Gladiator is an extremely informative and well written account of the phenomenon that whipped the Roman world into a frenzy for the better part of seven centuries. This book is a detailed account of everything related to the ultra violent world of the premier sporting event and icons of the ancient world.
The book begins with the origins of the sport and how it started out as part of the funeral rites as early as the 3rd Century BCE, the spilling of human blood was believed to reconcile the dead with the living, originally the Romans would have sacrificed prisoners of war or some unfortunate slaves as a way of placating the deceased but they then decided to add a bit of pleasure to the process in the way in the way of a fight to the death and there began the Romans love affair with gladiatorial combat. As Rome grew so did the largess involved with the fights, it became a kind of status symbol for the rich and powerful families of Republican Rome, i.e. the more Gladiators and the more spectacular show, the wealthier and nobler the host.
The popularity of these spectacles and the Romans outrageous thirst for blood sports entertainment soon elevated this funerary rite into a spectacle of death and slaughter that gripped the Roman world from the lowliest slave up through the seats of power and eventually to the Emperor himself.
Konstantin Nossov is from Moscow and is a researcher in and advisor on ancient and medieval arms, armour and warfare, as well as the author of numerous books and articles on the subject. This book was originally published in Russian in 2005 but has thankfully been translated into English.
After explanation of the origins of the sport, Nossov goes on to explain to us in great detail about the heroes in this story… The Gladiators. These included the more well known fighters like the Myrmillo, who entered combat wearing only a loincloth and belt and armed himself with a standard gladius, scutum, a distinctive helmet and greaves. The Retiarius who is probably the most easily identified gladiator fighting armed with only a net, trident and a dagger and a manica on his left arm with a metal shoulder guard attached to it to protect himself. The Secutor who was created specially for combat with the Retiarius, this guy was pretty heavily armoured and protected in comparison to his rival but was slow and cumbersome with poor vision due to his helmet which went a long way to balancing the contest. Then there’s the lesser known gladiators like the Anabata who apparently fought blind! The Crupellarius who were heavily armoured gladiators with a complete covering of steel and the Essedarius who was a gladiator who fought from a chariot.
After discussing the gladiators and their equipment we move onto the methods of combat and Nossov explains to us just how skilled, brave and utterly ruthless you needed to be to make it as a gladiator. The great gladiators weren’t just big brutes thrashing and chopping heads off like we see in the movies, they were actually well trained and talented athletes, some even experts with different weapons, as described in the epitaph of gladiator named Hermes….
Hermes is the pride of his age in martial contests; Hermes is skilled in all kinds of arms; Hermes is a gladiator and master of gladiators; Hermes is the terror and awe of his whole school; Hermes is he of whom Helius is afraid; Hermes is he alone to who Advolans submit; Hermes is skilled in conquering without a blow; Hermes is his own body of reserve; Hermes makes the fortune of the letters of seats; Hermes is the object and care to the actresses; Heres walks proudly with the war like spear; Hermes threatens with Neptunes trident; Hermes is terrible with the helmet shading the face; Hermes is the glory of Mara in every way; Hermes is everything in himself and thrice a man.
We are then treated to an in-depth description of the home of the gladiator, the amphitheatre, the different types beginning with the ones that are completely excavated from the ground, through to the massive constructions that we are all familiar with like the Colosseum which gets a couple of pages dedicated to it. Then the book moves on to the day of the show and the planning and preparation involved in getting such a spectacular show up and running smoothly. Described is the order of events in the show, beginning with the morning programme which would be compromised of a venatio (or hunt) including execution of criminals sentenced to be killed by beasts. The main execution of criminals, athletic competitions and comic performances took place at midday followed by the main event, the gladiatorial combats.
This is a big glossy book full of great pictures, artist’s impressions, archaeological evidence and a good glossary at the back translating all the Latin gladiatorial terms. The author cites his sources throughout the book and these can also be found at the back in the notes section. All in all this is a well written and presented book on such an entertaining, enticing and at times stomach churning aspect of Roman life.
“What wounds will the gladiator bear, who are either barbarians, or the very dregs of mankind? How do they, who are trained to it, prefer being wounded to basely avoiding it? How often do they prove that they consider nothing but giving satisfaction to their masters or to the people? For when covered with wounds, they send to their masters to learn their pleasure: if it is their will they are ready to lay down and die. What gladiator, of even moderate reputation, ever gave a sigh? Who ever turned pale? Who ever disgraced himself in the actual combat, or even when about to die? Who that had been defeated ever drew in his neck to avoid the stroke of death? So great is the force of practise, deliberation and custom!”………. Cicero.
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