I mentioned yesterday that I had just returned from a five day visit to Rome. The city is a place of many wonders for the tourist looking for magnificent art and architecture as well as history and charm. There are important lessons, too, to be teased out from among the ruins and the opulence.
Our hotel was just a block or two from the ancient Coliseum which is something of a focal point of activity. A Metro station is nearby the ancient arena and there are several restaurants across the street so we found ourselves in its shadow every day.
(My wife and youngest daughter dining out on our last evening in Rome)
It was difficult to contemplate this enormous structure, which could seat over 50,000 people, without reflecting upon the events that occured there nearly 2000 years ago. From the time it was built around 80 AD until about 400 AD over ten thousand men were slaughtered in the gladiatorial fights, and countless wild animals - lions, tigers, elephants and the like - were killed in the staged "hunts" which entertained the Romans until the 6th century.
The relentless, brutal killing was accompanied by thunderous roars of approval from the huge crowds of men, women, and, presumably, children excited by the bloodshed and suffering which took place on the floor of the arena beneath them.
(The floor of the Coliseum is mostly gone revealing the chambers underneath where gladiators and beasts were held until they fought.)
It may be difficult to imagine human beings so depraved that they would cheer at a severed arm or head. Yet it's probably not so far from the fascination that people have today for "sports" like extreme fighting and other expressions of human brutality. I read an article just this morning about how children in Uganda are kidnapped by rebels and forced to kill other children by biting off their skin and flesh until the terrified victim bleeds to death. The evil of which men are capable seems boundless.
The gladiatorial contests held in the Coliseum were, like forcing children to bite other children to death, the logical consequence of man's alienation from God. Human nature is bestial and unless it is constantly re-oriented toward the lodestone of divine love its natural tendency will be toward ever-increasing depravity. The Romans knew nothing of true divinity. Their gods were made in their own corrupt image, and thus their amusements included cheering for people to be cruelly dismembered and die.
Roman society, by the time the Coliseum was built, was thoroughly sick and effete because it was not bound by any transcendent moral law. The Romans exulted in their power and moral autonomy and bloodlust was the consequence. Whenever man declares his independence from God, it seems, moral degeneracy eventually follows.
So it was for the Romans and perhaps there's a lesson for us, too, in the ruins of their ancient Coliseum.