Tag Archives: Romans

Cool Britannia: TV drama doesn’t capture the story being unearthed of the Roman invasion



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Kelly Reilly as the Briton warrior Kerra in Britannia.
IMDB

Craig Barker, University of Sydney

The new TV series Britannia airing now (produced for Sky Atlantic in the UK, screening on Foxtel’s Showcase in Australia) is undoubtedly influenced by the scale and success of Game of Thrones. Created by acclaimed English playwright Jez Butterworth, the nine-part series is an ambitious exploration of a profoundly important era in British history.

It tells the story of the second Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when the Roman fleet under the control of the ruthless general Aulus Plautius (a real historical figure played in the series by David Morrissey) lands on the coast of the near-mythical island. It is the story, too, of Celtic Britain tribalism and the Machiavellian interplay with the new Roman arrivals.

Trailer for season one of Britannia.

Although reviews to date have been mixed, the series is a bold undertaking exploring the clash of cultures. It is the second significant pop cultural exploration of key historical moments in the relationship between Britain and Europe since the Brexit vote. (Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk was the first). It also comes at a time when the relationship between historical fact and fiction is being hotly debated, particularly in relation to the Netflix series The Crown.




Read more:
Britannia, Druids and the surprisingly modern origins of myths


While the series does suffer from various historical inaccuracies, Butterworth has said he was more interested in exploring the drama around two religions, Roman and druidic, coming together.

Most of what we think we know about the Briton’s religion was proposed by later writers; no contemporary accounts survive. In Britannia, the role of druids, the Celtic priests, within society is presented in an otherworldly, trance-like way. The main druid character Veran (played by MacKenzie Crook) feels like a hallucination.

A druidic ceremony performed in Britannia.
Sky Vision

This renewed popular cultural interest in the establishment of Roman Britain and the Celtic response to the Roman arrival coincides with an exciting and profound period of archaeological discovery and historical reinterpretation of this historical event.

A nod to Caesar

Plautius’s invasion of Britain on orders of Emperor Claudius established Roman rule in much of Britain for nearly 400 years. But it was not the first time Rome came into contact with the tribes of the island.

Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC are mentioned briefly in an opening title of the TV series, which suggests that fear of the Celts drove the Romans to abandon ideas of permanent occupation of the island. The real reason is far more complex. Caesar’s account provided the Romans with their first description of the island and its inter-tribal fighting.

David Morrissey as Aulus Plautius.
Sky Vision

In 2016 and 2017, excavations by the University of Leicester demonstrated that Caesar’s 54 BC fleet was blown off course and landed on the sandy shores of Pegwell Bay in Kent.

Although Caesar left without leaving a military force on Britain, he established a series of client relationships with British royal families in the south-east. These allegiances may have assisted the later Claudian invasion. At the very least, they mean the arrival of Roman forces wasn’t the surprise it is presented as in Britannia.

The Claudian Invasion

The real general Aulus Plautius was regarded highly in Rome, but like his fictional counterpart he did struggle against soldier rumblings. Roman historian Cassius Dio writes that he “had difficulty in inducing his army to advance beyond Gaul. For the soldiers were indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world”.




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Guide to the Classics: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars explores vice and virtue in ancient Rome


Why did the emperor Claudius choose to invade Britain? It seems most likely that, like a number of modern political leaders, the invasion allowed Claudius to distract public attention from domestic political issues.

No contemporary account survives of the real invasion. It seems most likely that as depicted in the show, Plautius landed 40,000 men on the coast of Kent, and attempted to negotiate truces and restore Roman friendly monarchs. These ultimately failed. The Romans then undertook a campaign of “shock and awe”, even bringing war elephants to the fight, and established their first provincial capital at Camulodunum (today’s Colchester).

A distinctive Roman brick wall excavated at Camulodunum (Colchester)
Wikicommons

A Roman view

Most of what is known about the Britons, including the dubious druids, was written not by them but by the Romans. The main literary source was written in the late first century AD by Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, served as governor of Roman Britain (after the events of the series).

Drawing of Gaius Cornelius Tacitus by an unknown artist, said to be based on an ancient bust.
Wikicommons

The traditional Tacitian historical narrative is now being questioned, by both archaeological evidence and new historical interpretation. These point out that in creating a biography of Agricola, Tacitus was presenting a heroic figure, freed from the moral corruption of Rome. In this narrative, he needed worthy adversaries in the form of rebels such as the British chief Calgacus.

