Why Nero would feel at home in Las Vegas
By Christina Ball

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000


Built on the cooling ashes of the great fire of Rome (64 A.D.), the emperor Nero's Domus aurea—or Golden House—was truly a marvel to behold. The palace and grounds covered four of the seven hills of Rome and included such wonders of engineering and artistry as an atrium large enough to contain a colossal 120-foot bronze statue of the sun god Helios (who suspiciously resembled the emperor himself), a dining room with a revolving ceiling, pipes that misted the air with perfume and a triple colonnade more than a mile long. A master of artifice, of visual spectacles, Nero re-organized and recreated local flora and fauna in order to create beautiful, novel views. Illusionistic fresco paintings of birds, plants and mythological scenes brought walls and ceilings to life, open fields were transformed into shady woods stocked with exotic animals and an entire valley was flooded to make a lake as big as a sea. On the shores of this mock sea, the fanciful facades of miniature buildings simulated a port city and provided the perfect backdrop for the mock naval battles that Nero staged for his own entertainment.

A colossal megalomaniac with an insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizing forms of pleasure, Nero put more time and (even more) money into producing the artificial mini-empire of his Domus aurea than in wisely governing the real empire smoldering just beyond his gaze. Even back then, 2000 years before the Hearst Castle, Hollywood and the Las Vegas strip, such man-made spectacles required a big budget. To pay for the views he liked best, Nero instigated a policy of terror that involved the systematic execution of just about anyone with either large sums of money or serious designs on his throne. He even murdered his two wives and mother when they no longer fit into the picture he was so determined to make—and watch.

Despite the cruelty that went on behind the scenes—and despite the fact that the Senate declared him an enemy of the state—it is still oddly appropriate that the most public of buildings in Rome, the Colosseum, got its name from Nero. Or more precisely, from the colossal statue of Nero-Helios which, years after his death, migrated from the Domus aurea to a spot just in front of the spectacular new Flavian amphitheater. This name is fitting because Nero was, at least for a time, extremely popular with the Roman people. And like any emperor who wanted to remain emperor, Nero understood that political value was synonymous with entertainment value. He knew that, even more than bread, the Romans craved circuses. Entertain them, make them a part of the spectacle that is Rome and you'll win their vote. People will believe the evidence before their eyes.

At least until his own ego got the better of him, Nero kept the people happy by sponsoring spectacles in the public arena, which were about as amazing as his Domus aurea: artistic and gymnastic competitions, chariot races, gladiatorial combats, wild animal hunts and—as in his own artificial lake—staged sea battles with miniature boats. To woo and wow the demanding Roman spectators with more than potentially monotonous games and gratuitous bloodshed, Nero spiced up his shows with feats of technical wizardry. It is said that, in the course of a single day, he first staged a hunt in the arena, then flooded it for a sea battle, then drained it again for gladiatorial combats and then flooded it once more to give the people a banquet on-board ship. Talk about set design and special effects!

But Nero was more than a master of ceremonies and special effects. He was also a participant, an actor on the stage of the amphitheater's micro-empire. Though he avoided real battles, he frequently competed in chariot races, always took first prize (even for games in which he didn't compete!) and strongly encouraged bewildered senators to do the same. If he wouldn't share the glory, what Nero did share with the crowds was a passion to play a part in the spectacle. It was a right any Roman citizen would not be denied.

Sports arena, theater complex, zoological garden, courtroom, execution chamber, city hall—the Roman amphitheater was a multi-functional structure that has no equivalent today. People didn't go to the amphitheater just to be entertained, as we mostly do when we switch on the virtual amphitheater of television. They went because it was a public duty and, especially in the case of the gladiator fights (intended as offerings to the gods), a sacred rite. They went to witness the public execution of slaves and Christians. They went to shout the names of gladiators and decide their fame or fate with a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down." They went to gamble on other people's lives and to have a good time. They went to demand a reduction in taxes and to express their opinion of the emperor. They went for the novelty of seeing a pseudo volcano erupt or to have their emotions roused by a fight between a python and a bear. They went for the fiction as much as for the carnage, suspending their disbelief as actors really died. They went to behold and bespeak the vast power of the Roman Empire and, in turn, were empowered themselves.

But that was a long, long time ago. Or was it?

If you visit Nero's Domus aurea in Rome today, as I did last summer, don't forget to bring your imagination; for this amazing private pleasure-dome on the top of the Celian hill is now nothing more than a series of cold, dark caverns stripped bare of ornament, illuminated by a few spotlights and faded fragments of fresco paintings. Thanks to the well-planned eclipse of Trajan, the views of ancient lakes, vineyards, wilderness and sky enjoyed by Nero are now hidden behind heavy brick walls and ceilings. Courtyards once filled with fresh air and sunlight are now completely buried in dirt—the foundation the emperor Trajan needed to build his extensive baths and to smother the memory of his notorious predecessor. Vespasian and Titus had the same idea years before, when they built their colossal amphitheater on the site of Nero's artificial lake as a gift of good will to the Roman people.

