When the blood and guts were real

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When the blood and guts were real
The film Gladiators is shocking in its graphic depiction of violence and gore. But, as Alasdair Palmer reports from London, the butchery enjoyed in ancient Rome was far, far worse.

It is difficult to accept that thousands, indeed millions, of people can have watched fights to the death of the brutal and cruel kind depicted in Ridley Scott's latest film, Gladiator - and found them hugely entertaining. But they did.

For almost 500 years, from about 150 BC, gladiators fought to the death in the amphitheatres of every major city in the empire.

The film aims to depict with some degree of accuracy these public spectacles. It is exciting and extremely violent. The fights that take place inside the packed "Colosseum" arena, recreated in North Africa, are certainly very bloody - severed heads and limbs fly across the screen - and invariably involve the death of almost everyone except the hero, Maximus. But, if anything, the brutality in the film is far less than the kind of hideous cruelty routinely perpetrated in the Roman arenas.

Despite the realism with which the film recreates gladiatorial combat, we the audience know that, in fact, no one got hurt during the filming. Even the tigers that spring out to attack Maximus during his battle with a champion gladiator were specially cared for: their sequences were enhanced with computer technology, apparently because of the reluctance of the beasts even to pretend to attack anyone: instead of leaping and roaring, they lay down and licked their paws.

For a start, the film depicts only gladiatorial combat - which was but one part of the day's entertainment. In the morning, there would be a display in which exotic animals - panthers, giraffes, ostriches, zebras - were hunted and killed. The emperor Hadrian (AD117-138), for instance, organised games in which 11,000 beasts were slaughtered over a period of 120 days. Every corner of the empire was scoured for animals, a process that no doubt accelerated the elimination of whole species from Europe and Asia. Tigers were among the first to disappear: until Imperial times, they used to be common around the Caspian Sea.

During lunch, the audience would be entertained by the public execution of criminals. The punishments were designed to inflict maximum pain and humiliation. The emperor Nero (AD54-68) had Christians coated in animal skins and then thrown to wild dogs, who tore them apart. Mosaics from North Africa depict men tied to posts, which were then wheeled in front of starving bears and lions. Criminals were even castrated in front of the audience. Seneca mentions a mode of crucifixion in which the victim was impaled by his genitals: the slow agony of "ordinary" crucifixion was not thought amusing enough for the crowd.

A man named Meniscus, who committed some trivial offence against Nero, is reported to have "furnished a great spectacle to everyone by being burnt alive". Burning alive was one of the favoured methods of execution, partly because animals could not always be relied on to do what was required of them (as the makers of Gladiator discovered). Late-night spectacles were occasionally lit by human torches.

Considerable ingenuity was expended on thinking up new refinements of cruelty. The execution became a vehicle for entertainment. There were punishments based on re-enactments of mythological stories. In a grotesque parody of the story of Europa, in which the god Zeus disguised himself as a bull in order to make love undetected to the girl Europa, it seems that women condemned for sexual offences were raped to death by bulls. (This was evidently difficult to achieve: it seems to have required smearing the women with the secretions emitted by cows when on heat.)

Clement of Rome mentions that women Christians were killed by being attached to the horns of a bull and gored to death, in imitation of the punishment meted out to Dirce by her two stepsons, in revenge for having plotting against their natural mother.

On other occasions, men were dressed up as Orpheus, who was supposed to have had the power to charm and tame wild beasts - but in the arena, the poor unfortunates were always eaten by them. Then there was the time when the arena was flooded as, and a group of musicians played on an island in the middle. The spectators started booing, thinking that it had been decided to replace blood with music - then they noticed that crocodiles had been released, and that the island was starting to sink. The gladiatorial combat that followed must have seemed relatively restrained.

Gladiators depicts the fighters dressed in a variety of exotic suits of armour. In fact, real gladiators usually fought each other relatively lightly armed. The most common combination was to have one combatant without body armour, but with a net to catch and a trident to spear his victim, while his opponent had a shield, a sword and a helmet, sacrificing some manoeuvrability for extra protection.

Gladiators were usually slaves or prisoners of war. Occasionally, desperate freemen sold themselves to a dealer in gladiators, but the cost of doing so - apart from the likelihood of an early death - was to lose all rights to freedom. It was thought disgraceful to appear as a gladiator, and not only by Romans: two German prisoners committed suicide rather than appear in the arena, one by putting his head under the wheels of the cart that was taking him there.

Gladiators spent several years training. It was unusual to survive more than four or five fights, although a few did. Modern scholars no longer think that it was the gladiators who before they did battle said: "Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!" That phrase was used by condemned criminals, not gladiators, because the point of gladiatorial combat was that one of the combatants should survive.

