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Franz Lidz
February 01, 2001
Gladiators were sport's first superstars, providing thrills, chills and occasional kills
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February 01, 2001

Sudden Death

Gladiators were sport's first superstars, providing thrills, chills and occasional kills

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The ruins of Carthage, that great city-state crushed by the Romans in 146 B.C., rise from the Tunisian steppes like a mouthful of bad teeth. It was from here that North Africa's Three-H Club—Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Hannibal—invaded Europe and challenged the Roman Empire in the Punic Wars. Hulking over the few bleak tombs that still stand is El Djem, a coliseum almost as massive as the one in Rome. Few monuments better embody humanity's inhumanity. Over two centuries, El Djem provided an enormous venue for satisfying the Roman appetite for gory spectacle. From dawn until after nightfall, fatal encounters between men and men, men and beasts, and beasts and beasts were staged in this arena, whose wooden floor was covered with sand that soaked up the blood spilled in combat.

That floor is now collapsed, exposing the narrow corridors below, where an intricate rope-and-pulley system hoisted gladiators, condemned prisoners and wild animals to the surface. You can stand down there and gaze upward, much like the poor souls funneled through there once did, awaiting their fate. The extravagant butchery that was the gladiatorial games—snuff theater, if you will—seems like something out of Monty Python, a point not lost on Flying Circus alumnus Terry Jones, an Oxford don in history who cowrote and narrated a four-part series on the Crusades for the BBC and also did a documentary for the network on gladiators. While scouting locations for Monty Python's Life of Brian in 1978, Jones padded though El Djem's underground passageways in awed silence. "I shuddered with gleeful disgust," he recalls, "and tried to imagine how the fighters must have felt sprinting into the sunlight, surrounded by mobs baying for blood."

For seven centuries the Romans celebrated murder as public sport. "A gladiator fight was something between a modern bullfight and a prizefight," says Jones. "It was like bullfighting in that the spectators appreciated the competitors' technique and applauded their skill and courage. It was like boxing in that you went to see people mashing each other into the ground. The games weren't decadent; they were an antidote to decadence. The Romans believed it was beneficial to watch people being slain—you learned how to meet death bravely. In the ancient city, where compassion was regarded as a moral defect, the savage killings weren't just good entertainment, but morally valuable."

The origins of the sport may lie in Etruscan slave fights, which were fought to the death to please the gods and to enhance the reputations of the slaves' owners. The Romans incorporated the tradition into their funeral ceremonies, beginning in 264 B.C. with that of Junius Brutus Pera's. Gradually, the spectacles became more lurid and more frequent—and more necessary for each ruler to provide in order to retain power and sustain the goodwill of a mostly unemployed populace. Before long, just about every Roman city had its own amphitheater. The most majestic, the Colosseum, held 50,000 spectators and offered every sort of diversion from circus acts to reenactments of historic naval battles on the flooded arena floor. Roman emperors spent vast sums on bread and circuses, entertaining the urban masses. Much like the dictators of today, emperors well understood the benefits of athletic triumphs, in propaganda and as a distraction from misery at home. The games that commemorated the emperor Trajan's victories on the Dacian frontier in 107 A.D. featured 10,000 gladiators and lasted 123 days.

Being a gladiator was a job first thought fit only for slaves, convicts or prisoners of war. But under the Republic, many freeborn citizens became gladiators, seeking a kind of macabre glamour. Under the Empire, noblemen, emperors and even women fought. As the games became more popular, criminals were sometimes remanded to gladiator schools. "In general, a sentence to the schools meant three years of training and combat in the arena followed by two years teaching in the schools," wrote Richard Watkins in Gladiator. Among the earliest training schools was the one near Capua from which Spartacus and 78 other gladiators made their historic escape in 73 B.C. Eluding the Roman garrison, they stole weapons, pillaged estates and freed thousands of slaves. Within a year, the bandit and his guerrilla band of 90,000 engaged the Roman legions in the Revolt of Spartacus, one of history's more forlorn campaigns. Emboldened by victories all over Southern Italy, the gladiators took on the main body of the Roman army. Its commander, Marcus Licinius Crassus, routed the rebels and cut Spartacus to pieces, celebrating his triumphal return by crucifying 6,000 of his captives along the Appian Way.

Most of the schools were run by "stable masters" who either bought and maintained gladiators for rental, or trained them for other owners. These overseers were called lanistae, which derives from the Etruscan word for butcher. Ranked and housed on the basis of experience, the four grades of trainees honed their swordmanship on straw men or fencing posts. Instructors taught them conditioning, toughness and the proper postures to assume when falling and dying. They were well-fed (barley porridge was the andro of its day) and pampered with massages and baths. In Rome, however, gladiator schools were in imperial hands. Gladiators owned by Caligula, the Empire's quintessential mad despot, supposedly trained themselves not to blink. The emperor sometimes sparred with them. "To be his partner might prove a dubious honour," wrote Anthony Barrett in Caligula. "It is said that when practising with a gladiator from the training school [who was armed] with [a] wooden sword, Caligula ran his partner through with a real one." ( Caligula lived out every modern team owner's dream: He once ordered an entire section of gladiator fans thrown to the beasts for laughing at him.)

Every gladiator was a specialist: Spartacus was a Thracian, a class named for and outfitted in the equipment of one of Rome's vanquished enemies. Armored in shin guards and a crested helmet, and armed with a small, round shield and a dagger curved like a scythe, Thracians were generally matched against the mirmillones, who protected themselves with short Gallic swords, large oblong shields and fish-crowned helmets. The heavily armored secutor was often pitted against the practically bare-skinned retiarius, whose strategy was to entangle his opponent in a net and spear his legs with a trident. Then there were the lance-brandishing andabatae, believed to have fought on horseback in closed visors that left them more or less blind; the two-knife wielding dimachaeri; the lasso-twirling laqueari; the chariot-riding essedarii; and the befeathered Samnites, who lugged large, rectangular shields and a straight sword called a gladius, from which the word gladiator comes.

Not all gladiators were eager participants. "In Caligula's day," says Jones, "a dozen gladiators decided not to fight. They laid down their arms, figuring the emperor wouldn't want to waste 12 gladiators. It didn't work. Caligula was so infuriated by this early trade union thing that he ordered them all to be killed. Whereupon one of them jumped up, grabbed a weapon and slew all his unarmed ex-colleagues. Then Caligula stood up and said a very strange thing: 'I've never seen anything so cruel.' "

Cruelty, of course, was the sine qua non of the gladiatorial games. During a typical day out at the amphitheater, you could expect men stalking and killing beasts in the morning, execution of convicts at midday, gladiator bouts in the afternoon. The brutal truths: Mankind trumps the wild, law punishes criminality, valor vanquishes death. "The arena was...a symbol of the ordered world, the cosmos," Thomas Wiedemann wrote in Emperors and Gladiators. "It was a place where the civilized world confronted lawless nature."

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