Topic: Colosseum versus Whare Whakairo [Māori meeting house] (2008) by Debbie McCauley

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This discussion of the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre) versus the Whare Whakairo (Māori meeting house) was written by Debbie McCauley on 27 September 2008 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.


The Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre) and the Whare Whakairo (Māori meeting house) are two vastly different physical structures. The point of similarity is that they are both an assertion of identity, a focal point at the ‘heart’ of their respective cultures. They are places where important functions were held, people could meet and make decisions, a visual public statement of the might of ancient Rome and the mana of a particular Iwi.

It seems Captain Cook had an impact on the development of the Māori Meeting House when he introduced steel woodworking tools to New Zealand in 1769. The Whare Whakairo as we know it today did not exist in pre-European times, although there is evidence of pre-European large whare. Possible reasons for this are that the population were too busily occupied in ensuring their survival to spend precious energy building large and elaborate structures, the creation of which was much easier using iron and steel tools. They seem to have been a nineteenth-century phenomenon, perhaps influenced by the size of churches built by the European settlers. The Colosseum on the other hand was opened 1,928 year’s ago. It was a venue for punishing criminals as well as providing entertainment for Rome’s citizens. The Romans, in contrast to the small societal units of the Māori, had both the time, money, expertise and slaves for such large constructions due to the massive military structure that was Roman society.


Cultural significance

The Whare Whakairo symbolically represents the embodiment of an Iwi’s ancestor whose spirit is housed within the building and visiting seems to denote the undertaking of a spiritual journey. Compared with the Colosseum, the Whare Whakairo is a far more sacred place. The building is usually named for the ancestor and sometimes represents the connections between Māori mythology, genealogy, historical events and the Iwi. This is expressed by Simmons (1997) who states, ‘The symbolism of the meeting house on its marae brings together the ideas that shape the Māori world. The meeting house is not simply just a building; it is a focus for expressing the most deeply held beliefs of Māoridom (p. 53). The cultural significance of the Whare Whakairo seems to have been be demonstrated by the many restorations that have been taking place. The buildings purpose for modern day Māori is suggested by Walker (1996) to be ‘symbolic statements of Māori identity and cultural continuity in the face of the dominating presence of Pākehā in New Zealand’ (p.51).

In contrast, the Colosseum was a very visual reminder to the roman empire of the emperor’s power, wealth and endurance. He was the main player and manipulator of the events held there. The purpose of the Whare Whakairo is perhaps not so far removed from the Colosseum as this quote from Barlow (1994) explains, ‘Finally, the carved house is a symbol of the prestige, power, and industriousness of a tribe’ (p. 181). At best, however, the Colosseum was a large and elaborate entertainment venue which is quite a different purpose from the Whare Whakairo.



According to various sources Emperor Nero’s (54-68 AD) palace seems to have been regarded bitterly by the citizen’s of Rome. A massive fire in 64 AD had destroyed much of Rome and left thousands of people homeless. Instead of helping the people, Nero claimed the prime land and helped to drain the Roman treasury by building his elaborate and indulgent ‘golden house’ there, on property that had actually belonged to other people prior to the fire. This site was right in the centre of Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire. After Nero’s suicide this location was chosen by the next Emperor, Vespasian (69-79 AD), who commissioned the Colosseum as a gift to the people in about 71 AD. After his death his eldest son Emperor Titus (79-81 AD) oversaw the dedication of the Colosseum and it’s opening in 80 AD. The largest amphitheatre in the world was completed by Titus’ brother and successor Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). Both the Whare Whakairo and the Colosseum are in prime locations which dominate their respective cultural centres. The Māori Meeting House is central to the marae, often sited facing the main entrance and, more often than not, at the heart of the settlement.



