Volksvermaak in het Colosseum
Public Amusement in the Colosseum
Ancient Rome may have had an impressive culture and architecture, but it was here that the cruellest – and immensely popular – spectacles were organised: gladiator fights. Many historians have condemned such excessive cruelty, but have been unable to explain it. Fik Meijer places the shows in their historical context, showing how man-to-man fighting persisted in Europe for centuries and how animal fights have retained their popularity into modern times.
The gladiator fights formed the climax of a day of life-and-death struggles after those between men and animals, and animals and animals. In the third century, fights were staged in more than two hundred theatres around the Roman Empire, with those in the Colosseum in Rome, in particular, being on an unprecedented scale. Millions of Romans gaped in awe at the dance of death performed in the arena. Gladiators provided a constant source of gossip, and bets changed hands daily.
Classic historian Meijer paints a lively picture of gladiator combat and everything it entailed. How did someone become a gladiator, how much did he earn and how much chance was there of coming out of a fight alive? What wild beasts did he have to take on and how did the Romans get them into the arena? Meijer presents all the details, including how gladiators nearing exhaustion were coaxed into fighting on with burning-hot metal plates and how corpses and carcasses were disposed of after a day of contests. Finally, he investigates the reliability of such films as Spartacus and Gladiator.
The gladiators, with their bravado and contempt of death, were the symbol of virtue and courage for the Romans. And they fired the imagination, symbolising, as they did, the grandeur of Rome. It was war and violence that had made Rome great. The arena became an extension of the battlefield and the place where the Romans quenched their thirst for bloodshed and merciless massacre. Although gladiator fights were banned in the fifth century once Christianity had become the state religion, a fascination with violent spectacle remains to this day.