The Museo Nazionale in Rome, which occupies part of the vast ruins of the Baths of Diocletian opposite the railway station, possesses a striking relief sculpture showing gladiators in , dating from the Augustan period. That is, it is about two thousand years old, and it was a chance find in the Tiber river between Rome and Ostia. It is no great work of art. The stone carver was competent, but he was producing a sculpture to embellish a tomb for some forgotten notable, whose funeral may have been celebrated by the gladiatorial games shown on the relief. At least it seems to portray actual games, for the artist has carved the names of the gladiators above their heads, and some information about them. One inscription begins with the gladiator’s name, which is too mutilated to read, but then it continues “IVL VVV,” which, when rescued from the realm of abbreviations, reads “Iulianus pugnarum V, coronarum V, vicit.” That means that this gladiator belonged to the Julian Gladiatorial School founded by Julius Caesar at Capua, had fought five times and won five times. He is a well-muscled, vigorous man, wearing the latest model of Roman army helmet decorated with a feather, and a narrow breastplate buckled over his pectoral muscles which left his midriff bare. His opponent’s name, Clemens, has survived. He has lowered his shield to the ground and raised his right arm in a gesture of surrender. Above him is the single letter “M,” standing for “missus”; that is, Clemens was dismissed from the arena alive. This was not a fight to the death.
On the right of this pair stands another gladiator whose fight is over. The edge of the stone is broken off so that all that remains of his victorious rival is his shield and one knee. The defeated gladiator’s chest is bare, unshielded by any breastplate, and a heavy leather belt holds up his loincloth. His musculature is impressive, but they are the gnarled muscles of a middle-aged man. His sword dangles uselessly by a chain from his right hand. His face is averted from his opponent, and on it the sculptor has portrayed a mixture of disappointment and anguish. This man is only one moment from collapse. The sculptor has carved an “M” for “missus” above him, and beside it the Greek letter “theta,” for “thanatos,” meaning “death,” This gladiator left the arena alive, but died from his wounds.
This fragment of relief sculpture from an unknown tomb is not prominently displayed in the Museo Nazionale. I’ve been through its galleries a number of times and never spotted it. However the Museo lent it to the British Museum for a special exhibition of gladiators there, which ended in January, 2001, and a photograph of it is included in Gladiators and Caesars, a book which originally appeared in German and was translated into English and published with a lavish collection of illustrations to mark the British Museum exhibition. The subtitle of the book is The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, which gives a better idea of the scope of the book than Gladiators and Caesars, for it covers not only gladiatorial games, but chariot racing and theater as well, whereas it has little to report about the Caesars themselves. It does, however, relate that the emperor Commodus, who fancied himself as another Hercules, sometimes fought as a gladiator in the arena: on that point, the movie Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe had it right, though Commodus used wooden swords for his contests. Real gladiatorial combat was a grimmer affair, fought with weapons that could kill. The crowd would not extend mercy to a defeated gladiator whose performance displeased it, though the signal they gave to kill him was not thumbs down. It was thumbs up.
Greek athletic contests had little crowd appeal in ancient Italy. There was a stadium for footraces in Rome, and its contours can still be seen in the Piazza Navona which was built on top of it. It was an exception. But there were many amphitheaters, from the early example at Pompeii which was built almost 160 years before Mt. Vesuvius erupted and buried the city, to the great Flavian amphitheater in Rome, popularly called the Colosseum, and its contemporary, the amphitheater at Pozzuoli, which is not much smaller. More than three-quarters of the gladiatorial weaponry that has been found comes from Pompeii, where the gladiatorial barrack was behind the main theater, and was excavated in the 1760’s when archaeological techniques were still crude. The finds were promptly labeled parade armor, for no one could imagine that men actually fought in the arena with equipment this splendid. But our knowledge has since increased, and more and more it seems likely that they did. The expensive armor may have suffered damage in hand-to-hand combat, but gladiatorial games were extravagant productions. Damage to the armor would have been easily written off.
The Romans probably borrowed gladiatorial games from the Samnites, an ethnic group akin to them in southern Italy, but whereas the Romans spoke Latin, the Samnites spoke another Italic dialect called Oscan. Oscan was probably still spoken on the streets of Pompeii when the eruption of the Mt. Vesuvius volcano interrupted life there in 79 AD. The early Roman Republic in its expansionist phase subdued the Samnites only after three hard-fought wars, and the Samnites remained restive down to the generation of Julius Caesar. Their tomb paintings show gladiatorial combats between warriors in colorful armor which gave slight protection, and no doubt these shows were staged as part of their funerary rites. So it is unsurprising that the earliest games in Rome were produced to celebrate the obsequies of important citizens, and one type of gladiator was still called the “Samnite” down to the first century of the Christian era. But by then the Romans had developed varieties of their own. There were the “Thracians” and the “Gauls”; these types must have originated with captured Thracian and Gallic warriors who were made to fight in the arena in their native armor. There were the provocatores who wore breastplates over their pectoral muscles whereas other gladiators fought, stripped to the waist. One type of combat which developed relatively late was a fight between a “net-man” and a “pursuer,” to translate their Latin designations literally. The “net-man” wore only a loin-cloth but, projecting from his left shoulder was a guard which extended down his left arm. His weapons were a trident and a net. His opponent, the “pursuer” fought with chest bare, but he had an efficient shield and short sword, and his head and face were covered completely by his helmet, leaving only two holes for his eyes. It must have reduced his supply of oxygen as he pursued his lightly-armed adversary. The “net-man” was probably not at a disadvantage, for though he would have to abandon the net if he missed his first throw, he still had his trident which he could wield with terrific force, using both hands.
