Sunday 24 February 2013

Gladiators - less swords more sandals

Gladiator was on TV again last night - and while I don't want to knock this Sword and Sandal Blockbuster and its historical shortcomings - like Commodus dying about twelve years too early; or using the wrong artillery pieces in the opening battle scene - this movie remains a prime example of how the Gladiator myth has been perpetuated. Sure, this was sport and spectacle at its most gruesome - men and women most certainly fought to the death or were maimed terribly in the process. The question is, was this the daily fare served to the hoards with hot nuts, as poor, hapless slaves died at the drop of a thumb? The answer is no. This was a highly organised and professional sport, with millions invested by individuals or consortiums and millions more passing between punters and bookmakers. The similarities between Roman weekend sport and our modern forms is stark. Yes, some of the gladiators were slaves. But many were volunteers - slaves, freedmen and citizens seeking the same glory and money as today's footballers, boxers or racing car drivers. And slave or not, the financial rewards for entering the arena were probably justification enough for the risk. Gladiators usually retired multi-millionaires and the toast of their respective cities.

Retired, you say? How did they survive long enough for that? Well, put quite simply, most fights were not to the death. In fact, I suspect gladiators often performed more like American pro-wrestlers rather than in the cut and thrust action we see in the movies. Think about it...the owner of a gladiator team would have spent the modern day equivalent of $1.25-million on each fighter to buy and train. Like a prized race horse or racing car driver, the team owner would know there was a certain danger in each bout, but he wouldn't be in the business if he lost a fortune everyday...or even every year. The simple fact is that the sheer cost of each gladiator would have made the business model unworkable if the expectation of death was the primary focus. And as if to enforce this fact, a gladiator cemetery recently found in Turkey - beside an arena that remained in use for two hundred years - had only thirty bodies interred in it. Hardly indicative of mass killings every public holiday. So the next time you watch Gladiator or Spartacus, just remember these heroic victims of circumstance were worth far more to their promoters and owners alive than we give this terrible sport credit.

For more Roman history - check out 'Mischance and Happenstance' - live on Amazon now

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