NICE, March 10, 1765.
DEAR SIR, - The Colossaeum or amphitheatre built by Flavius Vespasian, is the most stupendous work of the kind which antiquity can produce. Near one half of the external circuit still remains, consisting of four tire of arcades, adorned with columns of four orders, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite. The height and extent of it may be guessed from the number of spectators it contained, amounting to one hundred thousand; and yet, according to Fontana's mensuration, it could not contain above thirty-four thousand persons sitting, allowing a foot and an half for each person: for the circuit of the whole building did not exceed one thousand five hundred and sixty feet. The amphitheatre at Verona is one thousand two hundred and ninety feet in circumference; and that of Nismes, one thousand and eighty. The Colossaeum was built by Vespasian, who employed thirty thousand Jewish slaves in the work; but finished and dedicated by his son Titus, who, on the first day of its being opened, produced fifty thousand wild beasts, which were all killed in the arena. The Romans were undoubtedly a barbarous people, who delighted in horrible spectacles. They viewed with pleasure the dead bodies of criminals dragged through the streets, or thrown down the Scalae Gemoniae and Tarpeian rock, for their contemplation. Their rostra were generally adorned with the heads of some remarkable citizens, like Temple-Bar, at London. They even bore the sight of Tully's head fixed upon that very rostrum where he had so often ravished their ears with all the charms of eloquence, in pleading the cause of innocence and public virtue. They took delight in seeing their fellow-creatures torn in pieces by wild beasts, in the amphitheatre. They shouted with applause when they saw a poor dwarf or slave killed by his adversary; but their transports were altogether extravagant, when the devoted captives were obliged to fight in troops, till one side was entirely butchered by the other. Nero produced four hundred senators, and six hundred of the equestrian order, as gladiators in the public arena: even the women fought with wild beasts, as well as with each other, and drenched the amphitheatres with their blood. Tacitus says, "Sed faeminarum illustrium, senatorumque filiorum plures per arenam faedati sunt," "But many sons of Senators, and even Matrons of the first Rank, exposed themselves in this vile exercise." The execrable custom of sacrificing captives or slaves at the tombs of their masters and great men, which is still preserved among the negroes of Africa, obtained also among the antients, Greeks as well as Romans. I could never, without horror and indignation, read that passage in the twenty-third book of the Iliad, which describes twelve valiant Trojan captives sacrificed by the inhuman Achilles at the tomb of his friend Patroclus.
Dodeka men Troon megathumon uias eathlous Tous ama pantas pur eathiei.
Twelve generous Trojans slaughtered in their Bloom, With thy lov'd Corse the Fire shall now consume.
Even Virgil makes his pious Hero sacrifice eight Italian youths to the manes of Pallas. It is not at all clear to me, that a people is the more brave, the more they are accustomed to bloodshed in their public entertainments. True bravery is not savage but humane. Some of this sanguinary spirit is inherited by the inhabitants of a certain island that shall be nameless - but, mum for that. You will naturally suppose that the Coliseo was ruined by the barbarians who sacked the city of Rome: in effect, they robbed it of its ornaments and valuable materials; but it was reserved for the Goths and Vandals of modern Rome, to dismantle the edifice, and reduce it to its present ruinous condition. One part of it was demolished by pope Paul II. that he might employ the stones of it in building the palace of St. Mark. It was afterwards dilapidated for the same purposes, by the cardinals Riarius and Farnese, which last assumed the tiara under the name of Paul III. Notwithstanding these injuries, there is enough standing to convey a very sublime idea of ancient magnificence.
The Circi and Naumachia, if considered as buildings and artificial basins, are admirable; but if examined as areae intended for horse and chariot races, and artificial seas for exhibiting naval engagements, they seem to prove that the antient Romans were but indifferently skilled and exercised either in horsemanship or naval armaments. The inclosure of the emperor Caracalla's circus is still standing, and scarce affords breathing room for an English hunter. The Circus Maximus, by far the largest in Rome, was not so long as the Mall; and I will venture to affirm, that St. James's Park would make a much more ample and convenient scene for those diversions. I imagine an old Roman would be very much surprised to see an English race on the course at New-Market. The Circus Maximus was but three hundred yards in breadth. A good part of this was taken up by the spina, or middle space, adorned with temples, statues, and two great obelisks; as well as by the euripus, or canal, made by order of Julius Caesar, to contain crocodiles, and other aquatic animals, which were killed occasionally. This was so large, that Heliogabalus, having filled it with excellent wine, exhibited naval engagements in it, for the amusement of the people. It surrounded three sides of the square, so that the whole extent of the race did not much exceed an English mile; and when Probus was at the expence of filling the plain of it with fir-trees to form a wood for the chace of wild beasts, I question much if this forest was more extensive than the plantation in St. James's Park, on the south side of the canal: now I leave you to judge what ridicule a king of England would incur by converting this part of the park into a chace for any species of animals which are counted game in our country.