For a sport banned a millennium and a half ago, gladiators are everywhere. They’re on our screens, lend their name to our sports teams, and tourists flock to ruined amphitheatres. Gladiators are an ancient phenomenon that modern society has re-embedded into pop culture; gladiators are almost as ubiquitous to us as they were to the Romans. However, they’re not truly understood and often misrepresented. Often, it is historians who aren’t helping.
For the average enthusiast who wants to read up on gladiators following a holiday to Rome or watching Gladiator on Netflix, finding accurate information is not as easy as it seems. Most high street bookshops already limit their stock to Julius Caesar biographies and books about Pompeii. Political assassinations and pyroclastic flows shift units; but for a subject as extraordinary as Roman spectacle, the pickings are often meagre. Documentary makers frequently assume that to attract viewers they need to provide sensationalist programming with little substance which results in little more than historical rubbernecking. Hollywood will never favour factual accuracy over narrative despite their addiction to gladiators, and idle googling presents an overwhelming volume of poorly researched listicles where myths are perpetuated uninhibited. There is a small but vibrant corner of academia doing excellent research into spectacle, but much of their findings are in paywalled journals or books that aren’t written for or marketed to general audiences. It is difficult for a member of the public to find good quality, up-to-date information.
This leads to two difficulties, both of which stem from the absence of context.
Firstly, it is easy to glamorise gladiators. We’re not exactly the first to do it; the sources tell us that Roman men wanted to be gladiators and women wanted to be with them. It’s a natural continuation that we still kind of do; the hyper-masculinity, skill and fortitude of the gladiator makes them a popular mascot for contact-sports teams whilst handsome Hollywood gladiators are desired by legions of enthusiastic admirers. And so, in modern entertainment at least, gladiators are presented in an almost universally positive light. Whether on the silver or small screen, Spartacus has been hailed as the ultimate hero. Fictionalised gladiators ever since have followed suit, their ranks are filled with principled warriors who prefer to fight their oppressors in the imperial box than their opponents in the arena. These portrayals, whilst heart-stirring, imbue gladiators with apocryphal ideology and an agency and humanity their real counterparts were stripped of. But the image we’ve cultivated of the lone gladiator breaking from his shackles to challenge the Powers That Be is bleeding out of Hollywood. Take, for instance, Steve Bannon’s brainchild – a far-far-right school in Italy that seeks to train ‘defenders of western culture’ – known as the Gladiator School.
Maximus Decimus Meridius brought down a tyrant, Bannon’s gladiators will bring down multiculturalism. The head of the school, Benjamin Harnwell, described the need for the institution’s survival as “an existential battle for me between good and evil.” The concept of a gladiator fighting for anything except his own life is a Hollywood invention, most scholars agree that Spartacus was fighting for survival rather than to bring down the institution of slavery or the ideology of the Roman Republic. This ludicrous ludus isn’t an isolated example; gladiatorial imagery has been frequently used by far-right individuals, particularly through the use of tattoos, to signal their own sense of hyper-masculinity. In much the same way that the Spartans have been appropriated by those with extreme views, gladiators are also becoming a mascot for such ideology. Naturally, both the Spartans and the gladiators have been completely misunderstood by the people using them for far-right cosplay.
Secondly, if Hollywood sees only heroes, then the academy sees only victims. Nobody in modern society longs to resurrect the practice of gladiatorial combat as we have learned to imitate violence to satisfy our curiosity of it, but still a lot of scholars are overly keen to signal their own modern sensibilities regarding unsimulated bloodsports. In Carlin Barton’s The Sorrow of the Ancient Romans the first page of Chapter One is half-filled by a single footnote in which scholarly condemnations of violence are quoted; such as when Keith Hopkins describes the phenomenon as ‘completely alien to us and almost unimaginable.’
As with all scholarship, these views trickle down into outreach. Michael Grant in his pop-history book Gladiators: the Bloody Truth compared the practice to the Holocaust – a shockingly inappropriate statement that was thankfully excised in the second edition. In a lecture for The Great Courses, Robert Garland can’t get through half an hour without vehemently deploring gladiatorial combat, stating that the programme of events in the Colosseum put his enormous respect of the ancient romans severely to the test. In a recent Channel 5 documentary about the inaugural games in the Colosseum, Bettany Hughes stands on the arena floor armed with a sorrowful expression and damp eyes, saying ‘I can’t come here and not have a sickening sense of the fear and the shame and the excruciating pain that must have been felt by the Colosseum’s victims.’ It’s made clear here that there are no heroes in the arena.
