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The Colosseum (Wonders of the World) Hardcover – November 14, 2005

3.8 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The authors point out that the Colosseum in Rome was constructed for the enjoyment of murder. They explain the role of that famous monument in Roman history and politics--a place in which the emperor came face-to-face with his people. Inaugurated in A.D. 80, the Colosseum was the scene of animals sent to fight each other or pitted against trained marksmen and hunters, some on horseback, others on foot, picking the animals off with spears, swords, or arrows. There were public executions, and gladiators, described by the authors as "marginal outsiders in Roman society; captives of war, the poor and destitute who saw in possible success in the arena their only hope," fought one another (a wounded or defeated gladiator was at the mercy of the audience). Hopkins and Beard note that the role of the audience was important; the people, seated in hierarchical ranks according to status, were in effect a microcosm of the Roman citizen body. A fascinating account for the Rome-bound traveler as well as the fan of European history. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


This lively book carries the reader painlessly through a complex record of legend and history. By the end the authors have touched authoritatively on architecture, mythological spectacle, imperial patronage, gladiators, sadism, early Christianity, and modern romantic impressions of the Colosseum. A delightful and instructive account.
--G. W. Bowersock, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

A wonderful book, worthy of its subject: horrifying, impressive, blood-soaked, occasionally very funny and always entertaining.
--Robert Harris

Stripped of so much of its outer shell, the Colosseum reveals the extraordinary ingenuity of its functional design, comprising horizontal floors radiating from a hollow center and channelling the movements of crowds around and into its mass through vaulted passageways, or rising along steep staircases. Long admired by architects, an object of wonder during the Middle Ages and for the modern tourist, the very presence of the Colosseum in the center of Rome marks the power of the material past to grasp our imagination even in its present semi-ruinous state. How this has been accomplished is the well-told story of this book.
--Richard Brilliant, Columbia University

Stirring stuff! This is a welcome and well-written book--scholarly but accessible and level-headed. It reassesses the myths, politely debunks many misconceptions about what we know--and what we don't know--to put the fabulous monument in context from its founding to the present. The practical notes for modern visitors made me yearn to be there in Rome again.
--Lindsey Davis, author of the Falco series of ancient Roman mysteries

Racy and occasionally confrontational...This book revels in the accretions of detail and myth. The improbable animal fights; the unfeasibility of flooding the arena to stage mock sea-battles; the claims of Christianity to the place, with a crucifix and 200 days' indulgence accruing in memory of the early Christians who (probably) didn't get torn to pieces by the lions who (probably) weren't there in the first place; the thunder of footsteps on the wooden floor, deafening those in the undercroft with its winches and ramps and the stink and racket of animals and fighting men; the heat in the arena despite the probable shade offered by great cantilevered canvas awnings: first-class scholarship and an engagingly demotic style bring all this into sharp focus.
--Michael Bywater (The Independent 2005-03-25)

It is a work of scholarship written with the general reader in mind. The scholarship is worn lightly, and the book is a pleasure to read. It sums up all that is known, and makes it clear that much must remain conjectural. Anyone visiting Rome and making the obligatory sightseeing tour of the Colosseum will do well to read it in advance and keep it to hand; enjoyment will be much enhanced.
--Allan Massie (The Spectator 2005-03-19)

The book covers a wide variety of topics, including--to give but a few examples--the life of a gladiator, which was distinctly unglamorous, the exclusion of women from vast areas of the auditorium, the means by which wild animals were brought to Rome, the duration of the 'shows' (123 days for a Trajan bloodbath, according to one observer), the splendid flora (420 species in 1855, although now diminished by weedkiller), and practical tips for any visitor. The book is a great read.
--John McBratney (Irish Times 2005-03-12)

Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, eminent classical historians, have written a superb new cultural history of the Colosseum. As well as documenting the variety of flowers that once grew wild among the ruins, they offer pithy and occasionally hilarious accounts of the three million tourists who descend on the monument each year.
--Ian Thomson (Evening Standard 2005-03-07)

[Hopkins and Beard] succeed remarkably in dispelling many of the myths surrounding the Colosseum...Lively writing brings the Colosseum and its denizens to life in great detail.
--Rita Simmons (Library Journal 2005-08-01)

Brisk and illuminating, with much surprising information. (Kirkus Reviews 2005-09-01)

A fascinating account for the Rome-bound traveler as well as the fan of European history.
--George Cohen (Booklist 2005-10-01)

A lure for travelers since the days of the Grand Tours, this majestic ruin in Rome was, of course, the scene of murderous spectacles in ancient times. The writers, a pair of British academics, recount the origin of the Colosseum on the site of a private lake in Nero's palace, reveal how it was built and operated and draw on archaeology and classical writings to detail the lives of the gladiators. The magnificent, crumbling building still holds pride of place in the Eternal City, and this book provides a readable and informed introduction.
--David Armstrong (San Francisco Chronicle 2005-10-13)

It has been, and continues to be, the object of myth as well as the defining symbol of ancient Rome; a romantic ruin to ongoing popular tourist attraction. Filmmakers, too, from Cecil B. DeMille to Ridley Scott, have used it for their own creative impulses. Although work on the building started in AD 72, it did not officially open until AD 80. Authors and classical historians Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard explain how it was built--and at what cost.
--June Sawyers (Chicago Tribune 2006-01-15)

This architectural icon of the classical world probably has been the subject of more myths and half-truths than any other building surviving from antiquity...This slim book, which would fit into a pocketbook or a knapsack, would make a worthy travel companion for anyone visiting Rome because it sheds so much light on "what is likely to seem at best a confusing mass of masonry, at worst a jumble of dilapidated stone and rubble."
--Spencer Rumsey (Newsday 2006-02-26)

