A Matter of Life and Death: Lives of Gladiators

Gladiators: heroes of the Colosseum, Gladiateurs, héros du Colisée, at the Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

 

In my usual not-very-efficient way, I’m writing about an exhibition which has now closed.  It was, however, a very neat and well thought out exhibition at the Musée de la Romanité about gladiators in the Roman world, possibly because it’s been on a world tour and was curated by Dr Rossella Rea, of the Colosseum of Rome.

Now, the movie Gladiator came out when I was doing my A-level in Roman history.  So as you can imagine, I was a tad obsessed.  I thought it was an awful film, but totally awesome as well and though I have no idea how many times I actually watched it, I could recite way too many of the lines.  I was never keen on the actual gladiator-fighting bits, mainly because I don’t like blood and guts and actually it made me realise that despite the fact that I loved the Romans a lot, I couldn’t understand how they could have such a horrid form of entertainment.

My teacher, Mr O, had the idea that not as many of the fights ended as brutally as people think, and that’s something that I’ve gone with – in part for my own peace of mind.  The gladiators were, after all, popular athletes: it’s like someone becoming as loved and adored as a modern footballer, who furthermore generates tons of money for his owners, who is then slaughtered at the height of his success.  Would that work?  Would there not be outrage?  With all the women going and swooning over him, would it be good business to let him die?  Of course most people who entered the arena were brutally murdered in front of a baying crowd, but the world of gladiators was also a world of entertainment and of business, and therefore the situation was evidently more nuanced and complicated than the stereotyped image.

And that’s how I came to terms with something I disliked.

But the point is, the gladiatorial games were, from their start, associated with death.  Although the origins are hazy, they are believed to have begun in the Campania region of Italy, and in the Roman period they formed part of the munus, the commemorative duty owed the manes of a dead ancestor by his descendants.  Over the centuries the games lost their religious-traditional element and pure theatricality took over.

This exhibition followed the story through from Paestum, in Campania, from where we got to see some amazing paintings.  Actually, there were lots of highlights, as you’ll see if you choose to scroll down.

And you really should.

Wall Painting from Paestum, 340-330BC, Paestum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. It is from a tomb and shows the combat between warriors during funerals.

Detail of the Wall Painting from Paestum, 340-330BC, Paestum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of the Wall Painting from Paestum, 340-330BC, Paestum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of the Wall Painting from Paestum, 340-330BC, Paestum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Wall Painting from Paestum, 340-330BC, Paestum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. This tomb painting shows the combat between warriors during funerals. The pomegranate symbolises death.

Detail of a Wall Painting from Paestum, 340-330BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of a Wall Painting from Paestum, 340-330BC, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Graffito with Venatores, 3rd/4th century AD, Colosseum, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France.  Venatores would ‘hunt’ animals in the amphitheatre.

Graffito with Venatores, 3rd/4th century AD, Colosseum, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of the graffito with Venatores, 3rd/4th century AD, Colosseum, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Helmet of a thraex, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. The helmet would have had feathers attached to it.  A thraex or Thracian, was a gladiator with a small shield and dagger, and would usually be pitted against a murmillo.

Murmillo helmet, 50-79 AD Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. Feathers could be inserted into the tubes on the sides.  A murmillo had a shield like a solider and a heavy sword.

Detail of the front of the murmillo helmet, 50-79 AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bronze greaves of a murmillo or secutor, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bronze greaves of a murmillo or secutor, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of a bronze greave of a murmillo or secutor, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of the bronze greave of a murmillo or secutor, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bronze greaves of a thraex, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. They depict Silenus and Dionysus.

Detail of the bronze greaves of a thraex, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of the bronze greaves of a thraex, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Secutor helmet, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. The secutor was a heavily armed gladiator, with a plain helmet to prevent it from being snared in nets – the eye holes are small so the trident couldn’t get in. It was heavy and made breathing difficult.

Back of the provocator helmet, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. There was a large crack at the back which was repaired with a piece of bronze attached by three nails.

Front of the provocator helmet, 50-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Fresco showing various weapons used by gladiators, Gladiator School, Pompeii, 1st century AD, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. The weapons are stacked on top of each other like a trophaeum (which commemorated military victories).

Lamp on a gladiator helmet, pre-79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Loaf of bread, baked on 22nd August 79AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Decorated glass depicting a gladiator between two bears, 4th century AD, Bologna, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. It’s from the bottom of a glass bowl and the image was made of engraved gold placed between two layers of glass (transparent and blue).

Fresco from the Gladiator school, Pompeii, 1st century AD, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail of a helmet from the fresco of the the Gladiator school, Pompeii, 1st century AD, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Funerary Stele of a Gladiator, beginning of 2nd century AD, Via Annia, Aquileia, Italy, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. “To the Manes of Quintus Sossius Albio, murmillo, the freedwoman Sossia Iusta dedicates this to the worthy patron”.

