Book Review by Marc Ollard
Imagine yourself entering the public seats of a Roman arena. Would you expect a days entertainment? Displays of martial courage? Would you become excited and spellbound by the spill of blood? Or stare horrified at the sight of men mauled and mangled by wild animals? All these emotions are attested to in the Roman sources. Today we're alternately appalled and fascinated by the subject, noting parallels with modern attitudes and behaviour, wondering whether the love of violent competition is really so alien to us.
Then again, these days we're more concerned with our enviroment, the natural world, the decline of species. The Romans had no such qualms beyond their own profit and covenience. That they were denuding the wilderness of wildlife was not lost on them, but did it change their outlook, motivating them them to preserve rather than exploit? Perhaps that was where we part company with our Roman ancestors, for they never saw value in preservation.
Welcome to Gladiators & Beast Hunts, a book by Dr Christopher Epplett. The first impression is largely helped by the books cover, showing mosiac imagery many will be familiar with. Presentation maintains the standards we have come to expect of the publisher and the colour photographs in the centre section are both relevant and illuminating.
There have been any number of books published on these themes before, generally falling into one of a number of categories.You can find works that revel in the excitment and bloodlust in a sensationist view of arena combat. Others tend to focus on particular aspects of the sport. The author has indeed done this, and makes special reference to the venationes, the beast hunts, which he considers has not received due attention.
Dr. Epplett rejects some aspects of Roman sport as irrelevant to this theme. Sports such chariot races, pancration, wrestling, and boxing are not detailed. One cannot help feeling that this is a literary microscope zooming in on the petrie dish of Roman entertainment. The reader is led by the hand into a gory world of contest and slsughter with a scientific detachment and there's no going back. If that sounds critical, don't be misled. The author's research is impressive, revealing insights from some of the most obscure documents. We're used to the common themes of the Roman arena. In this book, the author digs deeper, and opens our eyes to details of Roman society as a whole that are not immediately obvious.
Gladiators & Beast Hunts follows a logical sequence, starting with the origins of funerary violence to the development of mass entertainment and the extraordinary set piece theatre of the Spectacle. We can read about the variations of event both in Rome and the empire at large, and better yet, the author has delved into what he can find about the personal angle, the sentiment expressed by those who watched and those who fought.
There is a section devoted to to the infrastructure of the games, revealing hints of an entire lost world of logistical effort and negotiation. The process of obtaining animals for public shows is reconstructed from the initial capture through tranpsort to the temporary if sometimes long term placement in private zoos. Fascinating glimpses of Roman bureaucracy emerge as we discover evidence of job titles related to the keeping of animals. And yet, despite all this and the huge financial investment that beasthunsts incurred, there is a worrying background of wastage even before the animals reach the arena. There is no doubt that the Romans were capable of catching wild animals - the author uncovers a strong vein of military involvement in this activity - yet they were so often clumsy and ignorant of how an animal should be kept fit and healthy. For modern sensibilities the sorry tales of animals emaciated or dying in captivity evoke sympathy even before we consider the deliberate slaughter.
Eventually the book reaches that inevitable theme of the demise of arena sports which accounts for nearly a quarter of the text. Many popular preconceptions are questioned in the light of evidence. Indeed, the whole concept of violent competition is shown to be not unique to the Roman world - merely their social emphasis and popularity. Dr Epplett discusses this without unnecessary attachment to our contemporary experience, though clearly one can see that the human love of violence, especially that incurred by others, has always been part of the human psyche if suppressed by social norms.
One cannot help thinking this book should have been longer. At 170 pages, the impression left is more of a very detailed summary than a wide ranging discussion, which is odd considering that the author has gone to great lengths to evaluate the evidence left to us by the Romans. There is an intensity to his writing that results in this sort of brevity.
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As a history of munera and venationes Christopher Epplet's book works well, and indeed, has a level of detail that is condensed into a handy volume. There is an impression that every recorded instance of a public event has been charted and considered for importance and relevance. Nonetheless the book does not dwell on every aspect of arena sports. You will learn almost nothing of the psychology of such fighting, limited coverage of social issues, architecture, and even descriptions of the established gladiator classes seem a little cursory.
Should you buy this book? There are good reasons for doing so, with the understanding this will not be the only book about gladiators you will ever need. Dr Epplett comes agonisingly close to a palm leaf of victory but in the final analysis, he recieves a missio - with some well deserved applause.
Book Review of Gladiators & Beasthunts - Related Topic: Roman Gladiator