The Colosseum: A Political Tool

Arguably the most iconic arena in the world, Il Colosseo still stands at the very centre of modern Rome as a testament to both the glory and the cruelty of the Roman Empire. Constructed almost two thousand years ago, around six million people still flock to Italy’s capital to explore the history and grandeur of what remains of the largest amphitheatre the world has ever seen.

Despite the majestic architecture and its cutting-edge design, the Colosseum is most well-known for the brutal and bloody spectacles it hosted. Gladiatorial contests, animal hunting, war processions, battle reenactments, plays, and executions all provided the people with entertainment during its five centuries of activity.Four hundred thousand people and one million animals are believed to have died throughout the Colosseum’s lifespan, clearly illustrating the sheer bloody-mindedness of Ancient Rome. 

The Colosseum in Rome, April 2007. (Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

While less discussed, the Colosseum’s significance was actually far more than just as a theatre for mass entertainment; from its design and architecture through to the events it played host to, the amphitheatre served as a tool to Roman Emperors for political control. 

Following the suicide of Rome’s fifth emperor Nero in 68 AD, Rome grew deeply fractious, with civil war briefly breaking out and social, military, and political upheaval ensuing. Emerging victorious from this turmoil was Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty, who needed to consolidate his position as emperor with the Empire close to ruin. Seeking inspiration from Rome’s first emperor Augustus who had supposedly planned to build a permanent amphitheatre, Vespasian commissioned the construction of what was to be known as the Flavian amphitheatre:a gift to the Roman people. The goal was panem et circenses(bread and circuses). A means of providing entertainment to the masses to appease public discontent and win over popular support in response to the recent struggle and instability of the Empire. 

Rome was indeed hungry for entertainment and distraction, and the Colosseum’s events reflected the various rulers’ desires to win over political capital and strengthen their rule. Victorious battle reenactments served to foster the spirit of Roman imperial prowess, and the courage of gladiators symbolised the might of the Roman warrior. Executions of criminals were incorporated into the theatrical performances, some were catapulted in from outside the arena in a timely manner so as to re-enact deaths in plays. The one hundred days of games put on for the opening of the Colosseum was an unprecedented spectacle in entertainment, and the people of Rome were enraptured. 

Underlying the political support won from the construction of and events held was the political significance of the architecture and design of the Colosseum itself. It was no coincidence that the amphitheatre was built upon former emperor Nero’s lake, as it represented a handing back of land to public use following the confiscation of property that occurred under his rule. The key element here though is its sheer scale. To build the largest amphitheatre in the world, an amphitheatre that could house over fifty thousand spectators, was a sure way of providing both entertainment to the greatest of masses and a landmark to be in awe of that symbolised the greatness of Rome. 

The Colosseum was an opiate  to the masses and a tool for political support. Although Vespasian never lived to see it open, we can be certain that he would’ve been proud. 

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer


Lord Byron, Celebrity

The idea of celebrity was conceived within the Romantic period, in part, through the prominent figure of Lord Byron. Following the French Revolution there was an increased focus on the individual and this was epitomized in the emerging figure of the celebrity. With the surge in publishing technology there was, according to historian Tom Mole, a ‘general democratization of media’, which meant far more people could have access to Byron’s work than ever before and he could occupy a bigger part of public consciousness. 

Interestingly, the public responded to this in a way that helped cultivate their own sense of self. In the private sphere, particularly women could write letters to Byron and created common-place books. These were effectively scrap-books, which the owner would fill with their chosen excerpts of poets’ work, making their own personalized collection. It was an expression of the community of readers and consumers which allowed them to mediate their own experience of celebrity. We could compare this today to clubs and fan pages dedicated to specific celebrities. 

Through fan letters, historian Richard Schickel has suggested that there formed an idea of a ‘false intimacy’ within letters to Byron. Fans could imagine they knew him and could position themselves as the romantic subjects of his poetry and respond accordingly. We see this today as people claim the deeply personal effect celebrities have had on their lives despite never actually having met said person. This individualized reception of the celebrity, such as Byron, thus became a space where the fan could form a subjectivity of their own. They could pick and choose which of Byron’s verse was significant in their commonplace books and thus this moved away from the individuality of the celebrity themselves.

This movement away from Byron personally to a more modern embrace of celebrity was evident in the commodification of his celebrity. As today, we attempt to personalize and immortalize an embrace with celebrity culture, such as a concert, through buying a t-shirt or keeping an autograph. With Byron, this was with the new technologies of steel plate engraving, allowing a reproducible element to Byron’s commodified celebrity, but also a condensation of his characteristic visual trademarks, described as ‘a curol of hair, a high forehead, an open collar.’ Technologies like this infused celebrity commodity culture more and more, and reproductions of Byron’s silhouette became less and less like him, according to historian Tom Mole. 

Portrait of Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813. (Credit: Newstead Abbey, via The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, the commodification of the celebrity with Byron can be given a diplomatic quality, with regards to his tangible participation and support of the Greek War for Independence. Byron acted as a commissioner in raising a loan for Greece in February 1824, to help facilitate a defense against the Turks. His individualism acted as a diplomatic rod between nations, particularly as Byron panders not to his original nationality, English. Insightfully, historian Jason Goldsmith relays that, ‘Britain expands under the sign of Byron.’ Byron provided perspective on the Greek situation, particularly through his Turkish Tales and reinforced the English dread of Ottoman barbarism. 

