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Gladiators and Caesars,
the power of spectacle in ancient Rome

bronze gladiator's helmut

Bronze gladiator's helmet
Roman, 1st century AD
Said to be from Pompeii, Campania, Italy
Height: 46 cm
Purchased with the assistance of Miss H.R. Levy
Photo courtesy of The British Museum

Staff Report

LONDON, 22 October 2000Bread and circuses panem et circenses were what Romans demanded of their emperors, if we are to believe the satirist Lucian. For more than five hundred years spectacular events in amphitheatres, circuses and theatres were the most important leisure activities of the masses throughout the Roman empire.

Gladiatorial games (munera) were originally performed at funerary rituals in the Etruscan area of Italy and the Greek cities in the south. The shedding of blood beside a dead man's grave is an ancient practice common to many Mediterranean cultures. Gladitorial combat was brought to Rome in the fourth century BC, and became a popular form of mass entertainment throughout the Empire. Local notables would sponsor the huge costs of the games to public acclaim and political benefits. Sound familiar?

On one occasion, the emperor Trajan held games for 123 days and included 10,000 gladiators. Gladiators could be prisoners of war, slaves, condemned criminals or even volunteers, who were trained under the eye of their owner (lanista) in gladiatorial schools. The holder of the games (editor) had to pay the lanista for use of the gladiators. The editor decided the fate of the losing gladiator, normally following the wishes of the crowd. Successful gladiators could win large amounts of prize money and sometimes even freedom and retirement. Some survived over 100 fights, though according to the evidence of tombstones, most died before they were 30.

In Rome itself public holidays, featuring magnificent and costly shows, came to occupy more than half the year. Comedies, tragedies, pantomimes and bawdy folk plays were staged in the theatres; in the arena of the Colosseum, opened in AD 80, gladiators fought in pairs or with wild animals to satisfy the blood lust of the crowd; and hundreds of thousands of race-goers packed the stands of the Circus Maximus to enjoy the thrills of chariot racing. These shows satisfied people's need for excitement and hero-worship, just as for example football, boxing and Formula One racing does today. Fan clubs developed, bets were made, political issues were aired, the latest victories and defeats were endlessly discussed, and brawling occasionally broke out.

The top gladiators, charioteers and actors were folk heroes, and the power of their universal appeal was recognised and exploited by politicians and emperors such as Julius Caesar, Augustus and Nero, who used games to manipulate a sometimes volatile public, whether to pacify or reassure at times of crisis or to achieve political ends.

Drawing on the British Museum's own collections and from over twenty other museums throughout Europe, this exhibition attempts to illustrate the power and attraction of spectacular mass entertainment in the Roman world. The show is divided into the following themes: the emperors, chariot races, theatrical performances, animal fights, the amphitheatre, gladiatorial combat, boxing and wrestling.

The exhibits range in size from a huge stone relief showing gladiatorial combat to the tiny bone discharge ticket which gave a gladiator his freedom. In between are bronze models of chariots, gladiators' tombstones, bronze and pottery figurines of gladiators and wrestlers, stone busts and statues of boxers, theatre masks of pottery and stone, a floor mosaic with a pair of gladiators, frescoes and stone reliefs showing scenes from plays and a plate with a portrait of an actor.

Lavishly ornamented gladiatorial weapons bring vividly to life the splendour and brutality of the arena, while graffiti cut into wall-plaster celebrate long-dead gladiators. Everyday objects such as oil-lamps and knife handles decorated with images of gladiators, actors and charioteers remind us that spectators then as today bought fan merchandise. The imagery of chariot racing above all had an enduring popularity, partly because the rewards and hazards of the race-course were seen as a metaphor for life. Circus scenes are depicted on frescoes and other wall decorations as well as on the sides of richly carved sarcophagi, while a terracotta plaque records with terrifying reality the consequences of a chariot crash.

The British Museum
London, England
21 October 2000 - 21 January 2001
Tel: (44) 20 73 23 87 83

Related article: Film Review of Ridley Scott's Gladiator

BOOK TIP: Romanization in the Time of Augustus
by Ramsay MacMullen; Yale University Press, New Haven 2000; $25.00

Exhibitions of gladitorial combat and wild beast fights in the old Roman manner were public entertainments adopted in important Romanized urban centres in Africa, Spain and Gaul. In a short, but excellent book, Ramsay MacMullen draws on archaeological sources to describe the process of acculturation in Roman colonies overseas during the lifetime of Augustus (from 63 B.C. to AD.14). MacMullen's vivid investigation reveals the ambition, prestige, wealth and politics of Roman military veterans, their settlements and the eventual adoption of Roman ways by conquered populations.

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