A plan by the Eternal City to clear Rome’s most popular tourist attraction of the unauthorized vendors that clutter the area surrounding the 2,000 year-old Flavian Amphitheatre raised the hackles of the gladiators and centurions.
Legions of Roman legionaries donning chest plates, tunics, and military sandals draw their weapons for a price. With one hand resting on a tourist’s shoulder and another gripping a sword, the armed centurion says ‘’cheese,” or growls in a gruff pose. Click. “Ten euros, grazie.”. Disoriented foreigners at times cough up 20 or 30 euros. Detecting a scam, a tourist is periodically beaten up for not paying, but centurions are generally gregarious. They need to work and have been earning a tax-free living working off the tourist trade in plain view for decades. Now the city says “basta.”
“This will end badly. We’ll wage a revolution. We’ll burn down the Colosseum rather than move from here,” a 21st century centurion told reporters.
There’s a potential fortune to be made from the 6 million people who visit the Colosseum every year. An entrenched illegal industry revolves around Rome’s attractions. Artists painting caricatures in Piazza Navona crowd out Gian Lorenzo Berninis’ 17th century Fountain of the Four Rivers, unregistered tour guides pace outside the Vatican Museums in search of customers, and touts invite diners to sit at tables placed illegally in some of the world’s most breathtaking squares.
But everything pales in comparison to the Colosseum where dozens of tour buses line the street to give passengers an hour to visit the same site where Russel Crowe battled for revenge in the 2000 epic blockbuster “Gladiator.”
“Every last one” of the Colosseum’s sword-and-sandals set are ex-convicts, a recent report in the La Repubblica newspaper said, citing a policeman who regularly patrols the area that includes the Roman Forum. Some have been posing for pictures for 10 years, long enough to have seen film go the way of the horse-and-carriage. At least one has been doing the job for almost 20 years.
In an effort to keep the centurions working, a self-styled leader tried to meet with city officials in a bid to legalize his trade and create a fixed 10-euro-per-photo rate. His efforts were met with silence.
Depending on who you talk to, Italian law enforcement is either lazy or lenient. Traffic police regularly ignore cars parked on the sidewalk. Non-violent convicts over seventy years old are permitted to serve jail time in the comfort of their homes. Tax cheats are granted amnesties. The name of Italy’s Justice Ministry is the Ministry of Justice and Pardons.
Wars on Rome’s quality-of-life crimes are periodically launched in television cameras. Illegal billboards are torn down. Tables are cleared from piazzas. Cars are towed and ticketed. But the campaigns are fleeting and like water rising in a tub vacated by a bather, the petty crimes and criminals return as soon as the police leave the scene.
In what could be called “The Clash of the Centurions” officials from the Ministry of Culture and City of Rome are defending Rome the living museum from an image akin to theme parks where visitors are feed on fast food and ham it up for the camera with fairytale characters.
But the enterprising Centurions don’t lack for customers so there is a demand for their services. And with Italy in deep recession, the country’s bureaucrats may want to reconsider a plan that puts ex-cons out of work.