Great public spectacles die a lot harder than private fantasies. Outside the empty caves of the Domus aurea, in the same valley where waters once rippled in imitation of the open sea, the Colosseum is still a sight for eager eyes. After 500 years of games and 1,500 years of pilfering, squatting, earthquakes and neglect, this architectural masterpiece seems at first glance just a skeleton of its glorious former self. Gone (to the Vatican) is most of the travertine that originally covered its surface. Gone are the boxes and bleachers that both joined and divided up to 70,000 people by gender and class. Gone is the enormous, sailor-operated velarium, or awning, that protected spectators from the elements. Gone are the fantastic sets, the ropes and pulleys, the marble statues of the gods and the bronze Colossus of Nero. Gone are the hundreds of thousands of animals and human beings, which were sacrificed and then carried out through the still-standing door of death.

But for some strange and powerful reason, this vacant temple to the twin gods of power and entertainment is just as alive now as it was in the ancient past. And it's not only because of the millions of tourists who visit the Eternal City's greatest landmark from every corner of the globe each year—though these are certainly the most obvious. This sense of vitality is also due to the recent efforts of Italian and international organizations to revive the slumbering spirit of the ancient edifice and instill it with new meaning.

On the day I last visited, the partially rebuilt Colosseum floor was being prepared for a theatrical production of Oedipus Rex, the first of many high-priced artistic events (concerts, literary prizes, fashion shows) that will now animate the arena at night. On other more somber and sobering evenings, the Colosseum lights up in silent protest of the death penalty, a practice that contemporary Italians view as today's equivalent to the cruel and inhuman executions of ancient Rome. In May, the Pope gave a memorial prayer service in honor of Jubilee 2000 and of all the Christian martyrs who were persecuted and killed during the Roman Empire. A few months later, and quite in contrast (or conflict) to the Pope, thousands of Gay Pride marchers stopped in front of the Colosseum and shouted "Victory is ours!" With a little enhancement from the media, this otherwise empty shell, this ancient theater of wonder and death, has transformed into a powerful symbol of human rights and equality.

What about its colossal entertainment value? Aren't Italian filmmakers taking advantage of the revival of the real Colosseum and its cinematic counterpart to set their movies in history's most awesome arena? It doesn't look that way. But why? To put it simply, if Rome wasn't built in a day, it wasn't rebuilt on a dollar, either. In box-office terms, Italian filmmakers couldn't afford the kind of colossal budget required to effectively recreate the spectacles that took place in the Colosseum—even with the authentic backdrop. Italians couldn't afford to make a film like this year's blockbuster, Gladiator. Even Spartacus would be a stretch.

Compared to Ridley Scott's $100 million, computer-enhanced Colosseum, what remains of the actual arena seems about as spectacular as the partial replica built for Gladiator, now being dismantled under the Maltese sun. No matter how much they've helped to animate our collective imagination, the crumbling monuments of history cannot compete with their cinematic clones. This is especially true now that we've entered the virtual era of computer-generated imagery. On the screen, as in the Roman Empire, what we see is what we believe. Reality (tangible, historic, flesh-and-blood) is only part of the equation, and not necessarily the most significant part. Paradox or not, today we need the virtual—in increasing quantities—to make reality seem more powerful and authentic. Just compare the sets and sword fights of Gladiator to those of earlier films like Spartacus (1960) or The Fall of the Roman Empire (1967), and you'll see what I mean.

In order to bring the Colosseum (and its vast urban jungle) back to life on the screen, director Ridley Scott's team combined actual or constructed sets and heart-beating extras with virtual ones, thus enhancing and replicating the "real" to make it look more real to modern eyes. On the Mediterranean island of Malta (much more controllable than present-day Rome), a visually accurate replica of a portion of the Colosseum was built. This physical fragment was then extended and embellished with computer-generated travertine tiers, marble statues and the gigantic canvas awning. Beyond the amphitheater, the partially constructed sets of the Forum, the emperor's palace and the Senate antechamber were filmed in front of blank screens, which were later filled in with a seemingly infinite number of CGI edifices. With megabytes in the place of marble and stone, today's movie screens project the sweeping, panoramic vastness of the city of Rome, now the virtual symbol of an even more virtual empire.

In a similar act of replication, the Gladiator-makers began by filming a couple thousand extras performing a variety of enthusiastic, crowd-like gestures. Later, this mini-crowd was mapped and multiplied in the CGI arena in order to create the illusion of the Colosseum's virtual "sell-out" crowd. The result was an enthusiastic "thumbs-up" from the movie-going masses, who rushed to join the Colosseum's virtual spectators in movie theaters around the globe. Anyone who's seen the film knows why the toga-wearing crowds were shouting the name of Russell Crowe's character—"Maximus! Maximus!" But were last summer's movie crowds (today's video audience) cheering for the virtual Rome or for the real drama, for the technical wizardry or for the human heroes and the timeworn myths?

