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Updated: Jul 8, 2019

Salvete all,

I hope you are enjoying this glorious rainy June thus far (whoever said British summer had to be dry?!) We had a fantastic – if slightly wet – weekend at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire, performing gladiatorial fights and putting the kids (and their dads) through their paces in our gladiator schools over Father’s day. As June normally has a gladiator-ish theme to me because of Chedworth, I thought this might be a good time to present part two of our gladiator blog.


In the first instalment, I introduced a few of the most common gladiators you may expect to see during a Munus Gladiatorum. These included the Murmillo, Thraex, secutor, and of the course the iconic Retiarius. These types are often referred to whenever gladiators are mentioned in ancient literature, and they appear the most common within visual culture – wall painting reliefs, epigraphic imagery, oil lamps, etc. For part two, I thought it would be beneficial to debunk some of the myths surrounding the games – myths that have been imbedded in the minds of modernity in no small part thanks to Hollywood – here’s looking at you Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe! Obviously, these myths can appear at any point through the chronology of a gladiator’s experience, so I thought it might be best to mirror the path and events of one entering the life of a gladiator and tackle myths as and when they come up. Now, you may be thinking (or shouting at me): how do I know these are myths when there is so much we don’t know ourselves about the games, or just because there might not be evidence that does not mean it didn’t happen; and I agree. Modern facts of the games are few and far outnumbered by academic guesses and theories that have no concrete confirmation, and I’ll be the first person to accept the age old saying so often thrown around in the re-enactment world (for good and bad): absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, some things that we may seemingly take as ‘fact’ is in fact (excuse the pun) a made up concept from either modern day or periods after that of the Romans – of which I’ll explain further on. Moreover, while accepting that evidence can be fragmentary and uncertain at the best of times, and acknowledging this as a factor that should not be forgotten, extant evidence must take preference over subjunctive, ‘possible’ works or artefacts that have not survived the passage of time; as such some myths could be termed “conditional-myths” – a myth on condition that both the extant evidence proves a contradiction, and that no evidence has been discovered to suggest otherwise – the conditional element is that this absent evidence could at some point be unveiled either in the literary or material realms. With this in mind, let’s jump in.


Who were gladiators?

The myth that should probably be dissolved is the idea that all gladiators were merely slaves who were chucked into a new life of violence and eventual death. While yes, slaves could, and were, sold to gladiatorial schools - a result of numerous possible causes - the population ratio of concurrent slaves/originally free in some form was fluid. During Rome’s expansion from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, particularly during the 2nd century BC through to the mid 1st century BC, Rome came into contact with numerous other cultures and societies - in which the majority ended in war and Rome taking over a new Provincia (province originally referred to an area under the military command of Rome and not necessarily an imperial occupancy as we are familiar with when it to comes to European empires in the modern age). Examples include 3 Macedonian wars, in which Macedonia was eventually placed under Roman rule after several failed alternatives, the razing of Carthage, the wars against Antiochus and the Aetolian League and the Gallic wars. the result of these wars would obviously meant vast numbers of prisoners who could be sold as slaves, thus during these periods of war and expansion, the majority of gladiator performing likely would have been slaves. However, after Rome’s great intrusion into the rest of Europe (and beyond), and once the new hyper-power was subdued through civil wars and the rare but impactful defeat of a battle or campaign, Augustan and post-Augustan was more measured about any potential expansion. This was for differing reasons but prisoners of war likely became a rarity. Alongside this probable shift in POW availability was another source of gladiatorial recruits - citizens themselves. We know several accounts when citizens have voluntarily signed up for the gladiator life. Reasons for this could vary and likely include an escape from debt, an attempt at fame and money, or that, like the army, the risk of injury and/or death was worth the security in knowing one would receive regular meals, combat training, shelter, and possible rewards should they prove successful. This, alongside the decline and infrequent flux of POWs could mean that, during the 1st-2nd centuries at least, the majority of gladiators were actually citizens in origin and now only slaves because of legality - it was illegal for citizens to kill other citizens, for example.


