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The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport - Fik Meijer

Book Review by Ursus

I am greatly surprised I have not heard more about this work. It is one of those studies I describe as intelligent but not pretentious. By that I mean it is rooted in sound scholarship (the author being a history professor at the University of Amsterdam), but written clearly enough that one need not be a diehard Romanophile or even an university graduate to appreciate its erudition. It is a fast enough read - I finished it in half a day - and yet every page is crammed full with useful info. The subject matter is itself a survey of one of the most infamous phenomenon of ancient history, a blood soaked pastime that has captivated many who otherwise might not have any use for Roman culture. Given all this I find it strange, and yet also quite exhilarating, that I am the first writer of UNRV to grace my comrades with word of this worthy tome.

The author's introduction is a personal anecdote. Having been given a tour of the Coliseum, he was intrigued the guide could answer every question about gladiator games except one: exactly why were the games so popular in their day? The guide seemed almost embarrassed that a people so advanced as the Romans could be so obsessed with something that modernity decries as barbaric. The author then starts musing about violence through the ages, from the knightly duels of medieval times, to the pistol duels of the European nobility. He notes candidly that the modern age, despite all its humanitarian pretensions, is far from having achieved a utopian peace. Various electronic media in particular have deliberately blurred the line between violence and entertainment. Previous historians, when writing on the topic of gladiators, have been quick and thorough in condemning the subject. Professor Meijer feels the subject has to be approached from its own vantage point rather than through modern criticism, and thus begins his study. I am rather elated the author chose to take this non-moralizing view, otherwise I doubt I would have enjoyed the book as much.

The first section of the book deals with the origins and evolutions of the gladiatorial games. There is a widely held belief, to which some in Antiquity adhered, that the genesis of the games lay in Etruscan religious rituals, possibly as a kind of indirect human sacrifice for the dead. Meijer is skeptical, for no Etruscan tomb yet unearthed has ever displayed any convincing evidence of a gladiatorial production. The earliest pictorial evidence of actual gladiatorial games comes from Campania, but whether this originated with Italians or the earlier Greek settlers remains unclear. What is beyond dispute is that when history first encounters gladiators, they are organized as small-scale funeral games for Roman aristocrats. They held a social and religious function within a private setting, but Roman aristocrats became instantly attuned to the influence such productions could wield over spectators. In the late Republic, with increasing social ills and perceived divine omens, gladiatorial games came under state sponsorship for the first time. They were now a public concern, and bolstered by Rome's finances they could now be organized on previously unimagined levels.

Gladiators came from all walks of life. While prisoners of foreign wars were always present, any slave could be ultimately sentenced to life (and thus death) as a gladiator. Some freemen voluntarily signed contracts with gladiatorial schools as a means of livelihood. Sons of Equestrians and Senators were not unknown; these social dandies may have fallen on hard times, or perhaps they simply sought some excitement. In some places women even served as gladiators, though more for amusement than sincere sport.

What all gladiators held in common was a dual edged social perception from Roman culture. On the one hand they were considered the lowest of the low; filthy dregs fit for slaughter. On the other hand, a gladiator bravely facing death was held as a kind of paragon for the Roman virtus that had forged the empire. The muscular and often scantily clad gladiator was also adored by legions of women, proving that since time immemorial most women have preferred bad boys. This mix of admiration and contempt is one of the most interesting aspects of the entire gladiatorial phenomenon, and a vexing commentary on Roman social values. Meijer spends some time elucidating contemporary viewpoints on the subject, from the Republican era to the Christian epoch. Some choice quotes from Rome's Stoic intellectuals, Cicero and Seneca, are included for good effect.

Meijer goes into great detail about the training of gladiators under their lanista, the types of gladiators defined by their use of particular weapons, and the costs associated with them. He also speculates on the dangers faced by them: apparently in any given game a gladiator faced a 25% chance of death, and gladiators who lived into their thirties were rare. The author compares these men to the soldiers of the French Foreign Legion; they lived hard lives of stark moments of terror, and even if they survived to see civilian life they probably could not adjust to the monotony of peace and safety.

Meijer also gives a sound background on the buildings in which gladiator games were displayed to the masses. Every Roman town of significant size in the Latin West had an amphitheatre for the games. There are fewer such structures in the Greek East, though rather than Hellenic disdain for the games this could simply be a matter of Greeks using existing theatres for such events.

But the one true center of gladiator combat was the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Coliseum. Meijer gives an overview of its history and structure, and the aftermath of its disuse when the games were banned. He also presents a typical day in the life of the Amphitheatre and devotes some time to each of the events. In the morning were games involving exotic animals. At lunchtime public executions of criminals were staged. The famed gladiatorial jousts were reserved for the afternoon.

At the night the clean up began, and this is an interesting if gruesome chapter. All those human and animal carcasses had to be disposed properly. Cremation was unthinkable in a highly flammable Rome. Thus graves were utilized, and those held in absolute contempt would find their corpses floating down the Tiber. Ever wondered what happened to all the slaughtered animals? I will simply state that hungry Roman plebeians did not let good meat go to waste.

The end of the gladiatorial games coincided with two historical forces: the rise of a new religious and social force in Christianity, and economic and political instability resulting from the depredations of the Empire (or at least its western part). Gladiators and the Coliseum passed into history and legend until they became a matter of archaeological concern centuries later.

They also became a literary and then cinematic concern. Meijer offers his assessment on the two most famous gladiator flicks: "Spartacus" with Kirk Douglas and "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe. The former he finds a classic movie despite some historical inaccuracies; the latter he dismisses as ahistorical "entertainment." I rather share his views on the matter.

Meijer concludes with his personal opinions. He states that while Modernity would like him to condemn the massive violence inherent in the gladiator games, he cannot do so. Rome was a product of its own times, and violence was ingrained at every level of culture, not just the popular entertainment. He also shares a historical anecdote from Saint Augustine. Augustine had a pupil who despised the games until some friends dragged him there. Tried as though he might to maintain his contempt, the young Christian pupil became enamored with the sights and sounds of the arena, and was forged into a diehard fan. Meijer asks himself if he would not hold to the same fate were he to witness the actual spectacle. And, by extension, who is to say you and I would not succumb to the horrific majesty of history's most deadly sport?

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