Saturday, 12 August 2017

Gladiators: more than war prisoners and criminals, and definitely sporting heroes

Having recently visited the Queensland Museum’s exhibition “Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum”, I felt compelled to write a response to Alastair Blanshard’s piece for The Conversation where he outlined some concerns regarding the intellectual framework used by the curators.

While I agree with my colleague’s description that the exhibition is not “plagued by doubts or uncertainties” in how it presents its splendid material, I do think that his review of the background of gladiators was also not as nuanced as it could have been for the same reason that the exhibition’s is not: both are trying to convey information to a general audience in an easily understood manner, each using a different approach.

Blanshard correctly points out that gladiators existed “within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances”, but it should also be understood that these very circumstances were often in direct conflict with each other. In Roman society those involved in public entertainment, not only gladiators but also actors, were legally the lowest class members of society: they were frequently slaves, but when they were not, they had fewer rights than other citizens or former slaves. In addition to this, as Blanshard correctly points out, the majority of gladiators were slaves as a result of being prisoners of war or condemned criminals. Yet despite this, there are constant references in both literary and legal literature to members of Rome’s most privileged classes, the senatorial and equestrian ranks, fighting as gladiators from the second half of the first century BCE.

Upper class gladiators

In 45 BCE Julius Caesar passed the Julian Law of Municipalities which stated that no one who had been hired out as a gladiator or who trained gladiators could fill a role in public office. Given that social mobility was extremely limited in this period, no member of Rome’s lowest classes (slaves and former slaves were already exempt) could hope to raise the money to win such public offices in an election, so this legislation was not targeting those who were traditionally gladiators, but was introduced to prevent members of Italy’s higher social classes from fighting as gladiators. Indeed, we know that Caesar had been responsible for exhibiting two members of the senatorial class at games he had provided most likely the year before (Suetonius, Julius Caesar 39.1; Cassius Dio 43.23.5).

This legislation does not appear to have been very successful as histories continued to refer to such upper class gladiators and legislation continued to be enacted to prevent them from fighting. Again in 38 BCE, according to the third century CE historian Cassius Dio (48.43.3), a senator desired to fight as a gladiator and legislation was passed to prevent him from doing so, but the same writer also described how a senator fought as a gladiator in 29 BCE (51.22.5). Again in 11 CE, the same historian described how a number of equestrian class members fought as gladiators, watched by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. This was the same year in which legislation was introduced to prevent any free-born individual below a certain age (25 years old from men and 20 years old for women) from being contracted to perform as any kind of entertainer, including as a gladiator, except when permission had been given by Augustus or his adopted son and successor, Tiberius.

Further legislation, preserved on an inscribed bronze tablet found near Larino in Italy, was enacted again in 19 CE during the reign of Tiberius which not only prevented senators and equestrians from hiring themselves out as gladiators, but was worded to ensure that even their descendents and siblings could not do so “contrary to the dignity of the order to which they belonged”. In addition to outlining the new provisions of the law, it also referred to previous legislation which was enacted to prevent members of Rome’s upper classes from fighting as gladiators and how members of Rome’s privileged classes had sought to get around the law. Indeed prior to this, Tiberius’ own son Drusus had sponsored games at which equestrians had fought as gladiators and one was actually killed (Cassius Dio 57.14.3). Similar stories of equestrians fighting as gladiators were recorded as taking place during the reign of Nero (Cassius Dio 61.9.1) and that legislation banning such behaviour by senators and equestrians was again re-enacted in 69 CE (Cassius Dio 64.6.3).

This is not an exhaustive catalogue of members of Rome’s most privileged classes seeking to fight as gladiators, and does not include the examples of Caligula’s behaviour or the accusations made by Cicero for political purposes against Marc Antony. They all predate the construction of the Colosseum, but are contemporary with the amphitheatre at Pompeii, the site of the gladiatorial competitions in which most of the gladiatorial equipment featured in the exhibition was used. Indeed, the concept of the upper class gladiator became so prevalent in Roman society that the later satirist Juvenal (Satire Two lines 142-8) mocked how members of Rome’s most noble families fought as gladiators; while he was likely exaggerating, satire needs some basis in reality to work.

By performing as a gladiator as a member of Rome’s upper class, you risked social stigmata (most often referred to in Latin as infamia), potentially ruining your public career, and death (though this was decreased once Augustus made it illegal for gladiators not be given the chance to ask for quarter), yet it continued to entice members of Rome’s senatorial and equestrian classes. It is this inexplicable phenomenon which makes using the lens of sport attractive to historians and curators alike. By comparing gladiators to sports stars we can convey to a modern audience its appeal, and try to better understand this desire which is difficult to both determine and quantify.

The appeal of being a gladiator and sport

The appeal to Rome’s lowest free class is obvious: food, housing, and payment, but for privileged members of Rome’s society who did not lack wealth, the appeal had to have been something else again, and this seems to have been public adoration.

