Massimo Polidoro: The Ghosts of the Coliseum

Okay, so what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “fake news”?

The ancient Romans of course!

Photo by Brian Engler

Wow, that was so not fair of me. Actually, the Romans have been the subject of historical fake news for millennia (I assume as much as any other empire), and today we heard from the endlessly charming Massimo Polidoro, as he taught us something about one of the most evocative aspects of the Roman story: The Coliseum.

The myths just keep on coming when it comes to the Coliseum. The whole thumbs-down-by-the-emperor thing to signal an execution? 19th-century invention. Christians being martyred before the Coliseum crowds? Nope, made up by Christians in order to serve as instructive morality tales. The architect of the Coliseum was killed in his own creation when he converted to Christianity? Heh, no. It’s not even known who actually did design the thing, which is a shame in and of itself.

Instead, Polidoro asks us to focus on what the Coliseum really represented, and what it says about us today. Animal slaughter, public executions, gladiators as popular athletes, games put on to channel the Roman aggression and thirst for war — all of these things are still with us. The Roman population became desensitized to the violence, and needed more and more distraction and amusement. There were no likes and retweets to stimulate their pleasure centers.

“We are children of the Romans,” Massimo said. If we’re going to learn the lessons of our forebears, then, we need to learn their real story, and treat the myths as myths.