The Six-pack

Today, when we look at movies and TV shows, particularly those within the action genre, we are often showered with muscle bound men and (though less frequently) women. When the tops come off we see bodies of almost no fat; skin moulded around conditioned muscles, and the ever sought after six-pack. TV shows of the 90s such as “Gladiators” provided this in both sexes and attributed this as one of the aspects to the term gladiator. The more recent TV series “Spartacus” highlighted this to an even more obvious and visual extent: fighters who were portraying the types of Murmillo and other heavily armed gladiators were still rocking the abs. This has led to a general assumption attributed to gladiators by modernity that to be “fit” and tough, one must have abs. However, from visual evidence and recent osteo-analysis on known gladiatorial skeletons, it seems that the opposite appears to be true. Instead of being “ripped”, the majority of combatants were heavily built, with a substantial amount of fat, particularly around the abdomen. The more conditioned appearances are more often seen on types such as the retiarius; a logical conclusion as agility and speed were in favour of such types, and any substantial fat would have only slowed the individual down. Osteo-analysis of bones have indicated a diet heavy in carbohydrates, magnesium and calcium of those individuals sampled - meaning fighters of impressive strength, but fat. A reason for the layers of fat, that is generally accepted as being the case, if to act as a protective buffering for internal organs and components that need protecting. If fat is cut into, then the organs and internal workings are safe, but additionally, the fighter can still continue the fight and the cut would produce - adding an entertaining element to the audience. If a fighter with little fat was cut then the blade would immediately cut into muscle and, more seriously, the internal workings. Thus, as much as TV would complain, it seems the majority were fat to some degree. Sorry to disappoint.


Gladiatrix

The idea of female fighters performing in the arena is not a myth, but an accuracy. Many people we talk to appear actually appear surprised when they learn the women were at one point involved in these violent spectacles. They were popular; so popular in fact that monument reliefs have been found showing female gladiators; one such example is that of the labeled Amazonia and Achillia relief, originally discovered in Halicarnassus and now housed in the British Museum. If you haven’t yet seen this relief, I would recommend a look next time you are visiting London! Female gladiators became a huge attraction in the games (which may have been no surprise in a male orientated spectacle), however, this doesn’t mean it was approved of by the upper social tiers - especially when it was women of high status who were the ones fighting. One of the myths, though not necessarily about the combatants themselves, but more with how we refer to them is the term “Gladiatrix”. As attractive and powerful as the term is, it is unfortunately a product of modern terminology - like the term Romanisation. Literary sources refer to female fighters but just as that; there does not appear to be mention of gladiatrix as a gladiatorial type - likely because actual gladiatorial types were reserved for males anyway - but a gladiatrix is a modern way of identifying a female fighter taking part in a Munus Gladiatorum.


Referee

When we think of a gladiator fight, we may automatically imagine two individuals facing off against each other in a sand-covered arena surrounded by an audience of adrenaline infused spectators. What we may not often imagine is the arena and fighting area populated by anyone other than the combatants. Again, our old nemesis of movies and TV series only strengthen this view. However, this was certainly not the case, and one of the biggest myths that needs debunking. In the vast majority of visual depictions that the ancient world have left for us of gladiatorial fights, the combatants have are certainly not isolated. Some reliefs show musicians in the background, others of ring attendees; one detailed stone relief appears to show fighters have a break and being attended to by aids – one is even receiving a massage! A figure that always appears though, and who has as much visual presence as the gladiators themselves, is that of the summi rudus; for all intents and purposes – the referee. The summi rudus (or summi rudi for when more than one appear, as can be the case). I will admit that, currently, very little is known about how gladiator fights were organised and controlled, but it seems that this individual could interrupt the fight if necessary; there are reliefs of him holding a wooden pole that could have been used to safely interrupt the fight so not to have be injured, and his positioning in between the gladiators. He may also have been the one who decided if a fight was over, if a combatant was not able to continue or to declare the victor and loser. Mosaic depictions show a gladiator either arguing with the ref (no change there then) or holding his finger to him as mission (the sign of surrender and asking for mercy). Two referees could be depicted for one fight; again, without knowing the exact flow of a gladiatorial fight, it could be that each ref was from the same Ludus as one of the gladiators, and having a fair representation kept decisions objective and not in favour of one school/fighter or the other. Whatever they’re duties explicitly, it is clear they were an essential factor in gladiator bouts – otherwise they would not be as represented as they are – indicating that gladiator fights were more controlled and disciplined than the big screen and our perceptions of simply blood-lustful people of the past would have us accept.