Chariot racing was a Greek sport, but the Romans put their stamp on it, and after Christian disapproval finally put an end to gladiatorial games, chariot racing continued, reaching the height of its popularity in Constantinople in the 6th century A.D. before the great bubonic plague of the 540’s cut the population in nearly half and reduced the taxation base. The famous chariot race in the 1959 film version of Ben Hur directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, was reasonably faithful to history. Its main sin was anachronism: no city in the eastern Mediterranean area, let alone Jerusalem, had a hippodrome of the sort where Ben Hur’s race was held until many years after the early first century. But on one point, the film was inadvertently accurate. Ben Hur’s horses were supposed to be Arabians. In fact, Arabians were not the stars of the Roman hippodromes: the best horses came from north Africa and Spain. The film used Lippizzaners from Austria, and since these have been heavily interbred with Spanish stock, the horses which the Romans raced must have been very like them, only smaller. The dust, the speed, and the danger were also authentic.
Dangerous for the horses as well as the charioteers. Gladiators and Caesars notes that when the silent movie of Ben Hur was made in 1926, about 100 horses died filming the chariot race scene. None died in the 1959 filming, but four races of a single lap each day exhausted the Lippizaners, whereas each Roman race had seven laps. But the chariots the movie used were almost 16 times heavier than the Roman racing chariots. Not much was known about Roman racing chariot design in 1959, and the model used for Ben Hur was not the racing chariot, but the Roman triumphal chariot which was reserved for stately processions. However, the British Museum has a bronze model of a two-horse racing chariot, and it has small wheels, a low center of gravity and a light wooden frame covered with fabric and leather. The horses that pulled it did not die of exhaustion. Many famous ones retired from the hippodrome and lived to a ripe old age, and skillful charioteers were idolized.
The authors of Gladiators and Caesars add a chapter on the theater. There is a general prejudice that the Romans were not great theater-goers, with no tragic poets to match the Greeks, and it is true that the best Latin tragedian, Seneca, wrote dramas with a touch of Grand Guignol about them. One school of thought, which must be wrong, has it that Seneca’s tragedies were not intended for public performance. Yet they must have been crowd-pleasers: they left many bodies on stage. Greek tragedians might prefer to kill their characters offstage. The Roman audience, which was used to seeing gladiatorial games, had no reservations about on-stage killing.
The fact is that the Romans built huge theaters and what filled their seats were pantomimes and mimes. Sometimes the orchestras were flooded with water so that scantily-clad women could play water games. Popular actors and actresses could become wealthy, but they belonged to the dregs of society. Actresses were part-time prostitutes. That, at least, was the general assumption, though there was a social divide between the stars of the stage, who might be courtesans with powerful patrons, and the chorus line in the theater orchestras, who were considered whores. The Christian church disapproved, and after the conversion of the emperor Constantine, the Christian disapproval rapidly became enshrined in law. Actors were denied the sacraments until they were on their deathbeds, and even then, bishops were required to investigate carefully to see if the deathbed scene was faked. Yet even as it discriminated against the profession, the state refused to allow actors leave to abandon the stage. Emperors wanted the shows to go on.
But the theater is almost an afterthought in this book. Its focus is the spectator sport of the arenas and the hippodromes. Decent citizens watched; they did not participate and if a man of noble family descended into the arena and fought as a gladiator, as some did, it was considered disgraceful. Gladiators were drawn from the ranks of slaves or captives in war. For them, the arena was a mechanism for social mobility. They risked their lives, but the popular adulation was worth it. Charioteers were not men like Ben Hur or his rival Messalla, but rather slaves or freedmen who could win enormous acclaim and be sought after by a city’s red, white, blue or green factions which were the equivalents of the football or hockey clubs nowadays. “Bread and circuses,” sneered the Latin satirist Juvenal, and his rebuke has colored our perception of the Roman games ever since. But they were more than that. Life in the pre-industrial cities of the Roman Empire was brutal and short for most people, and emperors recognized the power of spectacle to vent the primal urges of the mob. Gladiators and Caesars approaches Roman public games through the art and artifacts which memorialize them, and it has the effect of a good documentary: unromantic, matter-of-fact but convincing.