This week is Italy week. From Tuesday, October 22 until Monday, October 28, I’ll post something from my recent trip to Italy.
When Kristin and I stepped into Pompeii, we cued up a free podcast hosted by Rick Steves designed to serve as your audio tour of the area. It’s a nice free alternative to those stupid phone receiver-looking things you can rent, and infinitely preferable to being a part of some slow-moving herd of jackasses that clogs up the thoroughfares and annoys everyone else.
If you’re familiar with Rick Steves, you know he’s fond of cutesy word play and somewhat hokey set-ups to make whatever point he wants to make. It’s part of his charm. So, in the intro, he’s setting the table for all we’re going to see and closes with this hoary question: “And as you walk through Pompeii, consider: Are the ancient people of Pompeii really all that different from you and me?”
My snark impulse fired, and I blurted out sarcastically to Kristin, “Spoiler alert: I’ll bet they aren’t!”
And shock of shocks, they aren’t. But what surprised me was how understanding that enhanced my enjoyment of seeing them that much more.
We probably would have listened to the entire Rick Steves Pompeii podcast had it not been raining like an angry Gulf storm, and had we not had our dopey little travel umbrellas (oh, how I longed for my big stupid golf umbrella), but alas, the logistics of trying to walk in tandem over cobblestones under our umbrellas and joined at the ear proved too challenging. So we winged it and promised ourselves we’d listen to it later while checking out our pictures – a cute lie you tell yourself that you’ll never end up actually doing.
So off we went as our own tour guides left to figure things out on our own. This could have easily resulted in a disappointing crisscross of a very large area, but thankfully we lucked out. We found the frozen people right away and they are just as haunting as you might imagine.
We then set off down a long stretch of road where there were no people. We found a lot of restoration work and locked gates. One gate, however, remained open and looked oddly out of place. Seeing no signs prohibiting entrance, Kristin and I ventured into it and found a beautiful collection of dwellings, courtyards, and gardens. Making a few more twists and turns toward the back, we found exactly what we were looking for.
Inside this little structure were some incredibly beautiful frescoes, and no one around. We got to escape from the rain, absorb the beauty of art created 2,000 years ago, and do it alone. It was almost as if the people who lived in this dwelling invited us, and us alone, into their home. I was connected to these people. Damn you, Rick Steves!
When I travel to places with lots of history, I’m generally not terribly interested in learning about who was in charge, conquests, wars, or any of that type of stuff. It just doesn’t really interest me. And it doesn’t interest me for the same reason I generally don’t relate to rap music. I can’t compare it to my own life. I’ll never have guns, Bentleys and a posse as an important part of my life any more than I’ll be a divine King who builds an empire.
I want to know what people’s lives were like. Real people. Normal people. People who live their lives under the empire, but have to make do day after day.
It’s for that reason I connected with the Colosseum in the same way I connected with Pompeii. True, the Colosseum is a symbol of power as wealthy emperors sat in their private boxes with the vestigial virgins and watched wholesale slaughter in front of them, but mostly the Colosseum was built for the people of Rome.
According to Rick Steves, people’s tickets were usually pieces of broken pottery with a level, section, and seat number. Before heading in, vendors outside sold merchandise depicting favorite gladiators that citizens could buy. Once inside, you took your seat in the rafters and waited for the show to begin.
Hunting exhibitions usually kicked off the proceedings as exotic animals poached from conquered lands would pop up in a random place on the stage behind some scenery that had been placed all throughout the floor. Hunters would slay them as reminders of Rome’s triumph over all the lands it touched.
Then came some comedy acts. Again, in the words of Rick Steves, “Maybe a midget versus a one-armed man.” Some lower level gladiator fights then took place, and each was interspersed with jugglers, clowns, and other light hearted fare before the main event: the big time gladiator fights.
It was about here I realized the Romans in attendance at the Colosseum were merely the first incarnation of WWE fans. I don’t care if it’s barbaric, I paid my money, my job in the foundry making swords sucks, and I wanna see a show, dammit! Kill him, Saturius!
Everything about this was like attending a WWE show right down to the way Rick described the way the event was structured. Had I been an ancient Roman, I would have been right there with everyone else screaming at the gladiators and almost certainly shitfaced on wine.
I like that.