Fatalities

Gladiator fights were violent, risky affairs. The threat of serious injury and even death (whether intentional or not) were always present. After each fight, the loser would have his life decided by the editor, and, in the worst case scenario, his life would end by the hands of his victorious opponent. Or so we tend to imagine. In reality, death through this method seems rare. A great number of tombstones dedicated to a specific gladiator often have numerous similarities: the name of the deceased, a mention of their fighting type or a visual depiction, the dedicator of the monument, and in many cases a record of the number of fights the dedicatee took part in and how many were won, drawn, and lost. In some cases, the number of losses outnumber the wins and draws and can be in double digits. If gladiator fights always have the risk of being killed if lost, then either those who lost several times were extremely lucky for the amici of the editor or audience, or this was not the case. The archaeological marvel that is Pompeii has, fortunately, provided us with graffiti adverts for games. On some of these, the advert may state that a pair will fight to the death. This may appear to strengthen the myth, but it must be made aware that very often the ancient sources rely on assumption of context understanding, and not that these may be read almost 2000 year later. Because of this, if all such fights were designed to be to the death, the advert would not need to state this as it would already be common knowledge – it would just be a waste of space which could be utilised for other statements of main features of the event. However, the fact that this is mentioned as a highlight is likely indicative that to have a fight in which a gladiator’s fate would be decided at the end was not a common occurrence; indeed, more likely a rarity that when it happens (or afforded by the editor), it is worth shouting about. Recent studies have also uncovered a possible “gladiator’s code of conduct” in which during fighting, they would not be aiming to kill or even seriously wound each other, but to ensure a good show and entertainment. Certain tombstones have stated clearly that the deceased took pride in never ending a life – presumably either accident or on purpose. Moreover, there appears condemnation of those who did enter the arena with an evils and sick intention of killing as often as they could – even if not needed: one tombstone damns the actions of the dedicatee’s killer as one whose only intention was killing, but that retribution was enforced when that individual soon after fell to the sword of another. It needs to also be enforced that gladiator fighting was not necessarily about death and killing, but a lesson to its ‘Roman’ audience on how to behave in the face of danger – particularly during the Republic when conscription was still a factor – even after the so-called Marian reforms – but also in the imperial period when conscription could still be enforced and indeed was – although to a lesser extent. One could face danger at any moment during life in the ancient world, and it was important to know how to behave if and when it came about.


I’ve realised that actually this is a bigger topic and requiring more words than I thought – by nor your eyes might be rolling or having a slight glazing effect at the screen. I think I might also do a part 3 and finish off some of the myths of the arena – I’ll let you go and have a cuppa, now!


I hope this is had been another enjoyable and informative blog. If you want to add to the discussion, then please reply to this blog or make yourself known on our Facebook group Legio Secunda Augusta. Until then, and always valete.


Updated: Apr 25, 2019

Hi Everyone,


Sorry there wasn't a blog post last month but Happy Easter and I can't believe April is almost at an end - where is the time going?!

I haven't had a lot of time this month, so this post won't be as long as some of my previous blogs, but I thought I'd offer a quick look at an element of the Roman military that can often get overlooked in media and popular culture. The Auxilia.


The auxilia had been a concept since the Republic and aided the legions through providing additional weapons, skills and fighting tactics that were not routine to the legions (Webster, 1969). Generals upon facing an enemy, if impressed with their fighting style or skill, would, on occasion, readily integrate them into the army such as the Gallic and Moorish horsemen. The auxilia, though, were not legionaries and thus were not equipped in the same way as the citizen soldiers (Goldsworthy, 2003). This knowledge along with material evidence can lead to the assumption that not only were auxilia not represented as ‘Roman’ soldiers but rather their military dress and equipment allowed them to retain a form of cultural identity within the army. 