As I stood in line for an hour at the ticket booth and watched jubilant tourists, wielding crisp dollar bills, have their picture taken with tanned gladiators and their Styrofoam shields, I wondered to myself why we were all there. Was it to see—and understand?—such a historic place with our own eyes or to leave with a photograph of ourselves in it? Were we there for the reality or the fiction, for the mute stones or for the vivid cinematic images of Russell Crowe battling tigers and chariots in front of thousands of "thumbs-up" cyber-spectators? Were we cheering for the martyrs or the movie stars, the block builders or the blockbusters? Is ours a real or a virtual amphitheater?

I also wondered why I couldn't spot any contemporary Romans in the crowds.

Ever since Hollywood took over the making of cinematic spectacles such as Gladiator in the early years of film history, Italy has not been part of the big commercial picture. This seems strange when you consider that Italians actually inaugurated the historic, or epic, genre with films like Enrico Guazzoni's Quo Vadis (1912), which featured vast three-dimensional sets and thousands of extras, and Giovanni Pastrone's influential mix of fiction and fact, Cabiria (1913). Set predominantly in Carthage during the Second Punic War, Cabiria stirred the imaginations of early movie-goers and filmmakers (D. W. Griffith) alike with its big-scale, authentic recreation of ancient wonders and wars: elaborate costumes, blazing battle fires, live elephants, villas complete with mosaics, frescoes and marble floors and the memorable 130-foot-high Temple of Moloch, now on view at Turin's new Museum of Film History.

It took real wars to snuff these historic flights of fancy. While togas and temples gathered dust in the studio, filmmakers such as Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti turned their cameras to the personal, social and political dramas taking place right before their eyes. In films like Roma citta' aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) and Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Rome and its heroic people take the place of costumed actors and costly sets inspired by places faraway and long ago. This realistic style of cinema, which with a touch of comedy continues to dominate Italy's filmmaking scene, is certainly cheaper than an epic super-production like Gladiator. But it could also be considered more powerful and enduring because of its attention to (real) time and (real) place.

Given their strong tradition of cinematic realism (even Fellini's bawdy portrait of Neronian times, Satyricon, feels like live theater after seeing Gladiator), I doubt that Italians will ever return to the kinds of spectacles they started out with—either in film or in Roman history. In Italy, the pull of reality—pasta, politics, evening promenades—is just too strong. After spending the past 15 years traveling between Italy and the United States, it is my sense that Italians are far too busy living (and enjoying) life to watch it being lived by others on a screen. Why else would all but a few indoor movie theaters close for the entire summer, which is America's biggest box-office season? Why else would the streets of Rome or Florence fall silent (except for the pitter-patter of tourists' sneakers) during August holidays, three-hour lunch breaks and Sunday afternoon soccer matches?

The fact that I found posters and ads for Gladiator throughout Italy last summer is a detail that shouldn't be ignored. Nor should the fact that I myself saw this film, along with a couple hundred Italians, in Lucca's open-air cinema, located just around the corner from the city's Roman amphitheater. Despite some evidence to the contrary, when it comes to big-budget spectacles, even contemporary Romans turn their thumbs down to history and enthusiastically hail Crowe and Cruise, Scott and Spielberg. Not to mention Calista Flockhart and Sarah Michelle Gellar. It's still shocking to me that 90 percent of all films watched by Italians, and a good portion of their television programs, are American productions—all of which are dubbed, for that extra dose of verisimilitude. Personally, I have a hard time believing Meg Ryan as an Italian. But then again, I don't need help imagining America—I live here. The truth is that when Italians want a sense of community, of national or civic pride, they go for a walk through historic streets or switch on the TV at match time. They vote. But if it's pure entertainment they're after, they generally don't go looking for Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni or even Benigni.

Nor does anyone else. When we, the virtual spectators of the world, want to be wowed in complete safety and silence, without the threat of death or any sense of responsibility, either personal or collective, we go to the movie theater to see the latest (usually American) super hit. Here, in this dark and wonderful place, surrounded by sounds that make us feel like we're a part of the action, we watch gladiators fight and die heroically. We watch ships sink and planets explode as beautiful prostitutes tame egocentric millionaires into virtuous pussycats. Or we stay at home and join the virtual crowds in front of ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, surfing channels or the web during commercials. In this way, we feel, sort of, connected.

If you find yourself yearning to be a part of a real crowd again, just fly to Las Vegas. Here, in a place that is more like a development of pseudo-places, a global mirage, you'll see spectacles as awesome as those once found in Rome—including Rome itself. When you get there, check into Caesar's Palace, a hotel fit for a modern-day emperor. Relax after your trip with a bath in the enormous, man-made pools. Have your emotions stirred at the roulette wheel or the slot machines. If luck is in your favor, buy a ticket for Siegfried and Roy's exotic white tiger show. In the afternoon, stroll up and down "The Strip" with thousands of others past the pyramids of Egypt, the canals of Venice, the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge. Stop at the Mirage to watch the life-like volcano erupt (every 15 minutes) to choreographed music and lighting and then dine on the ship at Treasure Island, as swashbuckling pirates try to steal your gold.

When you get back to the palace, head strait for the Roman Forum (of Shops), where a painted sky turns from dawn to dusk above the fashion gods of Nike, Armani and Banana Republic. Nero would be so envious.