Games of death in the arena


The sound of wind instruments fills the air and the audience calls out the names ‘Spartacus!’, ‘Crixos!’ while the spectators are overcome with euphoria as the two gladiators enter the arena in their shining armour – splendidly and courageously. The battle begins and the music transforms gradually into loud, 21st century rock music. Spartacus, a hero to many, falls and deathly silence fills the arena. No one dares to speak or even to take a breath as the hero collapses in slow motion and sand, soaked with blood and sweat, surrounds him. The cosmos shakes, the world is in complete and utter shock. A hero is fallen.

And this is only a brief description of a scene from the popular television series ‘Spartacus – Blood and Sand’ (USA, 2010) which portrays a gladiatorial combat in the late-Republican period (1st century BC), or at least through the filter of Hollywood. But how historically accurate are such re-enactments?

Gladiatorial execution of the loser.
Gladiatorial execution of the loser (found @Imgur)

Many archaeologists have devoted their life’s work to finding out the answers to these questions, but (as is so often the case) they are not able to come to a definitive answer. All we can do is to try to reconstruct a temporary ‘truth’ based on archaeological evidence and reports from ancient authors. Marcus Junkelmann is one of such archaeologist. As an experimental archaeologist he not only researches the past, but also re-enacts it. One of his favourite topics is the gladiatorial combat and the deadly games in the arena. Whilst researching he addresses in particular a phenomenon that is so often ignored in films and television, namely, the structure of the gladiatorial contest.

Reconstruction of the amphitheater of Capua in ‚Spartacus‘. (found @Spartacus Wiki
Remains of the amphitheater in Capua (found @Wikipedia

Assuming that the gladiature was a structured event, surely this means that there were some sorts of rules? And rules indeed they had. We have plenty of ancient documents confirming the existence of rules for the combats, although, much to our misfortune, they do not tell exactly which actions were allowed or forbidden. Whatever the exact nature of structure, it is unlikely that the combat was framed by a time limit, although the referee was quite capable of announcing small breaks for the treatment of minor wounds. After that, the fight would simply proceed, most of the time, until one combatant takes his very last breath. There were, however, different possibilities for ending a gladiatorial combat: the fight could be interrupted for whatever reason and the referee could declare a tie, although this was the most unlikely ending, for the Romans liked to distinguish between the winner and the loser. The second option was to either sentence the loser to dearth, or else – although this was the less likely scenario – to pardon him. Finally, there was a very small possibility that one combatant would die during the fight. Contrary to popular imagination, which is moreover fuelled by the scenes of slaughter in the arena in television series like ‘Spartacus’, it is unlikely for a gladiator to get killed whilst fighting since they were trained not only to attack, but also to defend. It is therefore much more probable for a soldier to die on the battlefield than a gladiator during a fight since the combatant only has to focus on one opponent. After one gladiator is dead and the other declared the winner, the champion is celebrated with palm branch and prize money, as he makes a lap of honour to the sound of music and spectators cheering.

Interestingly enough, our modern perception of losing or being the loser is much different from those in ancient times – death in ancient gladiatorial combat was considered heroic. As Cicero describes just before he goes to his own death:

“So let us do like the brave gladiators that perish with dignity. I would rather fall with honour than live a life as a slave.”

But how do the facts mentioned above compare with the portrayal of gladiatorial combats in television series? The most striking differences in the way gladiatorial fights are illustrated are noticeable in the television series ‘Spartacus’ (STARZ) and ‘Rome’ (HBO). The events in both series take place in the 1st century BC, but in different regions of Italy, with the gladiatorial combats in ‘Spartacus’ taking place at Capua, and those of ‘Rome’ in Rome. Nevertheless, the tradition of gladiatorial combat should not differ between these regions – but obviously this is not the case in the series, especially considering the dimensions of the games. Although in ‘Spartacus’ there is emphasis on the spectacle, we cannot say the same about ‘Rome’. In the latter a simple arena (which literally means “sand” in Latin) is represented in a most mundane way. Its temporary character seems to serve the lone purpose of execution (of outlaws as such) rather than entertainment. Moreover, we are dealing with two completely different settings. While the games take place in a huge amphitheatre in ‘Spartacus’ – surrounded by thousands of cheering people – the gladiators in ‘Rome’ fight in the forum (centre of political and economic gathering), in the midst of the business of daily life. Although such gladiatorial fights with entertainment purpose existed, they developed about one hundred years after.

MRW my sister goes to sleep half way through The Gladiator - Imgur
Russel Crowe in the Blockbuster film ‚Gladiator‘ (2000) challenging the audience. (found @Imgur)

To sum up this discussion about gladiators, heroes and fights in ancient times, let’s consider the gladiators themselves in both series. Here again it is noticeable that our Spartacus (and his fellow companions) are depicted in a young and God-like guise, while Rome’s gladiators are a rather poor (and – as seen in the previous article – more realistic) display of plump and chubby men. It is disappointing to learn that flabby men fighting in a structured and (to some extent) organised combat was the reality in antiquity – and so nothing like the muscly, half-naked beaus fighting in a wild and passionate rage seen in modern television. It wouldn’t be the first time we prefer fiction to reality, but that’s what television is for, isn’t it?


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