All of these historians and more have written about gladiatorial spectacle, and it is noteworthy how many of them feel the need to emphasise their personal disgust and unease. There seems to be an impulse to declare one’s own morality, one that is infinitely superior to that of the research subject. There is a tendency to express a reluctance and regret that the subject need be studied at all, because it is simply too awful to comprehend. It seems that the broader the intended audience, the greater the need to distance oneself and more context is dropped. It is a difficult balance to strike to justify exactly why Romans appreciated gladiators whilst not condoning them, and it’s temptingly easy to simply chuck the context in the bin. Easier to simply say that the Romans were unimaginably bloodthirsty. But is watching bloodsports too violent to comprehend? Is graphic violence as entertainment unimaginable?
Thomas Wiedemann is probably right when he suggests in Emperors and Gladiators that ‘scholars have tended to avoid betraying too much interest in gladiators and amphitheatres, perhaps put off by the popularity of the games, the fact that they fascinated the Romans, and - worse - fascinate ordinary people today.’ Whilst Bettany Hughes stands in the Colosseum teasing out a tear, millions of tourists per year line up to stand in the same spot. They are not there to weep, but to yell out “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” Outside of the amphitheatre, souvenir shops are filled to bursting with gladiator merch; statuettes, T shirts, replica equipment and a gladiator torso apron my husband staunchly refuses to wear. Both Lego and Playmobil market toy amphitheatres and gladiators to children. On screen and in videogames, gladiators have graduated from historical fiction to sci-fi and fantasy. This doesn’t suggest that enjoying gladiatorial combat is so hard for modern people to understand. The average person who wishes to learn more about the reality of Roman spectacle consumes a level of violence in their daily entertainment that exceeds that of any Roman: true-crime podcasts, murder mystery novels, and perhaps a police procedural on a Sunday night.
Gladiatorial combat was not a monolith. Often the ‘victims’ were condemned criminals, and their short careers as untrained gladiators was a form of execution. Perhaps we should not underestimate the importance to the Romans of seeing justice served in a society with high crime rates and without police or a prison system. Moreover, in La Gladiature Georges Ville estimates that by the 1st century AD 50% of trained gladiators were volunteers and chose the profession of their own free will and that for courageous and skilled, death by sword was by no means an inevitability.
The Romans developed gladiatorial spectacle to confront and interrogate their ideas of masculine virtues, to understand their imperial power and to consider how they would face death with calm and courage. We still do this, we’ve just changed the format; for instance consider how we use the genre of war movies. Even our fiction does much of the same; Game of Thrones explored many such themes and few people stopped watching because of depictions of death – even a skull being crushed like an egg. What separates us from the Romans is that we relegate pain and death to acting and CGI. I wonder if historians loudly repeating their abhorrence to ancient violent entertainment doesn’t actually alienate the general public, who understand and accept their own personal propensity to enjoy violent entertainment, albeit in simulated form. I suspect it might appear condescending and for that reason we should avoid it.
It is our role as historians to restore vital context about the past, making it objective and accessible. Gladiators were not principled Hollywood heroes nor innocent victims stuck on a conveyor belt of manufactured death; the situation is a lot more nuanced than that. Without an understanding of this nuance, the average person can misinterpret gladiators and miss their true place within Roman society and their purpose in moulding the Roman psyche, a psyche that for all our protestations is not so different from our own.
Last Minute Exile: Alexandra Sills
High School: Portsmouth City Girls’ School
Like Seneca, like Aristotle and like countless others from Classical history, you find yourself subject to an exile order, and must vacate the country tout-suite before some sort of sword-based injury befalls your neck!
You grab three records...
1. The Gladiator Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. It’s become a bit of a ritual to listen to it whilst
writing, to the point of superstition. It gets me in the zone and I fully intend to spend exile writing
page upon page.
2. I’m a theatre nerd, so I need a musical. I’m going to plump for Jesus Christ Superstar because I
love a rock opera. I also figure it will be quite cathartic…
3. I’ll need something to keep my hopes up, so either Dookie by Green Day or Turn The Radio Off
by Reel Big Fish. Instant nostalgia hit and impossible to feel miserable because I can’t help but
1. JUST TWO?! Bloody hell. OK, the 2 volume Atlas of Ancient Rome ed. Carandini&Carafa is one of
my most prized possessions. I could happily while away hours in exile looking through the maps,
diagrams and tables.
2. I recently bought all of the Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski as a boxset and as such I am
stubbornly counting them as one book. I’ve been too busy to read them yet, but exile seems like a
…a Tupperware of your favourite food…
There is nothing as glorious in this entire world as a pita gyros, with a bottle of cherry loux.
Heaven for a couple of euros.
…and something else at random.
I’d struggle to carry my beloved piano, but I guess I could grab a guitar now that I’d finally
have time to teach myself to play it…
Exile is going to suck, but at least you won’t have to put up with…
The current British Government…