The majority of auxilia were foot soldiers and whose equipment was varied and, as some would argue, simpler in design particularly helmets as less detailed or decorative helmets discovered have often been attributed to auxiliaries (Goldsworthy, 2003). Although many depictions show auxilia with a gladius and a facale such as on Trajan’s Column; these are the only ‘Romanised’ features. The cultural identity is in design and appearance. Auxilia infantryman carried an oval, flat shield and a spear (Hasta) like those seen on Trajan’s column and a relief found at Mainz. Decoration on the shield varied incredibly unlike the uniformed design of the legionary Scuta (Webster, 1969). It may be that the variety of decoration allowed the individual to present a tribal or cultural symbol. There is also variation in the appearance of auxilia cavalry. Moorish cavalry also appear on Trajan’s column and are represented with a hairstyle that was a characteristically African style (Webster, 1969. 143). This African style could be seen as an attempt of presenting a cultural or regional identity through style and not equipment design. 


Archers were one of the most numerous forms of auxilia whose clothing, based on material evidence, shows an eastern style (Goldworthy, 2003). Depictions on Trajan’s Column shows archers in long robes that were associated with the East and the image of an archer on a tombstone found at Hadrian’s wall, although only in a tunic, still has the same design helmet and bow. Even without patterns, the design alone gives the archers a unique appearance and possibly identifies the culture they were recruited from.


Through the use of equipment design such as shield patterns and symbols and through native dress and styles it is possible to assume that these features allowed men of the auxilia to retain a part of their cultural identity even though they have been assimilated into the army of Rome. The diversity of the army across the empire also meant that particular native features of the auxilia could travel and reach the universal. For example the Batavians, when recruited into the auxilia, were used on the Rhine and in Britain (Woolf. 1998). It was not just Batavians who were present in Britain either as the auxilia was drawn from a variety of different provinces and cultures, for example, Thracians were present in Britain also (Cool. 2006).


I hope you enjoyed this little snippet into the incredibly important factor or the Rome's military might, and I hope to expand on this in a later blog. I'm sorry again that it's not as extensive as some of my others. We have some fantastic Auxilia of our own in the group; if you are at one of our shows and spot them (they do look different to our normal troops), then do come and say hi and they can tell you all you need to know about one of Rome's greatest military conceptions!


Until then, as always, valete.


Welcome back, to another end of month and another blog! I gave a hint in my last blog about the topic for this one; I must admit, however, that I forgot this month also had Valentine's day (to all those potential loves – sorry!). If I’d remembered I would have done a blog on romance and marriage in the Roman world – maybe I’ll leave that for next time. Let us not linger on that, though, and get onto this month’s rather ‘fiery topic’. A legendary topic. A phenomenal topic that spreads across both the world and history, captivating all who imagine such things, and a creature that is the sole symbol of fantasy and myth. An entity of strength, wisdom, and sometimes destruction and rage – but always of true and real power. Dragons.


Dragons have always held a special place in human culture, forms of which can be found almost within every ethnicity and historical period in the world – certainly since the first “historical” stories were told, and very likely before. Dragons have been a key character in many of history's most famous myths – both from the classical period later – consider the stories of St George and St Patrick you might be asking why Patrick as he only got rid of snakes. Snakes are the reason. 

I was to say now, think of a dragon, you may immediately think of either two images. One image may be of the Chinese dragon due to the global universalisation of Chinese New Year and culture; a divine being that can fly, with an elongated body, and a face that almost looks a mixture of a tiger and lizard. The second, possibly more likely image, is of a giant creature with four left, wings, long neck and tail, and a lizard like face. Oh, and it can breathe fire. This latter would the epic creature we would call the western dragon. However, this dragon, like the term ‘dragon’, is a relatively modern conception, formed by overlapping inspirations and beliefs through history. The question, then, is what a dragon in its original form look like?


To understand the original form of dragons, one must first understand the origin of the term. The word dragon is an evolved form of the Latin Draconis, which itself derived from the Greek Drakon - meaning ‘snake’. Therefore, the original word for dragons did in fact refer to snakes, which is exactly what the original dragons were, and what they continued to be for many centuries. Forget the movies showing dragons of old being what audiences would associate with the word, and instead picture giant serpents. 


