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Ancient sites serve as overflow seating

Thousands camp near Colosseum

ROME -- The Circus Maximus may once have occupied the gaudy center of ancient spectacle, but yesterday it played a more modern role: overflow seating for the funeral at St. Peter's across town.

Tens of thousands of people slept, danced, and prayed on the Roman chariot course, now a long grassy bank surrounded by brick ruins, as they prepared to watch the Mass for Pope John Paul II on huge video screens erected by the city.

Worried about possibly unmanageable crowds surging toward the Vatican, officials in Rome yesterday enlisted piazzas, monuments, and parks as alternative viewing spots for the ceremonies.

An estimated 50,000 people clustered in Tor Vergata, a university complex on the periphery of Rome, while several thousand more assembled in front of each of the city's basilicas. And in the heart of ancient Rome, some of the world's top tourist attractions suddenly became mere backdrops for Catholic Television's stately funeral broadcast.

Tadeusz Wit, of Krakow, watched the Mass on a portable jumbo screen parked outside the Roman Colosseum. He was struck by the historical weight of standing at the center of the ancient empire honoring a religion that generations of Roman emperors tried fervently, often violently, to crush.

''There was a lot of blood shed here by people who believed in God," said Wit, 25, who arrived in Rome on Thursday after 26 hours on a bus from Krakow.

With the Colosseum closed for the day, Wit and thousands of others were hemmed in on one side by the amphitheater's crumbling outer wall and on the other by the Arch of Constantine, a triumphal marble monument built by the emperor who first legalized Christianity. Behind them loomed the ruined Temple of Venus and Rome, the largest pagan temple ever built in the city.

For most of yesterday's crowd, however, the attraction here was less the history than the fact that the grassy areas around the Colosseum and especially the Circus Maximus were legal for camping.

Fittingly for a pope often described as a rock star, the Circus came to resemble a Woodstock of the faithful, filled with tents and bedrolls of thousands of young pilgrims who arrived with nothing but a backpack and the willingness to stand in line for 12 hours, sleep on the grass, and then wake up for a nearly three-hour Mass.

Enrico Miquiabas, 27, a Canadian high school teacher working in Britain, arrived at 9 on Thursday night to stake out a campsite. ''By midnight," he said, ''the place just got packed -- flags, tents all over the place. It was crazy, and the dew made us so cold."

The Italian civil protection corps, made up largely of volunteers from towns around the country, passed out blankets at night, along with tea, hot chocolate, and jam croissants for breakfast. One aid worker said there were ''extremely few problems -- lines for the toilets, a few sick people. And the dust."

By the time the funeral Mass began yesterday morning, the weather had warmed and the atmosphere had turned festive. Dressed in fleeces and jeans and baseball hats, people sat on their bedrolls or on sheets of cardboard, sharing water and stories. Members of an Italian youth group danced in concentric circles to drums and guitars. Then, just after 10 a.m., the huge television screens began projecting the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and tens of thousands of people were on their feet. Some waved Polish flags. Others cradled radios broadcasting the rites in a language they knew. When the opening prayers ended and the cardinals on the porch of St. Peter's sat down, the crowd on the embankments 2 miles away sat as well.

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