Stop for a moment, sit back, and dream of the Roman arena. Rows of armoured men standing on the sand before one man among thousands sitting expectantly around them, saluting him as their final hour approaches, in which they must fight for their llives, honour, glory, and the entertainment of the crowd.
It is, without doubt, a compelling image, one that has sustained a genre of historical literature all of its own. In these moments of idle reflection I wonder how much of this image is dramatic license? Are we guilty of exaggerating the legend of the Roman arena to epic proportions?
On the desk before me are three titles I've read before. The Gladiator (The Secret History of Rome's Warrior Slaves), The Age of the Gladiators (Savagery and Spectacle in Ancient Rome), and Gladiators (The Bloody Truth). It isn't hard to see a common thread. We're drawn toward these works because we find ourselves fascinated by the concept that killing and slaughter could possibly be viewed as entertaining, and to a greater or lesser extent, the books relate this idea without hesitation. We expect to learn that gladiators were brutal fighters in contests to the death, or that vast numbers of dangerous animals are slaughtered in a mass orgy of bloodletting.
Partly we have the Romans themselves to blame. They often boasted of the games held in their honour, very quick to give us the numbers of contestants and casualties sustained for events that grew in scope to encompass as much as a third of a year of games. On the other hand, the need to earn a living means that modern authors are persuaded, if not actually enthusiastic themselves, to supply our desire for shocking revelations of a world that sometimes feels astonishingly close to our own.
I happened to pass by my postbox this weekend, expecting some junk mail or sundry bills. What I received was a thin cardboard package which contained Spectacle In The Roman World by Hazel Dodge. In fact, I freely admit I was stunned by the diminutive volume that runs to less than a hundred pages. Is this it? Hardly a literary work on a spectacular scale.
In fairness the summary on the back cover does say this work is an introduction to the subject. As it happens, Hazel Dodge dives straight into her subject with an overview on evidence, sources, and modern interpretation. Rather like the morning practice bouts of the munera, she tempts us with possibilities. However, unlike most works of this genre, she also wastes no time with feeding our fantasies. The author retains a very factual style, emphasising the evidence, and indulges in speculation only when the alternative conclusions are relevant and debatable.
We learn about chariot racing, gladiatorial combat, and animal hunts. We discover the undeniable links between politics and public entertainment. The history of Roman spectacles, their unexpected longevity, variety, ingenuity, and the architecture of venues used to stage them. I find myself astonished at the brevity of her prose and the detail she packs in. For such a slim volume, it leaves you in no doubt about what we're dealing with.
Finally the reader is brought back to where he started, once again returning to how the modern world compares with the ancient, examining how the context of either isn't always what we believe it to be. As I close the final pages I can't help feeling something is desperately missing. Why that should be is harder to explain, because there's no doubting her research and understanding of the subject.
I now return to where I started. In my dreams I still want the Roman spectacle to thrill me. That part of us that is secretly inspired by the Circus Maximus or the Colosseum will still seek to supply that need. Understandably then I wasn't thrilled by this one. For a volume that describes such dramatic displays it has none of the drama that goes with it.
Nor should it. As dry as it is, Spectacle In The Roman World delivers a sharp and concise guide without resorting to cliche and the same old ideas. Those other books are a good read, but not as good a guide as this one is. That's the reason you should be tempted by it.
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