It was obviously a complex relationship between native and conqueror, politically and culturally. Mary Beard has famously described Britain as “Rome’s Afghanistan”, an endless struggle to wins hearts and minds in the four centuries that followed Plautius’s forces. Hers is a provocative, but valid description.

The brawling Britons

In the first century AD, Britain was politically fragmented, with a series of constant wars between various tribes, (at least according to Roman sources). In the series tribal warfare is represented by the fictitious Cantii (led by King Pellenor, played by Ian McDiarmid) and Regni tribes (led by Queen Antedia, played by Zoë Wanamaker).




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From Elizabeth I to high fashion, the tales behind Game of Thrones’ costumes


This plotline reflects the Roman literary trope of the brawling Britons; but it appears the reality of the internal political structure was far more complex than Roman writers could ever comprehend. Many of the political groups of the south-east of England had already adopted some Mediterranean cultural traits before the invasion through trade and other contacts with the Roman World. New archaeological excavations at Silchester for example, demonstrate urban planning during the Iron Age, prior to Roman occupation.

British society certainly seems to have been more egalitarian than Roman, with both men and women holding political and military power. The character of the warrior Kerra (played by Kelly Reilly) appears to be presented as some sort of precursor to a figure like Boudica, a Celtic queen who would lead a rebellion within decades.

What about Stonehenge?

Trailers for forthcoming episodes suggest Stonehenge will play a significant role in Britannia’s plot . (It has beenfilmed using a scale replica constructed in the Czech Republic). Meanwhile, the real Stonehenge has undergone a series of recent excavations supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, which have revolutionised the way we think about the site, and destroyed many myths as well.

Again, ultimately, very little is known about the use of Stonehenge at the time of the invasion, nor about Roman conceptions of the structure. (Despite this, modern druids have associated themselves with the structure.)

‘Druid’ summer solstice service at Stonehenge 1956.
Getty Images

The ConversationIrrespective of the quality and historical accuracy of Britannia, the series is a dynamic presentation of an important period of British history. But the real story being slowly teased out by the archaeologist’s trowel is just as dynamic and in many ways, more dramatic and exciting than the fictional one.

Craig Barker, Education Manager, Sydney University Museums, University of Sydney

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

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Roman Mythology



Mythbusting Ancient Rome: cruel and unusual punishment



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It is commonly thought that anyone in ancient Rome who killed his father, mother, or another relative was subjected to the ‘punishment of the sack’. But is this true?
Creative Commons

Shushma Malik, University of Roehampton and Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University

Early Roman history is full of stories about the terrible fates that befell citizens who broke the law. When a certain Tarpeia let the enemy Sabines into Rome, she was crushed and thrown headlong from a precipice above the Roman forum.

Such tales not only served as a warning for future generations, they also provided a backstory for some of Rome’s cruellest punishments. Tarpeia is one of many legendary figures who appear in Livy’s History from the Foundation of the City; regardless of whether she was a real person, it became established practice to throw traitors from the “Tarpeian Rock”.

However, not all of the cruel and unusual punishments we associate with the Romans were carried out in practice or uniformly enforced, and some changed significantly over time.

Obey thy father

Roman society was fundamentally hierarchical and patriarchal. A Roman paterfamilias (the family’s oldest living male) had, in theory, the power to kill someone within his household with impunity. This included not only those physically living under his roof, but the wider family of brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews as well.

However, historians have debated whether the power may have been largely symbolic and little used in practice. Filippo Carlà-Uhink has argued that the power did exist, but didn’t give heads of the household carte blanche to act as they pleased. For example, the senator Quintus Fabius Maximus Eburnus is said to have killed his son for his “dubious chastity”. But punishing a crime of a sexual nature was not seen as the proper use of a father’s power, so Quintus himself was tried and exiled.

In order for the use of such power to be justified, the son had to have committed a crime against the state. When Aulus Fulvius was killed by his father for his involvement in the conspiracy of Catiline (63 BC), the head of the household was not prosecuted. This was because Catiline and his followers had committed treason by plotting to murder the consul Cicero and seize power for themselves.