The poet Martial (5.24) wrote an epigram for the gladiator called Hermes whom he variously described as the “favourite of the age”, “adored by women”, and “the money-maker for those who sold seats”. Juvenal (Satire Six lines 104-110) described how women found gladiators sexually attractive regardless of how wounded or ugly they might have been. They were described as famous by various writers (for examples see Suetonius, Julius Caesar 26.3; Statius 2.5 line 26; Lucilius 4.11.175; Apuleius, Metamorphosis 10.18), and while their low position in society was often used in rhetorical attacks, their bravery was also used as a teaching device (for examples see Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 2.17.41; Aulus Gellius 12.5.13; Quintilian, Institutions of Oratory 2.12.2-3). Gladiators were even the subject of life-sized portraits (Pliny, Natural History 35.33.52), something which the exhibition might have unintentionally reflected in the life-sized depictions of the various gladiator types included on the walls in one of the galleries. All of these descriptions could easily be changed to describe modern athletes in a variety of sports.

In addition to this, the training required to become a gladiator was not particularly different to that of professional sportsmen, either in the past or today: specialist training was provided by experts; specialist medical care was provided; special diets were provided to gladiators, and while more lavish meals were provided prior to fights, those who viewed their role as a gladiator as profession would go without to increase their chances of victory; and depending on their status as slave or free, even payment, the amount varying depending on the time and their individual fame.

In addition to this, the description of gladiator audiences as fans is totally appropriate. Pliny the Younger (Panegyric 33.3) described that with the accession of the emperor Trajan, audience members could once more freely “express their enthusiasm and show their preferences without fear! No one risked the old charge of impiety if he disliked a particular gladiator...” referring to how Domitian had the supporters of gladiators which opposed his favourite publicly put to death. In addition to this, Epictetus the philosopher (Discourses 3.15.5-8) described how children sometimes “play athletes, again gladiators, again they blow trumpet, and then act a play about anything they have seen and admired”, and went on to say that this was not just the habit of children. Such behaviour is not so dissimilar to that of children today or the fans of any kind of sport today.  The exhibition rightly describes this as a form of sport and their use of items such as lamps and one terracotta figurine indicates that a market for merchandise associated with gladiatorial competitions existed, just as it does for sports today.

Gladiators and religion

Blanshard’s assessment that the exhibition does not fully address the issue of how gladiatorial exhibitions fit into Rome’s religion is a fair statement, but I think this was likely to result of two issues: a lack of artefacts with which to illustrate its nature, and an ongoing tendency for the vast majority of modern scholarship on Roman games to treat all forms of Roman public entertainment isolated from their religious backgrounds especially when addressing the period from the reign of Augustus onwards.  In only the last decade has scholarship started to address how religion was the original purpose of all forms of public entertainment, and the little work which has been done recently has been done by scholars of Roman religion, not public entertainment specialists. Please note that the friezes which focussed most on this were fourth century BCE, and this focus on religion by the curators closely mirrors the majority of scholarship addressing the religious roots of public entertainment to date. Given this trend in modern scholarship, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention given to religion in the exhibition.  The panels label all the gods which featured on the greaves and helmets, pointing out religious connotations where possible.  The one place where more could have been made of it religious nature is the panel devoted to the procession which preceded the games, as this was a very religious act, but it still makes the point that an altar and images of the gods were carried in.  Perhaps if more religious items which could be securely associated with gladiatorial battle were included in the exhibition, more might have been made of it.  That said, the inclusion of musical instruments, one half of a double flute (tibia) and a signalling horn, are wonderful inclusions.

The confused nature of the place of gladiators in Roman society

As just this cursory examination of how gladiators fit into Roman society indicates, this cannot be easily conveyed, especially via the medium of ancient artefacts.  The confused social position of the gladiator was even acknowledged in antiquity.  The Christian writer Tertullian (died around 240 CE) wrote in his work On Spectacles (22):

“Take even those who give and who administer the spectacles; look at their attitude to charioteers, actors, athletes, gladiators, most loving of men, to whom men surrender their soul and women their bodies as well, for whose sake they commit sins they blame; on one and the same account they glorify them and they degrade and diminish them; yes, further, they openly condemn them to disgrace and civil degradation; they keep them religiously excluded from council chamber, rostrum, senate, equestrian rank, and every other kind of office and a good many distinctions. The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despite whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace. What sort of judgement is this—that a man should be blackened for what he shines in? Yes, and what a confession that things are evil, when their authors at the top of their popularity are in disgrace!”

Testing the limits of what they allow
Much of Blanshard’s criticism of this exhibition is the result of what happens when an exhibition created for a general audience is visited by a specialist, but his description of gladiators as criminals and prisoners of war does not fully reflect the reality of who gladiators were, or how they fit into Rome’s complicated culture. As someone who specialises in Roman policies towards public entertainment, I think this exhibition has done a commendable job of conveying an extremely confusing Roman cultural phenomenon to a general audience by using a comparison which a modern audience understands and a number of specialists within this field have used, sport.

Go see this exhibition. The artefacts shown are wonderful, its panels informative (I especially enjoyed seeing the fresco of the riot in the Pompeii’s amphitheatre enlarged enough to see the fighting in the audience), and the chance to try on a replica gladiatorial helmet cannot be missed, but they will only let you pretend to fight with your brother.  I checked.

For further information on the legislation preventing members of the upper classes from performing as public entertainers, see B. Levick, 1983 "The Senatus Consultum from Larinum", Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 73, pp. 97-115.