I picked this up expecting it to be a fictitious story or even a film tie-in with the film “Gladiator”, but it is in fact a serious history book looking at what went on at the Roman games.
The Romans were a bloodthirsty lot. The Romans rejoiced in the death and dying in the arenas, where gladiators fought to the death, where criminals were executed and Christians were thrown to the lions.
The games began as a vampire like way of honouring the dead. The “sacrifices had served the purpose of nourishing the dead with the blood of the living“.
There were schools for gladiators, to hone their skills before meeting an almost inevitable death in the arena. Before the gladiatorial combat, there would be the venationes (or “hunts”), pitting men against beasts. There would follow some executions and then the gladiatorial duels. Gladiators were paradoxically revered and looked down on with contempt.
The best most gladiators could hope for was a quick death.
The book gives a clear picture of the times but the continual descriptions of cruelty, particularly with cruel and crazy emperors like Caligula and Commodus (“he took the greatest delight in causing pain and suffering to those around him“), gets a little wearing.
Condemned criminals were called bestiarii, it was their fate to do battle with wild beasts without the benefit of weapons or armour. Their fate was a foregone conclusion. The punishment called ad bestias (to the beasts) was considered along with crucifixion the most shameful of all punishments.
Sometimes the entertainment didn’t feature any human fighters, bear was matched against bull or lion against tiger, frequently two animals would be chained together, in a combination of panic at being brought into the arena and frustration at being unable to escape, the poor beasts would attack each other causing horrendous injuries.
Sometimes emperors, keen to take part in the action, would take to the ring, but they were assured a victory against a prepared lion barely able to stand or a gladiator with just a wooden sword…
If you are interested in the details of what happened in the arena this book gives a good account although it seems at times repetitive, I found the cruelty of the supposedly civilised Romans, a little much.
My rating : 3 out of 5