Many of the greatest tales of Greek myth involve a Drakon in some scenarios. Arguably, the greatest of them all was the Drakon, Typhon. Typhon appears to be the most celebrated of Greek myth through his popularity in surviving literature, though his artistic representations rare. Typhon’s beginning is uncertain but was possibly created by Earth and Tartarus to overthrow Zeus following the defeat of the Titans. Typhon is described as being gigantic, with wings and one hundred heads. When he is depicted in extant art, he may only have one head and, more noticeably, appear the same head height as his lighting-wielding opponent. Due to the limits of space on whatever is being painted, keeping opponents at head-height was common practice – still allowing for decorative details to be added above and maintain a sense of order. However, to show height differences, it is not the head levels to look at, but the legs; where one figure may be standing up straight, their opponent may have legs bent or even kneeling, emphasising that should that individual stand up to their full height, they would tower above the other. The same is done with Drakons. Artistry might show Zeus and Typhon at the same head height, but where Zeus might be in a proud or full stance, Typhon will not. Now, you may be saying to yourself ‘but snakes do not have legs anyway’, but what emphasised height in the context is how many coils the body of the Drakon has; Typhon may be the same height of Zeus it seems, but his body may sprawl across much of the “canvas” that he would dwarf Zeus should he rise to his true height.  During an epic clash between him and Zeus, Zeus eventually wins (with some help); imprisoning Typhon within Mount Etna in Sicily. Take a moment to imagine yourself in Sicily, and everytime Mount Etna erupts, or trembles, or there’s a storm, that’s a gigantic Drakon of unimaginable power trying to escape!


Speaking of multi headed entities of a slivery nature, one cannot think of Greek myth, and ignore the infamous Hydra (and no – I'm not referring to the infamous downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D - if you don’t know what I mean, you need to waste some hours watching Marvel). The Hydra was again (though not to the extent of Typhon) a snake of epic proportions. If I mention the Hydra, you may picture the scary, cave dwelling, purple threat from Disney’s Hercules (Hercules is a good topic of discussion, too). The Disney version was not a complete farce, but the story element certainly changed from the original – of which I’ll come back to. Like Typhon, when depicted in art, the body of the Hydra often consists of several coils to make it fit within the spatial limitations, but still indicating the true extent of its height. Furthermore, like Typhon, the Hydra suffers the same issues when painting potentially hundreds of heads in 2D, thus is either shown as single-headed, or with only a few heads; even with one head, the viewer can tell it’s the Hydra through the clear identity claims we see from Herakles – most notably a club and lion pelt. 


The fight between Herakles and the Hydra was again another epic confrontation, with both both receiving help; the Hydra had help from a big crab (yep – and it on some vase paintings), and Herakles being aided by Iolaus. Herakles kept crushing each head with his club but to no avail. In the end Iolaus set fire to the nearby woods, and when one head was knocked off, Herakles would us the flame to cautorise and seal the neck – thus preventing heads respawning; eventually he took off the immotal head and buried it under a large rock – thus ending the Hydra. The slaying of the Hydra was one of the twelve labours of Herakles. After winning (narrowly), Herakles dipped his arrows in the Hydras blood – the blood considered to be highly venomous and deadly; this, in the end, would be the great hero’s undoing. After shooting the centaur, Nessus, Nessus, while dying, told Deianeira, Herakles’ wife, that could create a potion to keep Herakles desiring only her; she was to take the centaur’s semen, and his blood from the arrow Herakles shot at Nesses (remember what Herakles did with his arrows...), blend them with olive oil and smear it on Herakles’ tunic. When Herakles was making a sacrifice, he called for his religious tunic, but before her wore it, Deinaeira secretly smeared the potion onto it. When Herakles put the tunic on, the Hydra got its posthumous revenge; Herakles’ body was destroyed by intense heat from the venom – leading to the death of Mythology's greatest legend.


