Age of the Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

Book Review by JGolomb

You’re at a dinner party, and you overhear your neighbor discussing gladiatorial games in ancient Rome. You sidle over and slip into the conversation, “Did you know that an ape was once trained to drive a chariot pulled by camels?”

Later, you check in on the teenagers in the basement watching the newly released Blu-Ray version of Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator”. After Maximus slices through the last of his latest foes, you pipe in with, “Did you know that condemned criminals (and sometimes Christians) were, in fact, thrown to lions, but they were also thrown to crocodiles, wolves, dogs and bears?”

Rupert Matthews’ “Age of the Gladiators: Savagery & Spectacle in Ancient Rome” is filled with anecdotes and examples of gladiator styles, equipment, and modes of murder and mayhem throughout the Roman Empire. After reading “Age”, you’ll have plenty of conversational pocket change to unload on unwitting neighbors, disinterested kids, and half-listening spouses.

The first half of the book focuses on all things gladiator: origins, history, decline, the gladiator and their games, training, types of fighters, naval battles, wild animal hunts, executions as part of games, and then the Colosseum itself. There’s also a chapter that provides a nice overview of the world’s most famous non-fiction gladiator – Spartacus and his slave rebellion. The second half of the book covers a range of items like circuses, chariot and horse racing, Roman festivals, triumphs, bread doles and starvation, and a random assortment of other topics that generally fall under the heading of “Savagery & Spectacle.”

This book, however, is neither erudite nor academic – probably not the best choice as a reference in a doctoral dissertation. It has no bibliography or notes of any kind, and only periodic and passing references to the origination of a quote or tidbit of information. In addition to some questionable analysis, Matthews is oddly repetitive. On the first page of the first chapter (following the introduction), Matthews explains that historically a gladiatorial fight was called munus (munera in the plural) which means obligation. Gladiatorial fights were staged during funeral celebrations and so the fight was an obligation to the dead. Munus and munera are referenced throughout, but inexplicably, in the chapter on Roman circuses midway through the book, Matthews felt it necessary to remind us “If a … relative died … a suitably impressive munus, a gladiatorial show, could be staged.”

In another display of authorial forgetfulness, Matthews writes how Romulus, one half of the city-founding super-twins, organized a horse race in honor of the god Consus, patron of the harvest. He writes this on page 124…and page 130 – as if it was new information each time. It doesn’t help the books’ credibility that he repeatedly refers to Julius Caesars’ close friend Mark Anthony. Last I heard, Mark Anthony is married to J. Lo and the closest he’s come to Julius is on the blackjack tables at Caesar’s Palace. Antony is referenced correctly in a later chapter and in the index, but there’s an editor at Arcturus Publishing in the UK who might consider a new line of work…

This book is best viewed as a series of independent essays compiled into a collection of writings on gladiators and spectacle in ancient Rome. If one can overcome the aforementioned foibles, there are some nice info nuggets. I wasn’t aware that there was a sort of loose minor league structure within the world of chariot racers. Each factione (Chariot teams consisting of team Red, White, Blue and Green) had an informal relationship with its counterpart in smaller cities near Rome. Also, riders would, at times, change factiones, not unlike the modern day charioteer Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who recently switched NASCAR teams.

Most people are aware of the depths of Nero’s depravity, but Matthews wrote on one incident which was new to me. While the Emperor was preparing to recite an epic poem he’d written about the life of Hercules, an unfortunate thief was caught stealing apples from Nero’s gardens. Theft of an Emperor’s property was considered treason and so he was condemned to death. Nero had a fantastically efficient idea of combining the recitation and execution. The thief appeared in the final scene in Nero’s drama. He was clothed in a coat smeared in pitch and set alight and pushed on stage, emulating (or is that immolating) Hercules’ mythological flaming death. Matthews writes, “His searing death agonies formed the triumphal end to Nero’s play.”

The book contains a map - ostensibly of the Roman Empire at AD 211, and illustrations roughly tied to each chapter. Frustratingly, other than the cover painting called Pollice Verso by Jean Leon Gerome, which I find quite powerful, there are no illustration credits.

If you’re going to Italy for the first time and enjoyed the movie “Gladiator”, then this is a good enough book to provide you context and background. If you’re interest in roman history is relatively new and you’re looking for a simple, easy-to-read overview of gladiators and excess, then this book will do. If you’re serious about history or looking for detailed analysis, academic perspective, or erudite writing, then you’re best bet is to look elsewhere. And if you’re interested in Mark Anthony, I’d recommend People Magazine.

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