A Matter of Life and Death: Lives of Gladiators

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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.

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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