The film also recreates a pitched battle between two groups of gladiators. Such battles happened, but on a far bigger scale than the film depicts. In the movie, there are only about 20 fighters on each side. But when the emperor Claudius (AD41-54) staged a naval battle for the entertainment of Roman citizens, he used 19,000 "soldiers". And all of them were meant to die: he insisted that there were to be no survivors. The battle was staged on the Fucine Lake. Security measures to prevent desertion included an outer ring of vessels manned by the Praetorian Guard, themselves protected by ramparts and equipped with catapults and ballistae, reinforced by ships manned by marines.

The "forces of order" were frightened of gladiators, and for good reason: the biggest slave revolt in Roman history - that led by Spartacus in 73BC - started in the gladiator school where Spartacus was training. It was because he and his colleagues knew how to fight that they were able to terrorise southern Italy for several years before finally being defeated. Spartacus and the rest of the survivors were crucified along the Via Appia.

Although worthless as a guide to the political history of Rome, and wrong in many of its details of the gladiatorial combat, Gladiators does create the excitement of the arena. If you want to know something of the thrill that pulled Romans into the Colosseum, this film provides it. Even allowing for the fact that you know that no one is really getting hurt, it is a profoundly disconcerting experience.

- The Sunday Telegraph, London


Hmmmmmmm....Sounds a bit like Parliament question time in OZ.

Regards from the bull-pit Down Under

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 14, 2000


That was interesting, Pieter.

-- CD (costavike@hotmail.com), May 14, 2000.

"We Who Are About to Die", a book copyrighted in the 50's, I think, told all. How they trained the animals to rape or simulate rape was a very detailed chapter. I don't see how the Romans held things together as long as they did, considering the energy and resources they spent on torture and entertainment. We won't be watching the Gladiator movie, too gory.

-- helen (nowhere@the.moment), May 14, 2000.

Where is that idiot who keeps telling Decker how morals have gone downhill? Bet the moron has precious little to say about this one.

-- Uncle Deedah (unkeed@yahoo.com), May 14, 2000.

Have we really changed that much? I hope so but my sense is that if gladiator events were legalized today they might be popular. How about a gladiator Super Bowl? TV ads would cost $100 million a minute.

-- (nemesis@awol.com), May 15, 2000.

LOL Unk!

-- CD (costavike@hotmail.com), May 15, 2000.

I don't know how you missed the analogy, sic. question time in parliment indeed!
The Summer sale at Myers in the womans department,would make the gladiators swoon in envy at the brutality!

-- Scarlet (scarletbreasted@hotmail.com), May 15, 2000.

of course the 20C has been the most bloody of the lot

20,000,000 exterminated by Stalin

15,000,000 exterminated by Hitler

20,000,000 dead in WWI, 60,000,000 dead in WWII (mostly civilians)

etc etc etc etc

of course NATO and Clinton nearly started WWIII

bombing at a distance is of course easier than hand to hand

-- richard (richard.dale@onion.com), May 15, 2000.

The games have been reincarnated in today's modern world. But know they're called by a different name:

Jenny, Oprah, Maury, Springer, etc.

All for the "entertainment" of the lowest common denominator.

-- Yeah Right (Ahhh@haaa.haaa.haaa), May 15, 2000.

Yeah Right,

I no longer think that you are an idiot. You have surpassed that.

Springer is trash, but to compare it to the goings on in the article above well....words fail me. Sheesh. Would you please tell us the date that the "Jenny Jones, Bulls raping virgins" show aired?

-- Uncle Deedah (unkeed@yahoo.com), May 15, 2000.

Unk -

My argument with Decker was concerning the moral decline since the early 1970's, not the 170's...

You can get back to pounding your pud to the Howard Stern show now.

-- (@ .), May 15, 2000.

Ah, so YOU are the idiot! Hee hee! So your argument is now that morals went up from 170 and are since 1970 going back down? Which year was the exact cut off point? Oh, and how does the slaughter of millions of native American Indians fit into your picture?

-- Uncle Deedah (unkeed@yahoo.com), May 16, 2000.

My beef is with adults that have taken a lackadaisical attitude towards protecting the moral fiber on which our world depends. I'm not saying we should fire up the Inquisition and ban porno, just that we should keep adult entertainment in the hands of adults, lest we return to the excesses of the Romans and our society disintegrates.

It makes no sense to have people losing their jobs for sexual harassment when they tell an off color joke among adults, while at the same time Howie is broadcasting the same offensive material on the radio at 8AM.

The MMM is a perfect example of the problem. People think that we can solve the violence problem by adding more gun laws. This is ludicrous. Adults are too spoiled and lazy to address the real problems.

-- (@ .), May 16, 2000.

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