Gladiators in Chester - and Afghanistan
I’m writing this from an international conference on Roman amphitheatres in Chester. I had intended to leave yesterday but in the end couldn’t resist staying for the conference dinner – after which a “gladiatorial entertainment” was promised, courtesy of some fighters from Roman Tours, whose normal business is to provide “authentic” Roman guides around the town and museum.
All the high-minded academic diners on my table seemed to be looking forward to it as much as I was. After all, it was a wonderfully Roman idea. For gladiators didn’t just appear in the amphitheatre, they featured at funerals and – among the rich – as a private, dinner-time spectacle.
I’m glad I stayed. But it did turn out to be a little tamer than I had hoped (or feared). The bouts didn’t actually last very long and most of the fighters were so burdened with all the gear that they couldn’t muster much agility. That may have been true of the real version too. But I don’t imagine that ancient gladiators were quite as portly as most of this lot. Far be it from me to point the finger at others who should lose a bit of weight, but the impression I got was that it was overwhelmingly middle-aged men of the short and dumpy variety who liked dressing up as Romans.
The conference itself was partly to celebrate the re-excavation of the amphitheatre at Chester, which captured the media’s imagination on Saturday. All the usual suspects, from the Today programme to the Times, had luridly entertaining features on the blood and guts of the Chester arena two thousand years ago. As the Times put it, “Torture topped the bill in Roman Chester”.
Well, most of this seemed to me to be wilful misunderstanding – or, at least, a pretty partisan reading of the evidence. What intrigued journalists was a stone block with a ring attached found in the new excavations. It certainly looks as if it was intended to tether something. But what? Almost certainly animals. But most reports couldn’t resist the idea that it was intended to tether human victims. And this was the cue for a whole load of fantasies about chained prisoners tortured to death by rampaging lions (from god knows where) to please the cheering crowds.
At the conference, archaeologists stood firm against most such notions. All the same, bringing evidence for amphitheatres together from all over the Roman empire, the papers did tend to reinforce the impression that ancient Rome was nothing short of a gladiatorial culture, committed to the enjoyment of human slaughter.
It was me who was the party pooper here. I started my own presentation with the jolly picture of the gladiator at the top of this post (he’s from the permanent collection in the Musée Guimet, and is another piece of the Begram treasure – found in modern Afghanistan, in other words). But my main argument was that historians and archaeologists, as well as journalists, have wildly over-estimated the importance of gladiators in the ancient world. It’s us who is obsessed with the arena, not (so much) the Romans.
All the evidence – and, to be honest, there is not a lot of it – suggests that public gladiatorial spectacle was not a frequent event. The inhabitants of Roman Chester would have been lucky to see a handful of B team gladiators twice a year. The more interesting question for us is what went on in these amphitheatres on the other 360 or so days.
Who knows? But when I learned yesterday that a human tooth had been found among the debris of the Chester amphitheatre, I decided that it was more likely to be the result of a makeshift dentist setting hiself up in the arena – not the consequence of a nasty gladiatorial injury.