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Are You Not Entertained? (We Were.)

Updated: Sep 9, 2023



From the entrance of the exhibition. A sign featuring two gladiators and the script: GLADIATORS - A Day at the Roman Games


I am the curator of a gladiatorial museum, albeit one that exists only in my imagination. I’ve meticulously planned the entire thing, and it would fill an aircraft hangar and a four volume catalogue. I’ve packed it to the rafters with artefacts that I’ve held, that I’ve seen, that I’ve only written about. I have the mental equivalent of control+shift+C motherlode, because I have infinite space, resources and a lot to say.


Sadly, in the real world I have to make do with visiting museums and exhibitions featuring gladiatorial artefacts. Having chosen to focus on spectacle, and having spent many an idle hour thinking about exactly how I would curate my exhibition, I naturally don’t visit as a neutral tourist. I’m picky.


I’ve been to a lot of gladiator exhibitions over the last half a decade; I’ve travelled to France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland to get my fix. I’m generally very impressed, but frequently left with frustrating niggles, desperate to make my own tweaks. A lot of my (minor) gripes come back to what spurred me to write my very first Working Classicists article ‘Thumbs Up?’ - it can too often feel like historians, or in this case curators, are too busy influencing the public with their use of emotive language and imagery, when I believe it would be more beneficial to be pragmatic when talking about Roman spectacle. We will find it harder to understand its purpose and popularity if we insist on bringing along our modern baggage. It rubs me up the wrong way to see certain words and phrases being used: Bloodthirsty. Barbaric. Murder. Savage. Baying Mob.


The longer we insist on talking about spectacle like this, the more difficult we will find it to understand why exactly the Romans developed this strangest of sports.

Even if I get irked, I’ll always try to visit a gladiatorial exhibition if I can, so I was delighted to learn that Colchester Castle planned to present “Gladiators: A Day At The Roman Games.” The promo material looked promising, and there are 50 artefacts on loan from other UK collections. Obviously, I was going to be first in the queue. As I whizzed along the M25, I crossed my fingers that I’d see some old friends, new favourites and ABSOLUTELY NO CRIMSON PAINT. The exhibition is billed as family friendly, so I also brought my 7 year old daughter along as a guinea pig.


A sign from teh front of Colchester Castle advertising the exhibition.

Here’s what we saw:


The exhibition follows a day at the Games. The first thing we encountered was a fun little booth, painted like an amphitheatre interior, in which kids could dress up as animals or bestiarii (beast hunters) and pose for photos. My daughter loved this, and had great fun defeating an elephant (AKA my Dad.) So far, so good; I’ve never seen a gladiatorial exhibition engage with kids at all, let alone this well. This was like an amuse bouche to the exhibition proper, which is mainly housed on the upper floor in the designated temporary exhibition space.


Everything upstairs follows the course of a day at the Games. You won’t find attempts to explain the murky development or decline of Roman spectacle here, they’ll just slow us down. We’re firmly in the heyday of gladiators. We’re spectators in Colchester itself, ready to settle in our seats for a day of premium entertainment. On the way in we see our entrance tokens, a tempting souvenir stand (my favourite was the dainty little glass from Colchester’s own collection) and the snack stall (complete with chicken drumsticks, just as in my own amphitheatre snack recipe.) On a screen high above us, Nemesis, Diana and Hercules chat about which fighters they favour. The exhibition then follows the course of the day’s events, with beast hunts in the morning, executions at noon and finishes with the afternoon’s gladiators bouts. Following a typical day in the life of the arena is a masterstroke, allowing the exhibition to really zero in on the experience of attending.


An ancient glass cup with gladiator details on the side.

Here’s where we got to the really fun part:


A Top Trumps-style game to see how we’d fare in the arena as fighters. My daughter was given her murmillo score card, with her personal scores for strength, armour, attack, speed, size and popularity.

As we went around several of the animals and fighters had their own scorecards. A roll of a dice determined who would win; we easily won our popularity bout against the Thraex, but couldn’t beat the lion for strength. At the end, we had won enough bouts to rank as secundus palus, not quite enough fame to make anyone sigh but respectable nonetheless.

From the exhibition: a stuffed bear and a stuffed boar.