Funerary Stele of Urbicus, 2nd century AD, Milan, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. “Tomb consectrated to the Gods Manes, to Urbicus secutor, first pole, originallly from Florence, who fought 13 times, lived 22 years, the daughters Olimpia, who left at the age of 5 months, and Fortunense and his wife Lauricia to the worthy husband, with whom she lived for seven years. And I urge you to kill anyone who is defeated. His fans will honour his Manes.” First pole was an experienced gladiator. And evidently Urbicus been killed by an opponent he had previously spared.

Marble relief showing two gladiators, 1st century BC, Colosseum, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. The third figure may be the lanista or the owner and trainer of at least one of the gladiators. The lanista ran a ludus, a gladiator school and earned his money by providing gladiators for the games.

Relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. The parade that opened the games is depicted at the top. Two lictores are walking on the far right, followed by musicians and four men carrying a platform on which are seated two smiths, who manufactured the weapons. These are followed by two men, one carrying a programme, the other holding the palm leaf for the victor. The man in the toga is the organiser of the games. Behind him are servants carrying helmets and shields. The middle register shows combat, the bottom depicts animal fights.

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Detail from a relief from the tomb of an organiser of gladiatorial games, 20-50AD, Porta di Stabia, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bone, pottery, glass, terracotta, peach kernels, olive kernels from Colosseum, Rome 1st-5th century; bone, Pompeii, 1st century AD, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France.  It’s fascinating to see the leftovers of snacks that hungry spectators would have munched on.

Slab, obtained from a piece of recycled ceiling marble, 6th century AD, Colosseum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. There are two inscriptions – the first is to Marcellus, followed by a Latin cross (symbolising reserved seats) and the second only has the letter D visible.

Vespasian, 1st century AD, (Naples Museum), Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

A bronze and ivory flute, 1st century AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. It was one of the two used in a tibiae – the famous Roman double flute.

Detail of a bronze and ivory flute, 1st century AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Bronze horn (cornu), 1st century AD, Pompeii, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. It was used by the army to relay signals in the field, and as a signal horn in the amphitheatre.

Rails, 3rd century AD, Colosseum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. Beneath the Colosseum, a system of wooden rails was used to transport stage props and scenery. The rails were supported by stones, which were set symmetrically at regular intervals along the two side walls of the central corridor. Fifty such stones have been found underneath the arena.

Hoist system, 3rd century AD, Colosseum, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. A complex system of hoists was used to move animals and people directly up to the arena. At one end, a rope was tied to the platform to be hoisted and it was pulled through the hole in the stone. The other end of the rope was tied to a man powered winch.

Fragment of a funerary monument, showing two provocatores fighting and a third watching, 30BC, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. The writing shows that the guy on the left was from the training school of Julius Caesar and had fought and won five times. His opponent, Clemens, lost, but was spared – the M stands for missus, or ‘sent away/dismissed’.  The man on the right has the letter ‘M’ and the greek letter theta, meaning thanatos (death). He was spared but presumably died of his wounds.

Detail of a fragment of a funerary monument, showing two provocatores fighting and a third watching, 30BC, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

Fragment of a funerary monument, showing two provocatores fighting and a third watching, 30BC, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. He has the letter ‘M’ and the greek letter theta, meaning thanatos (death) next to him. He was spared but presumably died of his wounds.

Relief, 1st century AD, Florence, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. The relief shows an exceptional representation of two Sagittarii (archers) who usually fought on horses and were used during animal hunts. It was very unusual for them to fight each other.

Mosaic, 2nd century AD, Rome, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. It showing a tiger chased by a bestiarius towards a venator. The venator might be a female gladiator dressed as an Amazon. The theta above the tiger shows it was killed. The text in the upper right refers to the games held in 158AD when Antoninus Pius had been Emperor for 20 years.

Relief, first half of 1st century AD, from Monteleone Sabino, Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France. It shows three bestiarii or venatores attacked by three animals. The relief was probably part of a much larger scenes, maybe of a local notable who wanted to be remembered for the games he had organised.

So In Summary

I have been to exhibitions about gladiators before (including a very dry one at the British Museum years ago) but I’ve not really enjoyed them.  This one was really good, partly because it gave a pretty comprehensive narrative history of gladiators, without having all that boring technical information about each type of fighter and their costume and weapons.  What you got was a really good overview and considering the fact that the space wasn’t huge, I came away really impressed by the types of exhibits on display and enjoyed learning about, for example, the backstage machinery.  For once, I felt that I had truly got something out of a gladiator exhibition.  Thanks, guys.

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