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We love the relics of the Past. They awaken a long train of thought and strong emotions. Though dug from the earth, like to the simple lamp in the Eastern tale, they bear some secret charm. But let the ruins be august! Then with eagerness we ask, who piled up the frowning walls? what storms have they braved? what purpose have they subserved? what lesson do they teach?
Where are their architects ? In what Epic are they heroes? In what marble do they live ?
It is thus that we contemplate the Coliseum of ancient imperial Rome. It was begun by Vespasian and finished by Titus. Arches upon arches, and columns upon columns, recall to mind the myth of Pelion piled upon Ossa. The Doric and Ionic and Corinthian orders of architecture are illustrated. A hundred thousand Romans could there witness the gladiatorial contests.
Anglo-Saxon pilgrims, in the middle ages, were amazed at this piece of massive masonry. They identified its duration with that of time itself. They said, “ While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls,—the world.”
But the wind and the lightning and the rain have made havoc with its walls ; while man, a worse depredator still, has dislodged the stones from their places. Utilitarianism has thence drawn its materials, to construct many modern palaces.
The same vandalic spirit has rudely torn from their niches the sculptures of the Parthenon. They now decorate the British Museum instead of the Temple of Minerva. But Greece has fallen. She stands no longer on the proud preëminence of Marathon and Salamis. Hence the ravagers of the works of Phidias “go unwhipt of justice."
Thus the Coliseum of to-day is very unlike to the Coliseum of imperial Rome. Arches have been shattered, and columns have fallen. Vast apertures are made in the stately pile. The dove builds her nest, where once the successful gladiator raised the shrill cry of “ hoc habet.” The grass grows tall upon the arena, which once drank the blood of beasts and of men.
Eternal silence has succeeded the acclamations of a hundred thousand Romans. A hermit of wild eye and strange demeanor, tenants the solitude. His spectral figure is often seen gliding along in the deep gloom of the night. Shelley saw this odd personage there, and has introduced him into the affecting story of a blind old man and his daughter. The father asks his child whither they have come. The hermit hears the interrogatory, and rebukes him for ignorance. “Wretched old man! know you not that these are the ruins of the Coliseum ?" His subsequent knowledge of the father's blindness caused the rebuke to goad his own sensitive soul.
But when the moon shines full, those ruins assume a peculiar charm, and show best their hoar antiquity. Nothing either of ancient or of modern art is grander, or so calculated to awaken emotion. Then Byron filled with enthusiasm, and wrote in lines which will live when the last stone shall have crumbled from the basement:
“ Arches on arches ! as it were that Rome,
But why was built that vast pile of architecture? Was it to give a home to the destitute, and lengthen out the “thin-spun life?” Was it based on the dignity of man in this state of moral probation ? No. Every spot of that ground is fertilized with his blood. Every spot is a witness to the cruel spirit of ancient customs.
How could it be otherwise with such a nation, when their religion itself was a mass of gross corruption? The Gods of heathen Rome were