I have wanted to visit Rome for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to the stories that my mum, a Fine Arts major, would tell me of her travels in the late 1970s. Vivid descriptions of her wonder as she experienced her textbooks come to life had my imagination running wild. Near the top of her list of highlights was the Colosseum. She remembered being overcome by emotions as she walked through the ruins. She told me that she could feel the gruesome history in the air around her.
I finally made my visit a reality on a rainy Monday in October. I expected to enter the Colosseum and be overwhelmed with history, with sadness, with empathy, but I honestly didn’t feel anything of the kind. Unbelievably, my emotions were overpowered by one feeling – frustration. I was surrounded on all sides by people whose behaviour seemed to me obnoxious and disrespectful. Everywhere I looked people were climbing on ancient ruins, elbowing to get the best view, and taking selfie after selfie. I didn’t see a single person reading the signs and I seriously wondered if most people really knew where they were. I wondered if they had any concept of what had taken place on this ground – the violent deaths, the persecution of the Christians, the slavery, the slaughtering of animals to the point of extinction. I began to suspect that most people’s understanding of Roman history sadly came from movies and that many in the crowd might have been looking for a statue of Russell Crowe.
My views may come across as judgmental, and I supposed they are, but to be clear it isn’t that I think seeing famous landmarks is lame, or that real travellers have to stay off the beaten path. It isn’t that I think I know all there is to know about history, but I certainly do not. It isn’t that I’m against having photos to document your trip, I took some myself. The reason I tend to stay away from tourist sites is that tourists as an entity are not the type of people I want to be around. As individuals, I’m sure most people are fine, but en masse they lose common sense, they lose respect for the history of the site, they act as though these monuments were created for their pleasure – like a circus or a carnival ride. I actually saw one woman climb up a column and sexily lounge across it while her husband photographed. I wondered if they would crop out the sign that said ‘please DO NOT climb on the ruins’. I don’t understand why someone would thinking climbing up on a 2000+ year old column to take a photo is a decent, responsible thing to do. I believe that for most people visiting famous landmarks has become a tick-in-the-box activity. Something that they can tell people they’ve done, something they can gloat about on facebook, but not something that they actually take the time to understand or appreciate. I think there is a huge lack of respect, respect for the people who died, respect for the fact that something has stood for thousands of years, respect for the fact that they aren’t the only ones visiting the site.
After walking around the site for less than half an hour, I felt like fleeing. I was about to brush off the Colosseum as another overrated tourist trap that has lost all of it’s authenticity, but I had waited so long and come so far, I didn’t want to give up just yet. I’d heard good things about a behind the scenes guided tour and signed up for the next time slot. I joined a group of 15 people led by a highly educated and excellent presenter – Gabriel. He took us on a tour of the underground holding chambers and the third ring, both of which were closed to the public thus blessedly empty. He clearly conveyed the horrors that had taken place and emphasize the human element. I came away with an appreciation for everything I had seen and an interesting realization of my own. As I stood on the highest balcony and looked down at the sea of people, it dawned on me. It was humans who had created the Colosseum. Humans that had taken pleasure in pain, destruction and murder. Humans that were at their core selfish, narcissistic and without shame. Just like the modern humans I saw around me. The Colosseum, Instagram, gladiators, marble statues, FOMO – they are all just part of the same long, varied, and sorted history of humanity. Humanity in all it’s messy, abusive, egotistical glory. This awareness gave me a strange sense of peace as I accepted that we are all just part of the fray.
Today I say yes to tourist attractions – ancient and modern. Yes to paying extra for small, behind-the-scenes guided tours. And yes to the dirty, complicated, ever-evolving business this is humanity.
We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings. – Albert Einstein