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The Roman Theater of Cruelty

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In 1855, there were said to be 420 varieties of plants growing in the Colosseum in Rome. Most appeared nowhere else in Europe, and were assumed to have sprung from seeds mixed with fodder brought from Africa along with animals destined for slaughter in ancient Roman festivals. The survival of African plant species is only one of many remarkable stories linked with the Roman empire's amphitheaters, more than 200 of which still exist in whole or part. Another story is grim: here, crowds cheered the deaths of those animals, the executions of criminals, and gladiatorial displays.

Professor of Latin Kathleen Coleman has devoted much of her academic career to clarifying what occurred in the Roman arenas and what role these spectacles played in society. Hired as a consultant to the current film Gladiator, she has firsthand experience of how Hollywood productions can sacrifice history to splashy entertainment. "It was an interesting but ultimately disillusioning experience," Coleman says. "Some of my comments on the script were incorporated, but the script kept changing." Then a "whole range of fresh inaccuracies and anachronisms" cropped up during filming, for which she was not present.

Gladiator goes awry, for example, regarding Roman conventions for naming people, the religious practices Romans observed, and the texts engraved on public buildings. "Why invent inscriptions that aren't even in proper Latin?" Coleman wonders. In a thorough misunderstanding of Juvenal's phrase "bread and circuses"--referring to the grain dole and chariot races--the film shows imperial caterers tossing bread into the stadium stands like hot dogs. Most flagrantly inauthentic is the action in the arena itself: real gladiators engaged in skilled single combat with human opponents, not in the scenes of tiger-assisted mass mayhem that enliven Gladiator.

In papers like "The Contagion of the Throng: Absorbing Violence in the Roman World," published in Hermathena, Coleman interprets what she has gleaned from the tombs of gladiators, mosaics with combat scenes, and graffiti scrawled by fight fans at Pompeii. These serve as reality checks; the statistics they preserve suggest that gladiators fought only two or three times per year and had reasonably long careers. Their bouts sometimes involved interesting experiments, like pitting a mobile combatant equipped with only a trident and a net against a heavily armored swordsman. Inscriptions also show that the loser of a match was often spared from death, for reasons contemporary writers make clear: Romans admired displays of physical and moral courage and believed that a worthy combatant, though bested, should live to fight another day.

Such life-or-death decisions were in the hands of the grandee who sponsored the games and rented the fighters from the various gladiatorial schools. Since returning a dead gladiator could cost the sponsor 20 times as much as returning a live one, economics recommended clemency. Still, the sponsor's aim was to please the crowd and so increase his prestige, whatever the cost. Thus, amphitheaters were often the site of death in the afternoon, as gamblers placed bets, the crowd chanted, and band music stirred the emotions.

Much more blood ran during the typical morning show: Roman audiences liked to begin their day by watching animal combats and staged hunts. Again, asymmetrical battles added excitement and uncertainty, as an elephant faced a bull or a rhinoceros battled a lion. A provincial official might take pride in displaying five African animals, but when an emperor decreed 100 days of games in the Colosseum, thousands had to die. The importation of wild beasts, accompanied by the native hunters who killed them in the arena, played a significant role in the Roman economy; tombs, mosaic floors, and even seals on amphoras preserve the names and logos of firms engaged in this trade.

Wild animals also played a role of sorts in the administration of justice. Public executions were the norm--condemned slaves, for example, were crucified along highways--but amphitheaters were the scene of the most spectacular capital punishments, including death by wild beasts, a punishment that predates Christianity. Yet Coleman writes that it is "crass and unhelpful" to view the Romans as merely bloodthirsty; she suggests that they took pleasure in lurid displays in part because "the Roman world was permeated by violence that had to be absorbed."

Strong or clever prisoners from the provinces might be sent to the games at Rome, in hopes that they would provide a livelier show as they struggled for life. The animals did not always prove cooperative, however: the Christian martyr Saturus was tethered to a boar which instead gored its attendant, who later died. Saturus also survived a bear before his sanguinary dispatch by a leopard. (As his blood flowed, the crowd shouted, "Nice bath!"--a salutation commonly heard at the public baths.)

Because Roman ingenuity did not stop there, perhaps it is just as well Gladiator avoids complete historical accuracy. In a paper titled "Fatal Charades," Coleman has summarized the evidence for staged reenactments of mythological scenes during which condemned criminals were dismembered, like Orpheus, or raped by a bull, like Pasiphaë. "The film," says Coleman, "is best understood as evoking previous Hollywood interpretations of ancient Rome." Despite its errors, however, she is pleased that it is "already reawakening interest in Roman antiquity."

~ Peter Desmond