|Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme|
A few facts: the first games, known as the ludi romani, were held in 509 B.C. in honor of the dedication of the great temple of Jupiter. The first gladiatorial games in Rome were held in 264, after the end of the Samnite War. The samnites were a people occupying the East portion of Italy across the Appenines, and the prisoners of war made up many of the gladiators. There were other sports involved in the games, including chariot races and hunts, but gladiators seem to hold the most attention in our modern view, perhaps because we can both look back at them in horror at their brutality, but also in a kind of secret, shameful fascination, since all cultures have adapted the concept in some way or another. Today they have developed into the sports of boxing and mixed martial arts, or the televised spectacle of reality show contests like Survivor or Wipeout. There was even a show called American Gladiators. Nobody really gets hurt, but we take delight in the contestants indignation and humiliation.
But the Romans were brutal, and the crowds loved it. The Roman satirist Juvenal summed up the reason for their existence: "Because, for such a long time now, ever since we sold our right to vote for nothing in return, the thought of continuing to allocate all the important posts in the state or the army the way we used to leaves us cold--no, people keep their heads down and ask for just two things: bread and circuses."
Meijer's book is a quick read, and not academic at all. He is highly detailed but always lucid. After deploring the violence of the Romans in his prologue, he points out that we can't really judge them in today's standards. Frankly, some of the things the Romans did would probably be acceptable to modern man. In a typical day of games, the morning would be spent with the hunt, or with animals fighting animals; i.e., a bull chained to a bear. The floor of the arena would be littered with thousands of animal corpses. PETA, if it had existed, would have had a collective seizure. But given that the pastime of hunting, long after it has become necessary for survival (for most people) is still popular, I'm sure many Americans would love to see that.
As Kohne points out, "From a modern viewpoint it is difficult to understand the enthusiasm left by the Romans for the bloody spectacle that will be described later in this book. However, we should not forget that our horror of watching the torture of human beings is an attitude that has arisen relatively late in the history of civilization, developing only slowly. Public torture and public executions were part of everyday life in many cultures, not least in Europe during the Middle Ages, and indeed, until quite recently, in the modern period."
At lunchtime, the executions would happen. Convicted murderers, etc. would be led out, tied together at the neck. They would be killed in a variety of ways, but most vividly they would be left for animals like leopards to rip them to shreds, while the crowds roared their approvals. Again, I'm sure you could find a segment of the population that would favor this even in today's world.
Then came the gladiator games. It was much more codified than we might imagine. For instance, there were different types of gladiators. They came from a variety of places--mostly prisoners, captured enemies, or even volunteers, but each had a style of fighting that they never changed. For example, a thraex (named after Thrace, a Roman province in what is now Bulgaria) fought with a round shield and a short curved sword. A murmillo had a rectangular shield. They were often combatants, but a thraex never fought another thraex. Later, in the imperial period, the retiarus was developed. He wore little armor (the others were helmeted, and wore armor on their shins and sword arm) and carried a net and a trident.
Gladiators and Caesars has many useful photographs of reenactors wearing the costumes of the various types of gladiators. They always stuck with their type. Some of them became quite famous and were sort of matinee idols for the ladies. They didn't fight very often--games were only held two or three times a year--and of course their survival record was not great. Statistics were kept, which today we know by epitaphs on gladiator tombs--they were almost like the back of a baseball player's bubble-gum card. A gladiator named Asteropaeus had no less than 107 victories.
Gladiators and Caesars also covers more than gladiator fights. Chapters cover Roman boxing, and an interesting chapter on chariot races uses the famous scene from Ben Hur as a starting point (of course much of it is inaccurate, but the writer urges us not to dismiss the excitement of the scene). The charioteers were divided into teams signified by color: red, green, blue and white. Fans rooted vociferously for a particular color (Caligula was a green fan), and even if racers switched teams the fans stuck with their color, which shows that Jerry Seinfeld's joke about modern sports fans rooting for clothes has ancient origins.
The book also covers Roman drama. I was a drama major in college, but I don't believe I've ever read a Roman play, as most ancient drama courses were dominated by the Greeks. Only three Roman playwrights have work that exists today: Plautus, Terence, and Seneca. I've ordered some books and hope to rectify my hole in that particular discipline.
Meijer also talks about movies, and novels as well. A few 19th-century books captured the romanticism of the sport, such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii and Henry Sienckewicz's Quo Vadis?, which focuses on the reign of Nero, when Christians were used as bait in the arena. He also focuses on two films: Spartacus and Gladiator. He likes Spartacus better, but points out a few problems, such as that Woody Strode's character is a retiarus, but they were only developed during the imperial period (Spartacus' revolt took place during the Republic). He is more hard on Ridley Scott's Gladiator, pointing out that the Latin is wrong in many places, and that the games were not depicted correctly--Russell Crowe's Maximus would have never had to fight men and a tiger at the same time. There's also the problem of the depiction of the emperor Commodus. Although he did like to take to the ring, he was not the weakling that Joaquin Phoenix portrayed. Nor did he kill his father, and he did not die in the arena. He ruled for 12 years and was assassinated.
The first film I'll be seeing in this period is The Fall of the Roman Empire, from 1964. It was in part inspired by the famous painting Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1872. Most scholars find it to be mostly accurate, as the victorious gladiator seeks the opinion of the crowd as to whether to kill his vanquished foe, who is raising his fingers in a plea for mercy. The vestal virgins are showing thumbs down, which is thought to be a call for death, but this is disputed. Some think the call for death was thumbs up, or a thumb thrust to the chest, which might mime a death blow.
The gladiator games ended when the Roman Empire dissipated, sometime around the sixth century A.D. Constantine had converted to Christianity, and the city had been sacked by Goths and Vandals. But their existence still fires our imaginations. Just take a look at the wildly popular The Hunger Games, which is a dystopian descendant of the concept. Bread and circuses has been a governmental strategy ever since, and probably always will be.