This can clearly be seen in how celebrities are used today in charity and political agendas, given their large following, even if they may not have particular political experience. One recent example may be the use of Marcus Rashford’s celebrity to further political agendas. 

Lord Byron is a hugely interesting figure when looking at celebrity culture. Facilitated by the meteoric rise of printing, people could have access to great writers like never before and personalize their experience with them, making the idea of ‘celebrity’ far bigger than the individual it represents.

Anna Shepherd

France and the Arab World: A Tale of Tension

Tensions are rising between France and the Arab world. The last few weeks has seen protests in Libya, Syria and the Gaza Strip, along with calls for a boycott of French goods in many Middle Eastern countries. This growing tension comes in the wake of the brutal, horrific murder of a French school teacher named Samuel Paty. Paty, 47, was beheaded in the suburbs of Paris, close to the school at which he worked, for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his students in a class on freedom of expression. 

A woman in Marseille holds a sign (‘I am a teacher’) at a gathering in homage to Samuel Paty, October 18. (Credit: CNN.)

This assault on a French citizen and on a core French value was swiftly responded to by President Emmanuel Macron, who stated that this was an “Islamist terrorist attack”. The President also spoke on the issue of publications that may be insensitive towards the religion of Islam, passionately defending the right to show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the name of freedom of expression, and other civil liberties that the French hold on to dearly. The response to President Macron’s remarks suggests that this defence of secularism and France’s liberal values has been received as an attack on Islam by many in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Whilst tensions may be rising rather sharply at the present time, this is not the first time President Macron, or previous French Presidents have enacted policy or made statements that have angered the Islamic community. 

In 2011 under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, France brought in a ‘Burka ban’, making it illegal for a Muslim woman to conceal her face behind a veil when in public, becoming the first European country to impose such a law . This new law was faced with strong backlash from the French Islamic community, being seen as a restriction on their freedom to practice religion. It also faced deep criticism from others, with the executive director of the Non-Governmental Organisation Human Rights Watch labelling the ban as Islamophobic . It was, however, defended as a stand for secularism and French societal values and norms, with the ban remaining in place even during the coronavirus crisis and the mandating of masks in certain areas. While the ‘Burka ban’ is one of the most commonly cited issues when looking at tensions between France and members of the Islamic community, there are other areas in which the tension comes to the fore. 

Islamist terror attacks inevitably spark division between communities, as animosity tends to rise towards Muslims in the wake of such attacks, but Macron has stressed the importance of distinguishing between the Islamic religion and radical-jihadism. What is clear is that Emmanuel Macron is going to face ongoing criticism for his defence of what he holds as core French values, namely freedom of expression, due to the potential offence caused to Muslims in France and across the world. But what is perhaps more apparent, following the string of terrorist attacks in France over the last few weeks and the President’s response, is that Emmanuel Macron is remaining steadfast in his commitment to upholding France’s freedoms and ensuring that France’s values remain.

Leo Cullis


Ireland’s New Government Shows the Limits to History in Politics

It has been a historic week for Ireland. After nearly 100 years, the Civil War divide appears to be coming to an end. Four months after a stunning election result, the newly formed government sees the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, enter formal coalition with each other for the very first time.

The two are remarkably similar ideologically, sitting somewhere between the centre and the centre right. Yet, they have regularly rotated as government and opposition despite their little difference, something that is a political peculiarity.

For generations, Irish politics has been defined by a historical, rather than ideological, divide. On one side were those in favour of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, led by Michael Collins. On the other were those opposed to the Treaty, led by Éamon de Valera. This fracture in Irish politics was later translated into party politics. Fine Gael represented the pro-Treaty side, while Fianna Fáil represented those who were anti-Treaty.

This divide has prevailed long after the Civil War, with voting often following family lines rather than more common factors, such as class. There was some sense in this in the early years of the new Irish Republic. For many, the War of Independence and the Civil War were still raw. These were lived experiences for a number of generations and thus this divide ran deep. My Mum tells me the story of how my Grandad would demand the TV to be switched off if De Valera ever came on the screen. 

My grandparents’ generation, however, are no longer as large a group in the Irish electorate as they once were. To an increasing number, the old historic divide means increasingly little. Moreover, the ideological similarity of the two parties has led to frustration, particularly amongst the young, at a lack of progress on various issues. It is perhaps becoming clear the old system of Irish politics is no longer relevant or fit for purpose.

Image of Irish town with flags and banners. (Credit: Tamara Gurtler, via Upsplash).

The 2020 election and the rise of Sinn Féin revealed a large portion of the electorate eager for proper change and many for the first time willing to vote for Sinn Féin. Much has been made of the party’s history, such as its links with the IRA. However, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald the party has worked to modernise its image. Judging by the result in 2020, they’ve had some success. Though, there is still much to be done on that front to convince others – it was cited as a reason why neither of the other two major parties would contemplate coalition with Sinn Féin.

This raises the broader question of the role of history in politics. For generations, history has played the dominant role in Irish politics. The main two parties are built on a near 100-year divide, while challengers Sinn Féin are inextricably linked to Republican violence more recent in memory. Yet the 2020 election appeared to suggest that the Irish electorate is beginning to move on.

History undoubtedly plays an important role in politics. It shapes and informs where we are now and provides a rich archive from which to learn for future decision-makers and voters. But, it is not automatically relevant. In Ireland, the Civil War and the Troubles are becoming increasingly less salient. Voters appear to be far more worried by contemporary issues, such as Ireland’s housing crisis, and are voting to reflect that, rather than what side of the Civil War their ancestors were on.

James Reid