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When in Rome, remember: tourists are money and the Colosseum a giant begging box

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Caesar! We who are about to die salute you! So, it is said, the gladiators of old addressed the Roman emperors before they went about the entertaining business of mutual butchering. It was drizzling and outside the grey-dun hulk of the Colosseum there was a small gaggle of modern Romans dressed up not as gladiators but as tacky-looking legionaries. I wanted to accost them and say: “You can do better than this: hanging around in this Gibbonian drag, hustling the odd euro by having your picture taken with marauding phalanxes of orthodontically challenged Benelux schoolkids.” Then I wanted to climb up on a shattered column, strike a pose and orate: “Give me your poor and huddled masses of legionary impersonators! Come with me to London, where there are plenty of creative opportunities for enterprising folk prepared to spray-paint themselves silver and stand on a cardboard box all day!”

Of course I did nothing of the sort, because I was a tourist and tourists are money; and the Colosseum is a great big begging box. Underneath the stands, where once the Roman mob disported itself, there were instead long lines of money inching forward to the ticket windows.

Frankly, I hadn’t been feeling that good to begin with: on the early-morning flight out of Gatwick, I’d come down with one of those blitzkrieg colds that precision-bomb a sluice gate in your mucous membranes. Luckily there were two free seats next to me, so I lay down sideways and slept deeply, awaking only occasionally to the sound of snot dripdrip- dripping on to the carpet below. I would have felt worse about this if it hadn’t been a low-cost airline. If you don’t want to spend a two-hour flight from Rome to Gatwick with your feet dabbling in my effluvia, then fly the fucking flag.

Now, standing in the thick of the crowd with a brace of my offspring and their mother, I was assailed by nausea – there were so many queues and so many queuing styles in this pan-European crowd mash-up. Stolid Scandinavians and thrifty Germans waited patiently in their restrained, fawn-coloured leisurewear; lisping and excitable Spaniards in transparent rain capes fluttered around like exotic birds; contraflows of captious and stentorian Brits threatened anarchy; while one tight little testudo of denim-clad Americans simply barged its way through.

In a gap between the seething bodies, we spotted a sign reading “Tour didactica” above a ticket window with only a handful of people in front of it and so were able to pay five euros a head extra to skip the Hydra-headed queue. Still, inside the arena things weren’t that much better. For just short of 1,800 years – until the construction of the Crystal Palace – the Colosseum was the largest manmade enclosed space in the world. But on this drizzly bad Friday, it felt as packed-out as the stateroom in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. It didn’t help that there was a mandated route around this colossal heap of ancient masonry, so that all the tributary queues from beneath the stands now flowed into one mighty gyre: along the periphery, up the stairs, through the exhibition on Constantine, then down again and finally out into the street where the bogus legionaries were still brandishing for tips.

You might have thought that anyone as crowd-phobic as I am would have called it a day at that point – but when in Rome, I always like to visit the Pantheon and have a coffee at the nearby Sant’Eustachio café (where I once partook of the elusive “God shot”, the espresso that convinces even hardened sceptics of the existence of a transcendent barista). True, the crowds are, if anything, denser and more polyglot in the Pantheon but here there is no signage, no admission fee and inside, under what is still – after nearly two millennia – the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, the tightly packed human herd positively lows with devotion as it swirls about the curved walls.

Christians would doubtless maintain that it’s because the Pantheon has long since been dedicated as a Catholic church that, upon entering, the masses become so meek and mild. The Colosseum, by contrast, still bears the taint of sadistic voyeurism, a psychic charge that infects even the meekest tourist. And you know what, shuffling from one oily icon to the next, I was inclined to agree – but then, in the interests of stemming my own viral tide, I hadn’t just had the one God shot at Sant’Eustachio but three in one.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess