Tag Archives: heroes

Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes



File 20170626 32738 9mcc7p.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
The helmet of a heavily armed ‘secutor’, first century AD.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard

Alastair Blanshard, The University of Queensland

For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.

The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.

Statuette of a Gladiator from Murmillo, first century CE.
Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.

Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.

This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.

Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern-day sport and sporting culture”.

At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary video-game culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A video-game spin-off from the exhibition is easy to imagine.

Rogues not heroes

Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.

These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.

These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, executions of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.

The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, this analogy causes more problems than it solves.

The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.

Gold glass medallion with a scene of a fighter killing wild beasts. fourth century CE.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard. All rights reserved.

Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).

The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.

At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.

Gods and monsters

Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works, which deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.

Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.

Painted Slab from the Tomb of Andriuolo XXVIII, circa 340-330 BCE.
© Laboratorio fotografico del Parco Archeologico di Paestum Foto: Francesco Valletta e Giovanni Grippo

The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the executions of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.

The executions of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.

Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seemed far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.

For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.

One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?

She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.


The ConversationGladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.

Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes



File 20170626 32738 9mcc7p
The helmet of a heavily armed ‘secutor’, first century AD.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard

Alastair Blanshard, The University of Queensland

For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.

The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.

Statuette of a Gladiator from Murmillo, first century CE.
Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.

Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.

This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.

Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern day sport and sporting culture”.

At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary videogame culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A videogame spinoff from the exhibition is easy to imagine.

Rogues not heroes

Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.

These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.

These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, the execution of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.

The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, it is an analogy that causes more problems than it solves.

The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.

Gold glass medallion with a scene of a fighter killing wild beasts. fourth century CE.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard. All rights reserved.

Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).

The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.

At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.

Gods and monsters

Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works that deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.

Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.

Painted Slab from the Tomb of Andriuolo XXVIII, circa 340-330 BCE.
© Laboratorio fotografico del Parco Archeologico di Paestum Foto: Francesco Valletta e Giovanni Grippo

The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the execution of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.

The execution of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.

Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seem far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.

For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.

One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?

She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.


The ConversationGladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.

Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article: US War of Independence – Spying in Jail


The link below is to an article that looks at some unlikely heroes in the US War of Independence – a group of men who acted as spies from their jail cells.

For more visit:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/132072


Today in History – 19 April 1587


Sir Francis Drake Destroys the Spanish Fleet in Cadiz, Spain

War had broken out (Anglo-Spanish War of 1585 to 1604) between the Spanish and English – between Roman Catholic Spain and Protestant England. But it was more than just a religious war, for there were also political and economic agitations. English privateers were having a major impact on Spanish shipping. English support for the Netherlands in their fight for independence against Spain and also their support for an alternative Portuguese ruler (Portugal were in league with Spain) were a constant annoyance to the Spanish Empire. England saw Spain as a major threat to their security. Soon it was war, with Spain determined to invade England and crush Protestantism in its infancy.

Sir Francis Drake had been one of the thorns in Spain’s side, acting as a privateer in the Spanish Indies and taking many a Spanish ship as a prize. He was given command of an English fleet and set out to attack the Spanish on the 12th April 1587. On the 19th April 1587, Sir Francis Drake carried out what he described as having ‘singed the beard of the King of Spain,’ by sinking the Spanish fleet at harbor in the Bay of Cadiz, Spain. Up to 33 ships were destroyed and four were captured. This occurred the year prior to the sinking of the Spanish Armada during the attempted invasion of England.

When the fleet returned to England on the 6th of July, they had sunk over 100 enemy vessels and suceeded in setting back the planned Spanish invasion of England by a year. Drake had already sealed his place in history as one of England’s heroes, but his work had only just begun.

 


%d bloggers like this: