Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.25

Eckart Köhne, Cornelia Ewigleben, Ralph Jackson, Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2000.  Pp. 153.  ISBN 0-520-22798-0.  $29.95.  

Contributors: Eckart Köhne, Marcus Junkelmann, Wilfried Stroh, Cornelia Ewigleben, Volker Albers

Reviewed by Stephen Brunet, University of New Hampshire (
Word count: 1847 words

Gladiators and Caesar was published to accompany an exhibit on the Roman Games held October 2000-January 2001 at the British Museum. The exhibit originated at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg (with an intermediate stop at the Historisches Museum der Platz in Speyer), and a separate work under a similar title was published to accompany the German exhibitions (E. Köhne and C. Ewigleben (eds.), Caesaren und Gladiatoren [P. von Zabern, 2000]). Although this is not made clear anywhere, the English version reproduces the text of the German version word for word. The only major change appears to be the inclusion of illustrations of some objects added to the exhibit when it opened at the British Museum, although it should be noted that the original exhibition already included a large number of works from the British Museum. In keeping with the trend among books brought out in connection with major exhibitions, this is not a traditional catalogue in that no attempt is made to reproduce the actual experience of viewing the exhibit by giving a detailed account of each piece on display. Rather, it is a general history that is intended to stand on its own. The materials in the exhibit largely function as the source of convenient illustrations.

The title of the work is somewhat misleading in that gladiatorial games comprise only one of the subjects covered in the work. The real aim of the work is to provide an overview of all the Roman games, with some emphasis on their social and political aspects. As such, in chapter 1 ("Bread and circuses: The politics of entertainment") Eckart Köhne deals with the development of the Roman games. In the next three chapters Marcus Junkelmann considers gladiatorial equipment and the procedure of gladiatorial combats ("Familia gladiatoria: The heroes of the amphitheatre"); athletes, both homegrown and imported, at Rome ("Greek athletics in Rome: Boxing, wrestling, and the pancration"); and chariot racing as viewed in the light of the Ben Hur movies ("On the starting line with Ben Hur: Chariot-racing in the Circus Maximus"). The various types of theatrical productions frequented by the Romans are reviewed by Wilfried Stroh in "'Give us your applause!': The world of theatre." Cornelia Ewigleben's chapter "'What these women love is the sword': The performers and their audiences" focuses on the Roman views for and against mass entertainment. These six chapters are followed by a much too short discussion by Volker Albers of the contrast between Roman and modern sports ("Money and circuses: Competitive sport as part of the entertainment industry"). Although this work is aimed at the general public, it does have some value for the scholar in that the discussions are up to date and provide an overview of the current state of the research on many aspects of the Roman games. In addition, individual chapters would serve as useful introductions to, say, chariot racing in courses on Roman civilization. In particular, Köhne's contribution provides a balanced treatment of the connection between the growth of the Roman games and the changes in the political landscape of Rome. However, the major strength of the work lies in the quality and number of illustrations, which in themselves make the book worth buying.

The objects represented in the exhibit were drawn from more than 20 museums and are supplemented with drawings, maps, and photographs of modern reconstructions of armor. Some of the objects illustrated in the volume, notably those derived from the collections of the British Museum, are familiar from the standard handbooks on ancient sports and Roman culture. But many other items are not well known. To give a few examples (figs. 155, 12, 98), included here are a figurine of a woman athlete with a strigil and knee brace; a glass bowl with an inlay of a retarius, which is unusual because of the quality of its workmanship and its late date (fourth century AD); and a statuette from Mainz that reveals the very lightweight construction of racing chariots, especially in comparison to the very solid chariots used in the Ben Hur films. This chariot provides a good parallel for a statuette from the British Museum that is most often cited in connection with the construction of chariots (also conveniently illustrated, fig. 100).

Although this work provides an abundance of archaeological and artistic evidence for the Roman games, this resource was not well-exploited by all the contributors. At the one extreme is Wilfried Stroh's discussion of the various forms of drama known to the Romans. His treatment is perfectly straightforward, although he probably could have made his points about Plautus' approach to comedy without giving a complete plot summary of Miles Gloriosus. However, nothing he says depends on or has any connection to the illustrations. In effect, they are simply pretty pictures. In sharp contrast are Marcus Junkelmann's chapters on gladiators and chariot racing, which incorporate many of the discoveries Junkelmann and others have recently made using experimental archaeology. To explain what can be learned from recreating gladiatorial armor, combat techniques, and the mechanics of chariot racing, Junkelmann makes constant reference to the works in the exhibit and gives what is in effect a detailed commentary for many of the pieces.

