, if not for the food then for the history that awaits you around every corner, that towers over you, and lies beneath your feet. Before my first trip to Rome, the glory of Rome, the Empire, had only been something I had read about. It was only when I walked those streets and set foot in the Forum that the idea came fully to life. Even among the ruins of the Forum Romanum, the glory of this ancient capital is keenly felt, whether it is the paving slabs of the Via Sacra, the Arch of Septimius Severus or the temple of the Divine Julius where people still lay flowers.

Artist Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

Artist Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

When Lucius and Argus leave North Africa, they put in at Ostia, the Port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber. It was here, at Rome’s port where most of the seaborne traffic headed for Rome came. The hexagonal port of Trajan was surrounded by warehouses where grain and goods from all over the Empire would be held. Beyond the warehouses, Ostia was full of well-decorated homes, and tabernae to serve residents and visitors in the prosperous port. Brothels, gambling establishments and fine dining all made for anything but a boring night out!

Forum Boarium and Temple of Hercules

Forum Boarium and Temple of Hercules

Those going on to Rome could have taken a barge up the Tiber, or travelled by land. When Lucius and Argus finally arrive in Rome, they find themselves in the Forum Boarium, the cattle market where a Temple of Hercules still stands. In the story, for various reasons, Lucius’ family’s home is now near this smaller forum where, in generations past, they used to live on the Palatine Hill.

In the early 3rd century A.D. the Palatine Hill was virtually one big sprawling Imperial palace complex, with various additions having been made by successive emperors. Severus was no different and built a massive new addition that jutted out from the southern edge of the hill to overlook the Circus Maximus. Front row seats for the chariot races! Looking down on the faint outline of the great circus, I could not resist writing an exciting chariot race scene in the book. The Circus could hold up to 250,000 spectators and their roar must have been deafening.

Severan Palace Complex from the Circus Maximus

Severan Palace Complex from the Circus Maximus

When walking about on the Palatine Hill, it felt peaceful, a world away from the busy fora of Rome. I imagine it was the same for members of the imperial family who could stroll about the gardens and palaces in peace to the cawing of peacocks and play of water in fountains. One of the main locations of Children of Apollo is the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, where a crucial event of Lucius’ youth takes place. This temple, built by Augustus beside his palace, was only the second in the city dedicated to that god. If ever you get the chance to visit the Palatine Hill and the museum there, it is a definite treat, a world away from the busy streets below.

Forum Romanum

Forum Romanum

Septimius Severus left his mark in many ways on Rome and not only with his massive palace complex. Flanking the palace was a massive, decorative façade that was unveiled during the celebrations of his triumph. This structure, dubbed the ‘Septizodium’, was a huge wall ornamented with elaborate statuary where water flitted from section to section to dazzle spectators. Not much of it remains today but when it was unveiled, the populace must have been well pleased. The arch of Septimius Severus is one of the more impressive sites in the Forum and this can be seen directly in front of the Curia (Senate House) where he had it built as a reminder to the senators of Rome who the real power was. The artwork on the arch differs in style to others, the period heralding a gradual shift to what we recognize more as a Byzantine perspective.

Ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome

Ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome

All over Rome, there is so much to see and when there, I walked for days, never tiring of the sights that met my eyes, imagining what Lucius would have seen. From the mausoleums of Hadrian and Augustus, to the Colosseum, the Ludus Magnus and the Temple of Venus and Rome where Lucius has an important rendezvous, Rome is a city where life, past and present, is meant to be felt and enjoyed. One of the great joys of writing Children of Apollo was being able to visit Rome again.

Ruins of the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus

Ruins of the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus

So, I do hope that one day, your road will take you to Rome where, with gelato in hand, you can experience the majesty of this wondrous city.

Be sure to catch Part V of the World of Children of Apollo when we will visit one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Etruria (Tuscany!).

Thank you for reading!