In her concise portrait Beard shines a torch into the dark recesses of the building's long history and illuminates a gladiator here, a fresco there, a medieval bullfight there...Here there is a sophisticated interpretation of the Colosseum's meaning and a survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century responses to the Colosseum, with quotations from Byron, Mark Twain, Henry James and Hitler.
--Debra Aaronson Lawless (New England Classical Journal 2006-01-01)

Gives a sprightly, entertaining account of this archetypal building in all its various incarnations, from the "killing fields" of antiquity to the pilgrim's goal of the sixteenth century, the botanist's paradise of the nineteenth, and the archaeologist's puzzle of today--four different construction crews worked on separate quarters of the building, with conspicuously differing results.
--Ingrid Rowland (New York Review of Books 2007-10-11)

Product Details

  • Series: Wonders of the World
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (November 14, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674018958
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674018952
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 4.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #999,052 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
All the reviews here so far were written on the tourist side, not the scholar's. The great merit of this book, in my view, is that it fits both audiences in a very nice manner. Scholars would of course expect a more exhaustive treatment, but it's striking that there are almost no other academic books devoted to the subject of the Colosseum. Many studies on this building and other amphitheatres concentrate on technical, architectural issues, but this book offers concise and clear analyses on social aspects of gladiators, the interpretations of the Colosseum through the ages (a fascinating part!) and other varied issues. Profs. Hopkins and Beard are two leading authorities in Roman History, but their text is lively, fluent, good-humored and very pleasant - I wish all scholars could write like this! Therefore: for specialists, it's not a thorough book, but very welcoming all the same.

As for the occasional interested tourist, as others here have also said, this book is as useful, appealing and enjoyable as it can be. Having been to the Colosseum myself, though, I don't agree with the advice of getting there one hour before it closes (last entrance allowed is at 3PM). Packed crowds of tired tourists with noisy kids are better to be avoided if you want to take your time inside, so get there as early as you can. Also, like the authors, I strongly recommend a visit to the nearby Palatine - but get a good guide, so that you can understand the ruins you're seeing (use Oxford Archeological Guide, Coarelli's book, or even Blue Guide Rome).
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Format: Hardcover
This is a scholarly analytic type book that investigates not only the colliseum building itself,but the spectacles that took place inside.The book also describes why the Colliseum was built as well as how it was bulilt.The Colliseum according to my read of the book was an important propoganda and public education tool of the Roman rulers.It showed the populace that not only had Rome conquered,but that all the beasts and "savage peoples" of the world were Roman possesions for amusement.The building may have also served as a warning,"you too could end up here" and was an outlet for high risk takers to make a name and a fortune. Also alot of these gladiatorial spectacles were actually public executions of criminals,the sword of a gladiator maybe no worse than the electric chair or gas chamber!Unfortunately no work on the Colliseum has covered the gambling on an immense scale that must have gone on at these events.For one I have always thought that the Gladiatorial helmet that is always used in movies and art appears awkward. It seems as if the fancy ornate designs and rims would block not just the peripheral view but about every other one as well.The author points out that these helmets that were found in the buried ruins of Pompeii may have actually been "parade helmets",used for the pre-fight spectacle to identify and give status to the Gladiator.In the arena he may have found such a helmet in fact a great disadvantage. That's the kind of research contained in this book.In regard to the wild animal fights the author spends alot of time breaking down and analyzing the industry that was involved in transporting "wild beasts" of all descriptions from various parts of the world. It must have been a great part of Rome's GNP.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Small though it may be, this wonderful book contains a wealth of information on the Colosseum. The authors - scholars in this field - very ably guide the reader along this amazing structure's long journey through the ages up to the present, debunking myths along the way. Although details on the formidable challenges faced by those who built the Colosseum are relatively few, its history and archaeology, as well as snapshots of the lives and times of those who used it and performed in it, more than compensate. Occasionally, the authors challenge the "generally accepted" interpretations of some of the often-sparse archaeological and historical evidence and offer alternative views. Near the end of the book, useful advice for the potential visitor is provided, followed by an extensive bibliography. The writing style is clear, friendly, authoritative and quite lively. This book can be enjoyed by anyone, but especially by those fascinated by ancient history and archaeology.
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Format: Paperback
This is the perfect overview of one of the most iconic buildings in the world. Mary Beard, renowned for her accessible and insightful views on world history, collaborated with Keith Hopkins to create an erudite but very readable history of a building that simply took my breath away the first time I saw it live a few years ago.

The Colosseum was recently named one of the 7 NEW Wonders of the World. It's eye-catching and iconic series of white stone arches, uniformly built into multilayered tiers that diagonally slope where the building has decayed over the course of almost 2000 years, exudes ancient history and immediately invokes images of toga-festooned senators cheering on blood-soaked gladiatorial battles. Beard and Hopkins write, "the Colosseum has become for us the defining symbol of ancient Rome..." driven by "a combination of admiration, repulsion and a measure of insidious smugness. For it is an extraordinarily bravura feat of architecture and a marker of the indelibility of ancient Rome from the modern landscape..."

The authors effectively combine over 30 pictures, drawings and maps with a blend of history, religion, architecture, opinionated analysis, and a fascinating look at the world of gladiators.

The building itself was placed on the remains of Emperor Nero's famed Golden House, a vast compound that he had built on the charred remains of a burned Rome. The Emperor Vespasian built the amphitheatre as a way to give something back to the people who'd suffered greatly under the rather unstable Nero. Originally known as The Flavian Amphitheatre (Flavian being the family name of Vespasian), the building opened under the reign of Vespasian's son Titus, two years after the popular Vespasian died.
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