A watery and crowded grave

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about Roman criminal justice concerns the penalty for parricide. Anyone who killed his father, mother, or another relative was subjected to the “punishment of the sack” (poena cullei in Latin). This allegedly involved the criminal being sewn into a leather sack together with four animals – a snake, a monkey, a rooster, and a dog – then being thrown into a river. But was such a punishment ever actually carried out?

The epitome of Livy’s History from the Foundation of the City records that in 101 B.C.:

Publicius Malleolus, who had killed his mother, was the first to be sewn into a sack and thrown into the sea.

In practice, the penalty for parricide often just involved feeding the offender to wild beasts.
Creative Commons, CC BY-SA

There is no mention here of any animals in the sack, nor do they appear in contemporary evidence for legal procedure in the late Roman Republic. In 80 B.C., Cicero defended a young man called Sextus Roscius on a charge of parricide, but the murderous menagerie is conspicuously absent from his defence speech.

The animals are attested in a passage from the writings of the jurist Modestinus, who lived in the mid-third century A.D. This excerpt survives because it was later quoted in the Digest compiled at the behest of the emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D.:

The penalty of parricide, as prescribed by our ancestors, is that the culprit shall be beaten with rods stained with his blood, and then shall be sewed up in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a snake, and a monkey, and the bag cast into the depth of the sea, that is to say, if the sea is near at hand; otherwise, he shall be thrown to wild beasts, according to the constitution of the Deified Hadrian.

The snake and the monkey feature in the satirical poems of Juvenal (writing during the age of Hadrian), who suggested that the emperor Nero deserved to be “sacked” with multiple animals for murdering his mother Agrippina. But the dog and the rooster do not appear until the third century A.D., when Modestinus was writing.

The punishment fits the (Roman) crime

So was anyone ever actually punished with all these creatures? The emperor Constantine’s penalty for parricide only specified that snakes should be added to the sack. Parricides were commonly punished in other ways such as being condemned to the beasts, which was very popular in the Roman world.

One of the four animals that was said to have been placed in the sack was a snake.
Creative Commons, CC BY-SA

Many historians have thought that the practicalities of sewing up a dog, a monkey, a rooster, a snake, and a human in a sack together indicates that the penalty was never actually enforced – for one thing, it would be as much a punishment for the executioners as it would for the condemned.

The Romans themselves believed the poena cullei was an ancestral custom – but as with many customs, it was based on preconceptions about the nature of ancient punishments. The best-known version of the penalty for parricide, with all the ferocious fauna included, was a product of the later Roman empire. It was designed to terrify, rather than to be enforced.

The poena cullei entered the standard accounts of Roman criminal law because it fascinated medieval scholars who tried to identify the symbolism of the animals. Florike Egmond has shown that this inspired the introduction of the sack filled with creatures as a punishment in Germanic law, reflecting the belief that a civilized society should follow Roman judicial practices.

To the relief of Germans in the medieval and early modern period, such punishments were rarely carried out. On one occasion, images of the animals were sewn into the sack, as they were considered sufficient substitutes for the real thing.

Thinking of dodging the census?

There was a steep price to pay if Romans did not take part in the census.
Creative Commons

Taking part in the Roman census was compulsory as the state needed a complete record of citizens’ property for tax purposes. According to the first-century B.C. historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the sixth king of Rome Servius Tullius decreed that anyone who did not participate in the census would lose their property and be sold into slavery.

But questions remain over whether this punishment actually happened – Dionysius was writing centuries after the sixth king’s reign, and Servius Tullius was probably fictional anyway. Dionysius’ contemporary, Livy, records a different penalty – citizens who failed to register were threatened with death and imprisonment.

There is no recorded example of either penalty being enforced. Ancient historian Peter Brunt has proposed that this may have been because Romans always turned up to be registered in order to ensure that their rights as citizens would be guaranteed. It’s worth noting, however, that neither Dionysius nor Livy suggested that the law was still in use in their own time – the harsh punishments may have reflected a later conception of cruelty in early Rome, rather than any historical reality.

Writing in the late Republic, the famous lawyer and politician Cicero states that one man, Publius Annius Asellus, decided not to present himself at the census in order to circumvent an inheritance law – and he only lost the right to vote. The Roman authorities had bigger problems as they were rarely able to carry out the census effectively in the first century B.C. (the first #censusfail). Besides, if you were fighting abroad, living outside of Italy, or unable to travel owing to extreme poverty, the Romans in charge could be quite lenient.