The physiology of dragons are gigantic snakes is not limited to Greek and Roman legend. In Norse mythology, creatures that today might have been transformed into our recognized modern forms, also took the form of gigantic snakes. While not called Drakon, or Draco, the name differs culturally, but what unites them all is in each instance, the creature of power, strength, and often destruction, is serpentine (as well as often immortal or of very long life). Probably the most famous Norse serpent if the great World Serpent, Jormungandr. Jormungandr  was the offspring of Loki, along with Hel, and Fenris (Yep – there’s a lot Marvel misses out with the sons of Odin). According to the Prose Edda, Odin took the serpent and threw it into the seas of Midguard; there, Jormungandr grew so large that it encircled the entire world – and even had to bite its own tale. Jormungandr’s moment of legend would be that of Ragnarok – the end of times. As Fenris attacks Asguard and battles all the warriors of Valhalla, and Odin (in which he eventually slays the great god), Jormungandr would rise out of the sea and flood all the world. It would be then that the world serpent battles the Thor; Thor would eventually kill Jormungandr, but slain himself by the snake’s poisonous breath – another aspect that links all great serpents of myth together.

Another example if Fafnir – mentiond in the Tale of the Volsungs (if you’re a Tolkien fan – read this and you’ll be where he got so much of his fantastic inspiration from). Fenris was a dwarf – and a greedy one at that. When Fafnir got hold of a magic but cursed ring, it changed him (*cough* Gollum *cough*) and transformed him in a giant worm. In the tale, Sigmund was charged with Slaying Fafnir. Fafnir was said to be invincible; an impenetrable hide (origin of the quality of dragon hides) and destroying all life around him with his destructive breath (again – think about the desolation of Smaug, and barren lands around where dragons dwell). Sigmund knew the path Fafnir often took, and was told there is one spot under his hide that could be pierced (possibly a missing scale – ring any bells with Smaug’s ending, too?). Sigmund dug a trench along the path of Fafnir and hid in it. When Fafnir appeared, he ‘slithered’ over the trench and over Sigmund; there, when Sigmund saw the weak-spot, thrust his sword into – slaying the worm. Afterwards, Sigmund went to Fafnir’s lair and saw the vast treasures hoarded there (again the foundation for Dragons’ love for gold – and the term ‘dragon disease’. 


It was during the late Medieval period onwards, that dragons began evolving into morphs we more associate with them today. The wings were not new as some dragons, like Typhon, had wings; some could fly without them, so dragons having airborne abilities was relatively established. The elongated neck and tail are reminiscent of their serpentine origins. The legs and claws, however, are additions, but were possibly inspired from other dangerous and wondrous predators of the time (big cats, wolves, bears), but also possibly from other mythical sources such as the Sphynx, Chimera, Griffon – there is even some evidence to suggest that Drakon and Draco also extended to some creatures such as the Cerberus (or ‘Fluffy’ if you prefer the mix-match works of Rowling). The interesting feature of dragons is they’re fire breathing ability. This likely evolved from the deadly venom featured in the original stories, and often associated with words like burning, heat, and desolation. Their origin is likely the intense feeling of heat one gets after receiving a bite from a venomous snake – which in many cases can be fatal. This the most dangerous thing about venomous snakes and accounts for why the legends often feature venom that burns (think back to Herakles and his skin ravaged by the intense heat), or breath that desolates (Fafnir); this, like the other forms, evolves and eventually refers to the dragon breathing actual fire – in modern fantasy fiction, there are often chemical compounds erupting that cause the fire to be spewed. If you are down in Portsmouth, pop into the Mary Rose museum and you’ll see linstocks, used to ignite the big guns and cannon on the ship; some of these are carved in the shape of dragon heads – symbolism of the dragons (now) most destructive ability.

One thing that has survived through the ages, however, and which will continue to live, is humankind’s fascination, fear, awe, and love for dragons. Whatever they’re shape, whichever period they feature, in, good or evil, humans have always been fascinated with these fantastical and magnificent entities of unbridled power, and force that even the mighty kingdoms of civilization cower before. Often associated, too, with elements such as fire and water, they are reminders what we are not the most powerful force in this world.


Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this as much I loved writing it (my unhealthy obsession with dragons continues). I’m not sure what the next blog will be, but I might do one on romance, or I might write on these whole ‘for the glory of Rome’ themes that movies and shows like to shout-about – and within re-enactment to an extent, too. I may comeback to dragons in the future and/or other creatures of myth.


Until next time, valete .



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