Of the conclusions that Junkelmann has reached regarding gladiatorial contests several are worth noting. It is has long been assumed that the highly decorated helmets and greaves found in the gladiatorial barracks at Pompeii constituted "parade armor," which was worn only during thepompa and then was taken off before the gladiators actually fought. However, Junkelmann has tested replicas of similar armor and he concludes that this "parade armor" could stand up to use in the arena and that gladiators would not have found its weight to be a burden for the short duration of an average match. In fact, this highly polished armor with its fanciful crests and reliefs added to the magnificence of the actual contests. Junkelmann also notes that gladiatorial armor, and hence the corresponding types of gladiators, underwent a well-defined evolution. One consequence is that retarii, the gladiators who have most captured the modern imagination because of their willingness to fight with minimal armor, must be considered a relatively late development. Finally, his experience with what it is like to wear and fight in gladiatorial armor has given Junkelmann a very keen sense of the balance that the Romans struck between making gladiatorial matches too quick and too slow. Gruesome as it may seem, the Romans fine-tuned the equipment used by gladiators so that matches would not be ended by superficial wounds and gladiators would be inspired to defend themselves vigorously since they knew that any wound they received might be fatal.

Cornelia Ewigleben is the contributor who was most hampered by the fact that this work did not take the form of a traditional catalogue. In spite of its title ("'What these women love is the sword': The performers and their audiences"), her chapter aims to explore the attraction that the Roman games held not just for women but for all Romans. Given that this is an introductory work, she effectively covers the literary evidence for this topic, noting that Romans held a whole range of opinions about the value of the games themselves and about the fame that could be gained by different types of performers. On the artistic side she remarks that the games provided the subject matter for many different type of artifacts, both common and expensive. In her view, many of these artifacts functioned as the equivalent of modern souvenirs. This is where detailed treatments of individual items would have added depth and substance to her comments about the artwork that was inspired by the games. For example, a caption for a jar from Colchester reads "No circus has yet been found in Britain, but the spirited rendering of the race shown on this locally made pot indicates a familiarity with the sport in the province" (fig. 114; much the same caption is given for fig. 101). A detailed catalogue entry might have settled whether this vase was really a souvenir inspired by local games. It is equally likely that objects with circus scenes were sometimes produced in areas where actual games were not held but where Romans with an interest in the chariot racing had emigrated. Another object that deserved extensive comment is a burial urn with a circus scene (fig. 99). In what sense could such a piece be considered a souvenir and what can we say about the decision often made in antiquity to put an image drawn from popular entertainment on a sarcophagus or other burial vessel? Objects such as this urn can tell us a lot about whether the games were popular mainly because they were violent and exciting or whether the Romans may have valued the games as good models for how one could triumph using one's skills, determination, and courage.

The one topic that gets short shrift here is the relationship between the Greeks and Romans concerning the games. This is not to say that the influence of the Greeks on the Romans is ignored in the chapters on athletics and the Roman theater. However, gladiatorial combats were one area where the Romans had a very strong effect on Greek culture and, although several of the reliefs from the exhibit depicting gladiators were found in Ephesos and Smyrna, the eagerness with which the Greeks adopted gladiatorial combats is nowhere mentioned. Greek athletics was another area where the Romans had a major effect on Greek culture, yet none of the contributors refer to Augustus' establishment of the Aktia, the one festival that came to rival the four great Panhellenic games. The advent of new games such as the Aktia and the general promotion of athletics by the Romans probably had some bearing on the fact that one portrait of a boxer in the exhibit was signed by a sculptor from Aphrodisias and another seems (the caption is not clear) to have been found in a Greek province. The treatment of these two statues is typical of the tendency throughout the work to be somewhat imprecise about giving the significance of the date and provenience of the objects on display.

However, this casualness is not typical of the volume as a whole, and the contributors consistently take their subject matter seriously. As a result, the tone of the work is not like that of some other general works on the Roman games, which condescendingly play up the violence of the games and are unconcerned to explain why the games held such a major role in Roman life. Ultimately, however, the value of the work lies in the number and the quality of the illustrations. Eckart Köhne and Cornelia Ewigleben, curators at the two museums where the exhibition originated, along with Ralph Jackson who expanded the exhibit when it came to England, are to be praised for making available this wealth of information about one of the central elements of Roman civilization. The reviewer regrets that he was not able to see the exhibition in either of its incarnations.

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