AHA tutor Richard Stemp returns to that age-old question: What have the Romans ever done for us?

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has finally re-opened after ten years. It must have been five years ago or more that I said I wouldn’t go back to the Netherlands until this happened: I haven’t been since 1985 and while there are many wonderful places to go and a good number of top-notch collections, the Rijksmuseum is the one that has held my attention. Why has it taken so long? Well, there was asbestos, and a dispute about a bicycle lane – which meant that the design had to be adapted so that, instead of the cyclists going round the museum the museum now goes round the cyclists. And then there was flooding. Amsterdam is lower than sea level as it is, so when you start digging a new basement level, you will almost inevitably end up with a hole full of water. The builders had to resort to dinghies.

But ten years? After all, the Romans managed to build an entire building – and my guess would be, a larger one – in that time. And it was sited on a lake.  Building started on the Flavian Amphiteatre (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, presumably you haven’t been to Rome with AHA – or weren’t listening that day) under the Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, and completed by his successor Titus ten years later. They were both members of the Flavian dynasty, hence the name of the building. It had to be big, for the population of Rome was enormous – the first city to reach a million inhabitants – and to keep them happy the Emperors needed to provide first-rate entertainment. It is believed that the amphitheatre could seat up to 50,000 people – the size of some of our sports arenas today. But then it was an ‘arena’, the Latin word meaning ‘sand’, which was used on the floor to help clean away the blood of the various slaughtered animals and, of course, gladiators. But probably not Christians, as it happens.

The Flavian Amphitheatre, Rome, built 70-80 AD

I am, of course, talking about the Colosseum. Or the Coliseum. Both spellings are valid. To build something this large you needed a lot of space, and fortunately that became available with the death of Nero in AD 68. After the fire in Rome four years earlier, rather than re-building all of the lost housing, and thereby ingratiating himself with the dispossessed, this most infamous of the Emperors (if that is possible) chose to build just one, the Golden House, for himself. It had a large garden, including a lake (fed by a stream leading down to the Tiber) and an enormous sculpture – or colossus – of himself. His death was celebrated, as deaths of unpopular leaders are to this day, but the house was too big to destroy. It was stripped of its treasures, ransacked and left to ruin. By the 15th Century it looked like Rome’s eighth, smaller hill (although, to be honest, the Eternal City has always boasted more than seven), although in 1480 someone fell through the ground into some marvellously decorated grottoes. Notable renaissance artists were lowered down in baskets and copied the imagery, in a style which, given their origin, was referred to as ‘grotesque’ – from a grotto. But I digress: that belongs to the Renaissance.

 

After Nero’s death his garden was given over to public entertainment – the Flavians were not going to be as unpopular as the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and it was there that they built their amphitheatre, more-or-less where the lake had been. Presumably they drained it first, rather than floating around in dinghies as our Dutch contemporaries have. Already standing in the garden was the colossus, and it was this, it seems, that meant that the Flavian Amphitheatre would eventually become known as the Colosseum – although this name does not seem to have been used widely until the end of the first millennium.

 

In context, ten years was remarkably quick for a building of this size. The pace of work was facilitated by use of a particular material: concrete. For the interiors of the structure parallel brick walls were erected and filled with rubble and concrete. The outer walls, and some of the more important load-bearing lower elements used stone. The sloping, or ‘raked’ seating – which allows the spectators a good view – left a lot of space beneath, creating access corridors for the public to get to their seats and for the entertainers – human or bestial – to move around the central space before entering (although in the Colosseum they also had access from below the arena, parts of the building which have only recently been opened to the public). The ceilings of the access corridors, which create an arched vault supporting the seating above, were made by making a wooden ‘mould’ of the vaults into which concrete was poured. The Romans developed this technique into a fine art, and it allowed for some of the world’s most remarkable creations, including the astonishing dome of the Pantheon.  Then after the fall of the Roman Empire, the secret of concrete was forgotten.

 

Although there are earlier examples, it was only really in the middle of the 18th Century that concrete started to be used again, and its use became more common in the 19th century, particularly after the invention of reinforced concrete in 1849: steel bars are enclosed within the concrete to increase its tensile strength. Concrete was favoured by many of the great modernist architects, and was the primary material for the ‘Brutalist’ school of architecture. It was also used in the New Vic Theatre in Stoke, which opened in 1986, in which I have been performing The Importance of Being Earnest for the past two weeks. Like the Colosseum, the inner structure was created by building a wooden mould and pouring concrete – the grain from the wooden planks used for the mould is clearly visible on the walls.

 

To be accurate, the New Vic isn’t a theatre at all, but, like the Colosseum, an amphitheatre. A Greek theatre was designed so that an audience could hear the play (hence the word ‘audience’) – they all had to face the actors, and the actors had to face them – so the seating was in a semi-circle, facing the stage. Gladiatorial combat could be seen from any angle: a bit like children, it should be seen, but didn’t need to be ‘heard’ (hence my use of the term ‘spectators’ above). So a theatre was built on both sides – an amphitheatre (the first syllable here is the same as the first syllable of ‘ambidextrous’).

A seating plan of the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The seating plan of the New Vic looks remarkably similar to the structure of the Colosseum, with the notable exception that it only seats 600, rather than the larger venue’s original 50,000. This does mean that the audience can hear us even when we’re facing away from them (as long as we project clearly enough!). And the corridors underneath the seating – the drum – allow us to move around the space and enter the stage from any side – well, from one of the three vomitoria – a word now abbreviated to ‘vom’. The Colosseum has eighty of these on the outer wall allowing the crowds to leave rapidly after the performance. Given that the audience would, it was hoped, ‘spew forth rapidly’, it doesn’t need much imagination to work out where the name comes from. Each of the Colosseum’s eighty entrances was numbered: your token of admission would tell you where to enter, exactly as your ticket would for today’s arenas, and the corridors were divided to direct you from your entrance to your allocated seating. The more exclusive seats were nearer to the performance area, a distribution which is reflected in ticket pricing nowadays.

Entrance LII (52!) of the Colosseum

So, to return to the question at the top of the blog, the Romans have helped to design, and given us some of the technology to build, one of the most enjoyable spaces I have ever worked in. It has been marvellous performing in what is now called theatre-in-the-round, and entirely exhilarating to have the audience on every side. One of my colleagues said it was like being in the Colosseum with everybody trying to kill you by laughing: I really cannot imagine what it would be like with 50, 000 people baying for your blood.

 

 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest is on tour until 14 June. For more details, follow @londonclassic1 or @stemprichard on twitter, or see http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk/index.php/2013/01/the-importance-of-being-earnest/

 

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