The ConversationThe penalties of census slavery, the power of the father, and the punishment of the sack reflect the Romans’ own conception of their ancestors and the idea that authorities must impose harsh penalties in order to deter offenders. But we need to be careful in reconstructing the histories of such punishments. As the case of parricide shows, the versions we are familiar with today are often a collage of sources from different periods assembled to create one specific punishment that seems authentically “Roman”.

Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics, University of Roehampton and Caillan Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Roman History, Macquarie University

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


Explainer: the gods behind the days of the week



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The Roman weekday ‘dies Veneris’ was named after the planet Venus, which in turn took its name from Venus, goddess of love. Detail from Venus and Mars, Botticelli, tempera on panel (c1483).
Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Clunies Ross, University of Sydney

The origins of our days of the week lie with the Romans. The Romans named their days of the week after the planets, which in turn were named after the Roman gods:

  • dies Solis “the day of the sun (then considered a planet)”
  • dies Lunae “the day of the moon”
  • dies Martis, “the day of Mars”
  • dies Mercurii, “the day of Mercury”
  • dies Iovis, “the day of Jupiter”
  • dies Veneris, “the day of Venus”
  • dies Saturni, “the day of Saturn”

When the Germanic-speaking peoples of western Europe adopted the seven-day week, which was probably in the early centuries of the Christian era, they named their days after those of their own gods who were closest in attributes and character to the Roman deities.

It was one of those peoples, the Anglo-Saxons, that brought their gods and language (what would become English) to the British Isles during the fifth and sixth centuries AD.

Hendrik Goltzius, Mercury, oil on canvas (1611).
Wikimedia Commons

In English, Saturday, Sunday and Monday are named for Saturn, the sun and moon respectively, following the Latin.

The remaining four days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) are named for gods that the Anglo-Saxons probably worshipped before they migrated to England and during the short time before they converted to Christianity after that.

Tuesday is named for the god Tiw, about whom relatively little is known. Tiw was probably associated with warfare, just like the Roman god Mars.

Wednesday is named for the god Woden, who is paralleled with the Roman god Mercury, probably because both gods shared attributes of eloquence, the ability to travel, and the guardianship of the dead.

Thursday is Thunor’s day, or, to give the word its Old English form, Thunresdæg “the day of Thunder”. This sits beside the Latin dies Iovis, the day of Jove or Jupiter. Both of these gods are associated with thunder in their respective mythologies.

You may recognise a similarity here with the name of the famous Norse god Thor. This may be more than coincidence. Vikings arrived in England in the ninth century, bringing their own very similar gods with them. Anglo-Saxons were already Christian by this time, but may have recognised the similarity between the name of their ancestors’ deity Thunor and the Norse god. We don’t know, but the word Thor does appear in written texts from the period.

Chris Hemsworth as famous Norse god Thor in the 2011 film of the same name.
IMDB

Friday is the only weekday named for a female deity, Frig, who is hardly mentioned anywhere else in early English. The name does appear, however, as a common noun meaning “love, affection” in poetry. That is why Frig was chosen to pair with the Roman deity Venus, who was likewise associated with love and sex, and was commemorated in the Latin name for Friday.

Of gods and weekdays

The concept of the week, that is, a cycle of seven numbered or named days with one of them (usually Sunday or Monday) fixed as the first, was originally probably associated with the Jewish calendar. This was complicated by the fact that early medieval Europe inherited its idea of the week from imperial Rome, via the Christian church.

In early Christianity the reckoning of time was crucial to the proper celebration of the church’s feast days and holidays, especially the variable feast of Easter.

We find day names similar to English in related European languages, like Dutch, German, and all the Scandinavian or Norse languages. Gods with comparable names, like Tyr, Othinn, Thor and Frigg, were certainly known to the Scandinavians and gave their names to weekdays in Scandinavian languages (compare Modern Danish tisdag, onsdag, torsdag, fredag).

The ConversationThe Latin names for the days of the week, and the Roman gods for which they were named, still live on in all the European Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Italian. Think of French lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi and vendredi, for example, and you will find the Latin Luna, Mars, Mercurius, Iovis and Venus hidden behind them.