My daughter was suitably impressed with the bear, boar, stag and a lioness head, having not realised their size until she was able to stand up close. What I really loved was the interactive map of the empire that explained where these animals were native, so that we saw just how much effort went into procuring animals for the Games. I was also impressed with the replica predator skulls, placed next to an image of one of the York gladiator skeletons; a hip bone was found with a deep tooth mark in it. Seeing the size of teeth up close made it easy to understand the risks the bestiarii took each time they entered the arena.


As far as objects go, the curators have managed to collect quite the treasure trove. A murmillo helmet from Pompeii has been loaned from the British Museum, where Colchester’s lighting put the BM to shame. It looks fantastic.


But what I loved the most was that so many star objects are from Britannia. I was reunited with the teeny tiny amber pendant in the shape of a helmet; it was found in London and I got to handle it once upon a time. (It’s usually in the London Mithraeum.) I was over the moon to finally see the Southwark ‘battle of the sexes’ lamp in person, as well as Chester’s left handed retiarius relief, which I think I’m right in saying is the only image of a left handed retiarius in the entire empire. Left handers were quite the novelty, which may go to explain why this fighter found himself immortalised in stone.


Of course, the big draw is Colchester’s star gladiatorial attraction, the Colchester Vase. Recently the subject of new research, this is part of the museum’s permanent exhibition but gets the VIP treatment on this special occasion. The vase depicts the fight of Memnon and Valentinus. Memnon, already the victor of 8 fights, wins his ninth as Valentinus extends his finger in defeat - the fight was ad digitum, ‘to the finger’ - the gladiator version of tapping out.


There are two reasons why this vase is so exciting: firstly, it increasingly seems like this depicts a real fight that happened in Colchester.* Secondly, the stage name of Memnon, an Ethiopian king from Greek epic poetry, might have been chosen to reflect this fighter’s own African origins.


Could we finally have a depiction of a Black gladiator? I fully believe so.

Visually, the space is stunning, with illustrations by Gary Erskine. I fell entirely in love with the larger than life portraits of the gladiators, gods and Romans. They have a comic-book feel that was utterly charming, and the allusions to modern superheroes really emphasises how the Romans viewed gladiators as superstars. Seeing the illustration of a victorious Memnon at the exhibition’s finale was a brilliant way to finish our Day at the Games.

The famous murmillo helmet.

Colchester has a small temporary exhibition space but, my word, have they used every square inch to best advantage! I ended up going round three times, and my daughter wasn’t bored for a second. This is the perfect exhibition for children who show an interest in history. For adults, it’s a comprehensive tour of British gladiators. There are numerous amphitheatres in Britain that you can visit today, but this is the first time I’ve seen so much British evidence for spectacle all in one place. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from mentioning executions, death or slavery, but does so in a commendably measured tone, making sure to correct a few common myths in the process. I was seriously impressed.


My only criticism was that the gift shop didn’t have more for me to buy. Particularly after the genius of the souvenir stall, it would have been lovely to have come away with armfuls of reproductions (though I understand why these can’t be made of loan items.) If the illustrations had been put on postcards, keyrings, badges or fridge magnets my wallet would be empty. Or a tote bag! A girl can dream…


All in all though, I left with a mile-wide grin. I’ve been to bigger gladiator exhibitions with huge chunks of epigraphy and reliefs, but none have captured the festive feeling of a day at the Games quite like Colchester. This exhibition is an absolute triumph. I’m already planning a return visit (with my DSLR) before this exhibition closes on the 14th of January 2024, and you should too.



A sign from the exhibition - "Enjoy the games". Features three characters: Hercules, Nike and a roman woman bearing a spear. Possibly Minerva?



*The exhibition wisely skirts around Colchester’s apparent lack of an amphitheatre. I was impressed to see mention of the Fidenae disaster, a tragic example of a temporary wooden venue, but if I could have added one thing it would have been alternative venues. They’re my pet project. St Albans has a hybrid theatre/arena but Colchester’s theatre looks too standard. My bet is on the circus at Colchester. Why build such a monument if you weren’t going to get good use out of it? Many Roman circuses and stadia had temporary or even - on occasion - permanent amphitheatres built into the U shaped area (sphendone) of the track (including the circus at Caesarea, the stadium in Aphrodisias and even the Panathenaic stadium in Athens!) If I were hunting for a venue in Colchester, the circus sphendone is the first place I’d look.


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