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  • Asirini Parakramawansha

Walking between the gates of life and death

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

Twist your lens, rattle your beads and peer through your kaleidoscope. Today we travel to the Colosseum; a spiralling catacomb of stone tunnels, forgotten lives and history that seems to still be alive today. It makes sense that these undead whispers of the past remain. After all, we are walking between the arena's legendary Gates of life and death.

image of the left side of the Colosseum
I wonder what could be watching from within the dark eyes of this magnificent structure...

Entering the Colosseum through one of its many arches feels akin to approaching one of the mythical Argus's eyes. Immediately you can feel the lingering atmosphere of this place; the smell of ancient incense, medieval blacksmiths and the sweat of a bloodthirsty crowd mixed with the gore they so eagerly cheer for. As we drift through these spiralling tunnels, try trailing your hands over the battle-hardened blocks of stone and age old carvings. These scarred giants still hold the memories of their past glory. Of marble pillars arching, lounging and dressed in rich silk tapestries -much like the oil lathered emperors that had commissioned them. Perhaps the spirits of these fallen rulers still remain, wandering the halls and arena between these Gates. But who else could be lurking in these shadowy alcoves?


A Medieval Secret


A painting of one of the Colosseum's tunnels with a medieval market in it
The Hidden Market- an illustration of my view through the kaleidoscope from when I was exploring the Colosseum (as painted by yours truly)

Surprisingly, the Romans eventually got bored of gore and death and the arches of the Colosseum emptied for several centuries. During that time many entered into the limbo realm of this arena and mugged it of its jewels and finery. Now a bruised colossus, the arena waited for new prey as its marble pillars turned to golden stone and vines obscured its sight. As the medieval era approached, its wish was granted. While the rest of modern Rome burned at the wrath of Barbarians, thousands yet again entered through the Gates. This time they were running from the blood and gore. Soon enough this husk of majesty was yet again alive with the bustle of a new village. Let us sit here in a hollowed out alcove and close our eyes. Can you hear them? The insistent clanging of a blacksmith's workshop, the clamour and shouts of a market at midday, the squeals of children running among the battles of the past. Sure, it may stink of animals, sweat and the coarse smoke of hastily gathered wood -but trust me, this is nothing compared to what we are about to face in the very heart of this sleeping titan.


Gore, Gladiators and the Gates of their fate...


An image of the arena facing the west gate
A view of the arena from the famed Gates of Life. Can you guess what the gates on the other side are called?

As we step out from the shadowy arches of the external structure, we are met with blinding sunlight and the ever present whispers of the past. Listen carefully while we enter the arena. If you really concentrate, you can still hear the roaring crowds and the vicious clatter of gladius on spear. Beneath us lies the excavated skin. We can see its tangled insides through this gaping wound. Apparently gladiators once used those tunnels to bring live animals and props to the war zone that is the arena. Imagine walking alone, in the dark, through those tunnels. It is enough to give anyone claustrophobia. I wonder what it must have been like for the countless elephants and lions that had been imprisoned in those tunnels before meeting their fate on the unforgiving stone ground of the amphitheatre. Speaking of extravagant feats, it is rumoured that during the time of empires and chariot races, the entire arena was flooded with water and a naval battle was reenacted for the entertainment of the entire city. At first, I didn't believe that this myth could hold water. But upon witnessing the sheer vastness of the Colosseum for myself, I'm not so sure anymore.


Fight! Fight! Fight!


During an everyday spectacle, the Emperor would be seated above the Gates of Death in his personal box whilst the senate would enjoy the gore up close and personal on marble slabs right next to the floor of the fight. The rest would be seated in accordance to class, with the richest at the bottom and the poorest at the top. Strangely, the women were always kept up at the top with the poorest (mean!) to stop them from falling in love with any of the gladiators. As we clamber down the archaic stairwell to the once bloodied floor, I can almost feel the heat of thousands of anxious, excited people. And most importantly- can you see the gladiators? Just imagine them in their tunics and armour, swinging weapons from spiked nets to broadswords as they face foes from the most exotic of animals to people and sometimes even especially daring emperors. As each match ends, the winner swaggers through the East Gate (The Gate of Life) and the loser or the loser's body is dragged through the West Gate (The Gate Of Death). Of course, the loser's fate was never just up to the compassion of the fighters but to the Emperor himself. All it took was a down-turned thumb from a robed royal to have a sword swung at your chest. Exhilarated from the lingering atmosphere of a million long ended conflicts, I wondered back to the twisting corridors, trying to find my way back out into the Roman Forum. Hopefully, I'll be leaving through the East Gate.


Does anything really lie between the gates of life and death?


A view of a tunnel through which you can see the arena
Ancient ruins or portal to the past?

Of course, I know that these ruins are supposedly to be just that- ruins. But some part of me can't help but feel the life blood of this ancient treasure still flowing in its walls. I can't be the only one who can still see the ancient markets and gladiators. Who can picture the walls clad in tapestries and gold as they once were. Maybe, this place is really frozen in a timeless limbo, located as it is between the Gates of Life and Death. I'll let you decide for yourself, but before you go with the given view, try exploring this arena through a different lens. You can never know what (or when) you'll see when you look at the world through a kaleidoscope.

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