Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Bull versus the Bear-the Amphitheater at Nimes

The amphitheater at Nimes was built just a little later than that at Arles, and improved on the design in some respects.  It is an impressive building, but surprisingly you just happen upon it as you walk down the narrow streets of central Nimes:

It has the usual layout;

The upper reaches of the amphitheater are better preserved than at Arles.  If you know where to look you can see slots where huge timbers were placed to support the valerium, a big canvas sun awning.  Teams of sailors were on hand to deploy it, their experience with sails being helpful.

An interesting feature at Nimes is that you pick up an audio program at the admissions desk.  It directs you to various spots where you stop and listen to information on the stadium and on gladiatorial combat in general.  Although this made for a more structured visit than my random wanderings at Arles it was very well done.  I learned a great deal on the subjects.

The events held at amphitheaters were violence in three acts.  In the morning it was man versus animal, and animals versus each other.  Hunters took on lions.  A classic match up was to have a bull and a bear chained to each other and fighting to the death.  I rather suspect some element of this has crept into the Wall Street imagery of the bull and the bear in conflict, but have so far not been able to prove the link.

In the poorly attended mid day segment criminals and other unworthies were put to death in unpleasant fashion and/or made to kill each other in combat.  The early Christian condemnation of the arena stems from this.  Arena by the way was an alternate name for the amphitheater.  The name comes from the Greek for "sand" that being sprinkled liberally on the floor to soak up blood.

The audio program went into considerable length on the main event, gladiatorial combat between the equivalent of prize fighters.  There were formalized types and extensive betting, but rarely would a defeated survivor be dispatched as this would require an indemnity be paid to his owner.  And "thumbs down" was not the signal, it was something more like how umpires call strike three.

This is a stonework detail of two bulls over the entrance.  The area has been known since Roman times for their breeding.  There are still bull fights in the Nimes (and Arles) arena, an interesting continuity through many centuries.

At the close of the Roman era Nimes was contested territory between Visigoths, Franks and later Saracens.  So as at Arles the amphiteater became a fortress.  Here is a medieval sketch of Nimes, showing the fortified arena on the left side.

Also note the Tour Magna at top

There was even a military order the "Knights of the Arena" who lived in and defended the place.

My interest in Rome as opposed to other ancient societies is due in part to my ability to relate to their interests.  They enjoyed good wine.  Their mosaics of lusty satyrs chasing nubile nymphs-who don't seem to be fleeing with full effort-shows us the endless interplay between men and women.  They had their philosophical and religious musings, and generally showed a tolerance for the beliefs of others that would do our modern age credit.

But the amphitheater feels wrong.  To cheer for the death of men or even of animals is an unworthy thing, a legacy we have not entirely left behind us, but have largely tamed.  As I sit at the keyboard the arch rival Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers are doing battle.  And are doing so in an arena that is in its design almost identical to the amphitheaters of the Roman era.

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