Margaret Clunies Ross, Eneritus Professor of English Language and Early English Literature, University of Sydney

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


How our discovery of Julius Caesar’s first landing point in Britain could change history



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Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Andrew Fitzpatrick, University of Leicester

During the nine-year-long Battle for Gaul, Julius Caesar fought his way across northwest Europe. He invaded Britain twice; in 55BC, and again in 54BC. But while archaeologists have found evidence of the war in France, there has been very little discovered in Britain – until now.

At a site called Ebbsfleet, in northeast Kent, my colleagues from the University of Leicester and I finally uncovered the site where Julius Caesar’s fleet landed in 54BC. A series of surveys and excavations, spanning from 2015 to 2017, revealed a large enclosure, defended by a ditch five metres wide and two metres deep.

What a find: pilum tip from Ebbsfleet.
University of Leicester, Author provided

We dated the ditch all the way back to the first century BC, by examining the pottery and using radiocarbon dating techniques.

At the bottom of the ditch, we found the tip of an iron weapon, which was later identified as a Roman spear, or “pilum”. Similar weapons were discovered at the site of Alésia in France, where the decisive encounter in the Battle for Gaul took place. What’s more, the defensive ditches at Alésia are the same size and shape as those we discovered at Ebbsfleet.

In Caesar’s own words

Our dig was situated next to Pegwell Bay, a large, sandy beach with chalk cliffs at its northern end. This striking landscape also helps to confirm that we really have found the location of Caesar’s base. Most of what is known about Caesar’s voyage comes from his own written accounts, based on his annual reports to the Roman senate.

When the Roman fleet set sail from France, they intended to use the wind to help them cross the Channel to find a large, safe place to lay anchor and prepare for battle. But the wind dropped, and the fleet was carried too far northeast by the tide.

We came, we saw, we excavated.
University of Leicester., Author provided

At sunrise, Caesar saw Britain “left afar on the port side”. Only high land would have been visible from a small ship far out at sea. And the only such land in northeast Kent are the cliffs near Ebbsfleet. Caesar also describes how he left the ships riding at anchor next to a “sandy, open shore” – a perfect description of Pegwell Bay.

Given Caesar’s own words seem so clear, it’s surprising that Pegwell Bay has never been considered as a possible landing site before. Instead, Caesar was long thought to have landed at Walmer, 15 kilometres to the south. One reason might be that, until the Middle Ages, Thanet was an island.

The Isle of Thanet was separated from the mainland by the Wantsum Channel. But no one knows how big the channel was 2,000 years ago; it could be that whatever disadvantages it presented were offset by the presence of a large and safe beach, where 800 ships could land and disembark 20,000 men and 2,000 horses in one day.

Peace by force

Despite the imposing size of Caesar’s fleet, it was long thought that his landing had little lasting impact on Britain. Caesar himself returned to France immediately after the two campaigns, without leaving a garrison. Yet the discovery of the landing site gives us cause to question this assumption.

Making history at Ebbsfleet.
Andrew Fitzpatrick/University of Leicester, Author provided

Historical sources, royal burials and ancient coins indicate that from about 20BC, the kings of southeast England had strong links to Rome. But historians have found it hard to explain how these alliances came into existence. The suggestion that they sprung from diplomatic ties forged by the emperor Augustus at that time has never been convincing.

But Caesar tells us that he reached a peace accord with the Britons in 54BC, even taking hostages from the ruling families to ensure the agreement was respected. Perhaps the alliances which came to light in the 20s BC were originally established by Caesar, a generation before emperor Augustus asserted his authority over the Roman Empire.

The close ties between Rome and the kings of southeast England assured emperor Claudius of a relatively easy military victory, when he first set out to conquer England in 43 AD. So it seems Caesar’s earlier conquest could have laid the foundations for the Roman occupation of Britain, which lasted more than 300 years.

The ConversationFor Caesar, the consequences of his invasions were clear. In his day, Britain lay beyond the known world. By crossing the ocean and conquering Britain, Caesar caused a sensation in his homeland. He was awarded the longest public thanksgiving in Rome, winning great acclaim and glory in the process. Mission accomplished.

Andrew Fitzpatrick, Research Associate, University of Leicester

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


Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes



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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.


United Kingdom: Hadrian’s Wall Ruins


The link below is to an article reporting on ruins found near Hadrian’s Wall.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/sep/09/hadrians-wall-lost-secrets-roman-vindolanda-unearthed


Italy: Sardinia – Roman Shipwreck Discovered



Italy: The Romans



Rome’s Ghost Ships



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