There are many varied types of meeting houses in Aotearoa. Some are more elaborately carved and decorated than others and symbolic meanings can differ between Iwi. For many, the head of the ancestor embodied by the Whare Whakairo is represented at the apex of the bargeboards in front of the house. These bargeboards can be seen as the ancestor’s arms with the ends of the bargeboards representing the fingers of the hands symbolically gathering the Iwi together. The upright slabs at either side of the porch usually represent the ancestor’s main descendants who are providing guardianship. The porch itself is the area where discussions take place and can symbolise the ancestor’s brain. Maori mythology is often represented as discussed by Simmons (1997): ‘In the apex of the roof, the pane or forehead part of the tahuhu or ridgepole is often carved with two figures, with toes turned to the centre and heads facing each other. These often represent Rangi the Sky Father and Papa the Earth Mother’ (p. 25). The doorway into the meeting house can be seen as the mouth of the ancestor and represents a boundary or a crossing-over, the meaning of which is explained by Simmons (1997): ‘The doorway is carved to mark the transition from the mythic world outside to the inside, to the historic time of the ancestors in the house’ (p. 26). The exterior of the Whare Whakairo, and the front especially, is noted for its sacred symbolism.

The Colosseum is the impetus for what is now known as classical architecture. From the remains that we can still see today, it is both an imposing, beautiful and magnificent structure, even though it has weathered fire, war, storm, earthquake, lightening, invasion, looting, quarrying and neglect. Through the invention of Roman concrete and barrel vaults which shifted the weight of the building to the side walls, the problems of how to build such an enormous structure were overcome. Much of the concrete is faced with brick and stone. The building is an oval shape with seventy-six numbered archways for public use, and four private entrances. Apparently these were:

  1. South entrance for the emperor and his guests. According to the Open University (2005) ‘Entrances on the short sides of the amphitheatre show traces of richer decoration, with stuccoed ceilings and marble panelling. These led directly to the boxes overlooking the arena used by the emperor and his suite’ (p. 40).
  2.  North entrance for high-ranking officials and Vestal Virgins
  3. West entrance for gladiators, musicians and other performers
  4. East entrance or ‘gate of death’ for gladiators exit, dead or alive

The structure looks beautifully proportioned, being around 189 metres long and 156 metres wide with an exterior wall rising 48 metres high. The impressive exterior is broken up into four layers, the first three having arches and decorative half-columns. The half columns frame the archways with different capitals (tops) to the columns on each level. The bottom layer has a Doric capital; the Ionic is on the second layer and then fancier Corinthian on the third layer. The top layer has Corinthian pilasters and no archways. It seems that statues once adorned the archways of levels 2 and 3 and the holes in the top layer may have been used to place wooden masts through that supported an awning. Although beautiful and elegant, there is little sacred significance to the Colosseum which is a major point of difference from the Whare Whakairo.


Interior decoration

The interior of the Whare Whakairo is usually richly decorated using a number of mediums including woodcarving, tukutuku (reed) panels, kowhaiwhai paintings and mat plaiting. This is an important place for the tribe to be as Mead (1997) comments:

The carved meeting house of the Māori can be perceived as a created environment in which dangerous spirit forces are checked and neutralised by displaying within the house an imposing gallery of the group’s benevolent ancestors. Theoretically, a person is safest within the carved structure of his own tribe than anywhere else in the world. (p. 20)

As with the outside of the meeting house, the inside is full of rich symbolism. The ridgepole represents the backbone of the ancestor, the rafters being the ribs. There is usually a centre-post supporting the ridgepole which represents the chief, who can be said to be the living embodiment of the ancestors. There are often more carvings of the ancestor’s descendants lining the walls with tukutuku panels on either side of them. The kowhaiwhai patterning on the rafters sometimes represents the number of generations from the ancestor to members of the Iwi today. It can be likened to a museum or library, the storehouse of the Iwi’s history and treasures.

Organising the movement of around 50,000 people at one time was accomplished at the Colosseum by an array of walkways and staircases. The once opulent interior reflected the best that Rome could provide and from all accounts would have looked truly magnificent. There was a strict hierarchical layout showing the pecking order in Roman society with five sections of tiered seating separated by landings. Closest to the arena were the Emperor and the most important citizens seated on white marble, down through the different strata of society to the lowest level, women and slaves seated on wooden seating in the uppermost gallery. The 87 metre by 55 metre wide functional arena had a sandy floor that would easily soak up blood and also a 4 metre wall to protect the audience from desperate slaves and wild animals. The interior walls appear to have been decorated with frescoes and carved friezes while gold and purple paint covered the vaulted ceilings. Refreshment was provided by a pipe system feeding water fountains.



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