Blood and Sand: Gladiators in the Roman Empire - 15th January 2018
The first meeting of the Biddulph and District Genealogy and Historical Society of 2018 was held at 7 p.m. on the 15th January in Biddulph Library. Mr. Roland Machin, the Society’s Chairman, introduced Dr. Andrew Fear who gave a talk entitled “Blood and Sand - Gladiators in the Roman Empire”.
Dr. Fear explained as lecturer in Classics at the University of Manchester he is primarily interested in Roman history. His talk about gladiators was a comprehensive look at the subject and this write up can only present a skeleton view of a subject he fleshed out with copious amounts of information, numerous photographs and anecdotes. The talk also included a look at the effect that the games had on the establishment and politics of the Roman Empire.
An imposing figure Dr. Fear began his talk holding his only prop - a Roman short sword and his audience, particularly on the front row, sat up and listened. The word to describe the nature of the Roman games that followed was ‘bloodthirsty,’ defined as “eager to shed blood” or “enjoying or encouraging bloodshed or violence, especially as a spectator or clamorous partisan”. Dr. Fear in the next hour explained:
- who was involved in the games, both in organising and running them.
- what would happen at the “games” including a timetable of the day’s events and the types of gladiators employed.
- where the games took place took place, often starting in the butchers quarters or Shambles, before later moving to the amphitheatre‘s of the whole Roman world.
- when the gladiators were first employed, trained and joined training schools and became paid professionals.
The French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme painted this picture known as ‘Pollice Verso’ in 1872 featuring the widely recognised Roman thumbs down directed to the winning gladiator at the Colosseum. The gesture is given by the Vestals to the victorious murmillo, awaiting the decision on whether the beaten retiarius should live or die. The painting inspired the 2000 film Gladiator, where Commodus holds out a raised thumb to spare Maximus. The producers of Gladiator showed Ridley Scott a reproduction of the painting before he read the film script. “That image spoke to me of the Roman Empire in all its glory and wickedness. I knew right then and there I was hooked”, said Scott. However it was found that the secutor’s armour is not properly assembled and according to Dr. Fear much more besides is open to question.
So what were the Roman Games really like? They began, according to Dr. Fear’s research in a small way as a way of honouring the dead; the sons of Brutus, for example, held one in Rome at the Forum Boarium (cattle market) in 212 BC. There seems to be an Etruscan connection as lanista (originally a gladiator but later a man who purchased and looked after gladiators) comes from laniare or butcher as they ‘rip bodies apart’. A lanista could gain considerable wealth in renting or selling gladiators, particularly to small, local games. Newly-bought gladiators were formed into troupes called ‘Familia gladiatorium’. The games expanded in various ways into a show of wealth and a way of gaining political favour for local dignitaries, politicians and priests who would finance them. Aemilius Celer of Pompeii organised a five day event where gladiators fought ‘Twenty pairs paid for by Decimus Lucretius Valens, son of Satirus, priest in perpetuity of Nero Caesar Augustus’s son, and ten pairs paid for by his son Decimus Lucretius Valens with proper beast baiting (venatio) and awnings over the arena’.
The popularity of the games increases and local politicians across the Empire, which probably stretches across the entire known world at the time, continue to invest heavily in the games. In Tunisia where the city of Carthage developed under Julius Caesar (44 BC) and continued under Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD) as the new capital of Africa Province, there are numerous Roman remains including large mosaic tiled floors which show the sponsor of the games, the cost to the sponsor and order of fights that took place. If you see a Roman gladiatorial mosaic the lemniscate (mathematical symbol for infinity) represents 1,000 sesterces and habet (Phoenician letter Teth) indicates a gladiator who died (also, usually they are depicted with an open wound and lying in a pool of blood). So much is being spent on the games that Emperor Marcus Aurelius (around 160 A.D.) tries to cap the costs.
The Games become more organised with a timetable of events and schools of gladiators fighting each other. In Rome the Colosseum is built on the site of the much disliked Nero’s Palace as a place to hold the games. The sponsor of the games leaves the organising of them to an Editor. They are free but the crowd is organised in that everyone has a place, for example, the rows of married men sit in front of unmarried men in front of the women. The day will start with a hunt – wild animals are released and hunted; at midday the executions of felons take place and in the afternoon the gladiators fight. So who are the gladiators? They are mainly slaves, prisoners of war and criminals but also volunteers as the schools provide food and accommodation, extremely good medical (some of Rome’s best known doctors start at the schools). Successful gladiators are valuable and are also popular with women.
The gladiators have a range of skills: the Retiarius fights with a net; the Murmillo or fish man with a sword, shield and fancy helmet; the Secutor or chaser with sword and shield with plain helmet with small eyeholes (Dr. Fear likened them to cybermen); the Thraex or Thracian with short curved sword, shield and ornate helmet; the Equites who start on horses carrying a spear; the Andabata with one or two swords but no eye holes in the helmet; and, the Scissor who is armed with an implement like a lawn edger. The fights continue to the death unless one of the gladiators surrenders, which is the same hand gesture as a cricket umpire giving a batsman out, holding the first finger vertically.
There are referees dressed in white tunics with two coloured stripes down the front who oversee the games. The decision whether the gladiator should live or die if they lose fight is given by a thumb gesture. Whether it is a thumbs up or down gesture that is used to save or condemn seems to be in some doubt. Quintillian wrote “there is a gesture in which the head is put on the right shoulder, the arm stretched out from the ear, and the hand extended with a hostile thumb”. As Dr. Fear demonstrated it is difficult to do this and turn your thumb down. Pliny wrote “The proverb tells us that when we favour someone we should keep our thumbs hidden”. There is little hope, however, if you turn to run away from your opponent. You will be despatched quickly by a single sword blow, then a man with a long handled mallet makes sure and drags the gladiator from the arena through the small doorway labelled ‘pubia Libitinensis’ or ‘gate of death’.
Chester was mentioned by Dr. Fear; in Roman times it was known as Castra Deva, meaning the military camp on the River Dee and which was home to the 20th Legion (Valeria Victrix) for about 200 years. Chester's geographical position made it one of the finest strategic outposts of the Roman Empire. The River Dee was an important trade route for raw minerals, such as lead and copper from mines in nearby North Wales. So if you want to visit a Roman amphitheatre where gladiators fought there is increasing evidence, according to the Telegraph newspaper article of the 17th of February 2007 quoting archaeologists Dan Garner at Chester City Council and Tony Wilmott of English Heritage, that Chester had proper seating for about 10,000 spectators on two storeys which was similar to the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre of El Djem, once again in Tunisia. It also states that ‘finds at the excavation of the arena provide the most conclusive proof yet that it played host to grisly fights to the death for public entertainment, and reinforce the view of the town's importance in the Roman Empire’.
Dr. Fear answered a number of questions before Mr Machin thanked him for a wonderful talk which had thoroughly entertained the meeting with facts, photographs and humour. As the meeting broke up for tea and biscuits quite a few were grateful that they lived now and not at the height of the Roman Empire.
The next meeting of the Society will be on Monday the 19th of February 2018 at 7 p.m. in Biddulph Library when the Speaker will be Mr. Chris Barber who will give a talk entitled “Biddulph Palace Cinema”.