Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by Russel Whitfield

Philip Matyszak is best known for his meticulously researched and scholarly works such as ‘Roman conquests: Macedonia and Greece’ and ‘Mithridates the Great.’ However, Matyszak has the rare talent of making the academic easily digestible for a mass-market (take ‘Rome on Five Denarii a Day’). In his latest work he tackles that most enduring of Roman icons – the gladiator.

Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual follows the same format as his 2009 work on the Roman legionary, essentially leading the reader through all the stages a fighter would take in his gladiatorial career. The book is written in a chatty, irreverent style (sub-chapter headings include ‘See Londinium and die’), packed full of quotes from many classical sources that serve to illustrate, inform and entertain.

At first glance, it seems a light touch book, each chapter broken down into easy to read sub-sections, many in-page illustrations and box-outs and the aforementioned quotes. But first glances are often misleading.

It’s a credit to Matyszak’s skill as a writer that so much hard fact has been packed into this work. Every aspect of a gladiator’s life is explored in meticulous detail. The history of the games and how they came to be, the type of person that would become a gladiator, the different arenas of the empire (and even how likely a fighter was to survive in a given stadium – naturally based on hard data), the ludus and of course the different styles of gladiator who plied their trade on the sands.

Moreover, as this is a recent work, Matyszak reveals new facts including a particularly stunning plate of a 1st century bas-relief of gladiators wearing kit that I’ve certainly never seen before. It’s an interesting point: much of what we consider ‘fact’ can be overturned by new discoveries and this, I think, is one such instance.

Given the depth of information on offer, it’s easy to overlook the more subtle aspects of Matyszak’s research as much of it is mentioned in throw-away almost comedic lines. Matyszak informs us where and how to stab a person in order to kill or wound – a fact which he gleaned from an (acknowledged but unnamed) physician, the data about survival chances, the cost the editor of the games would have to pay for not granting the misso to gladiators of various ranks– all of this is not simply pulled out of the air.

He writes in great detail on not only the types of gladiator but how they fought. In this he was aided by UNRV’s own Svenja Grosser, a gladiatorial re-enactor of great experience. Little pieces of information such as resting a heavy shield in the lip of a greave to ease the weight, what techniques a retarius actually used against a murmillo, the little known fact that gladiatorial matches involved very little duelling with the sword but were nearly all about shield work – much (or all) of this comes from the meticulous notes provided by Svenja.

Of course, you don’t realise what you’re learning as you’re reading it – as I have said, the author’s style is so communicative that you’re absorbing facts like a sponge absorbs water. And, if you’ve missed anything important, each chapter ends with a Codex Gladiorum – a box-out that highlights the key points contained in the previous pages.

A particularly endearing part of the book is that as much care is taken over the chapters dealing with life after the arena as those that deal with life in it. Clearly, death is one way out, but Matyszak explores all the different avenues for retirement with great aplomb. The final paragraph is particularly touching:

In years to come no one may remember how the owner of a prosperous tavern on the lower slopes of the Caelian Hill acquired the wooden sword that hangs over his door. Nor will they understand why, when the shouting of the crowd at the Colosseum is carried by the wind up the valley, the old man smiles ruefully and touches the wound that withered his arm. Only he will remember what is was like to walk the sands of the arena and fight for his life as a gladiator of Rome.

Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual is a book that can be read in a few sittings (or one if you have a few hours at your disposal) but for the serious researcher, it’s a book that will end-up well-thumbed. It’s such an accessible work that everything is easy to find and provides more than enough detail for any academic. It contains maps, full colour plates, in-page illustrations, sources for quotations and illustrations, a glossary of terms and some helpful suggestions for further reading. There’s no shirking on detail therein – this is a book that can be enjoyed by the serious researcher and casual reader alike.

What Matyszak can teach his peers is that a comprehensive compendium of facts needn’t be a boring, incomprehensible 700 page tome: I’ve read a fair few studies on gladiators in my time (though some would argue that I should have read many more) and this is by far the best of the lot. An easy five-stars for this: for anyone even vaguely interested in the topic, if you own one book on the subject of gladiators – this should be it.

Russell Whitfield is the author of Gladiatrix and the upcoming Roma Victrix

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