Book Review: Gladiators and Caesars

Journal of Western Martial Art

Gladiators and Caesars
ISBN 0-5202279-80-1
Eckart Köhne and Cornelia Ewigleben (editors)
British Museum Press, London, 2000

Review Murray Eiland
November 2004

This book is currently available in UK discount shops for £5.99, although it had a price of £16.99 when originally published. Designed to accompany an exhibition at the British Museum - originally at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg - held between 21 October 2000 to 23 January 2003, it belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in historical combat. Translated from German, it presents up to date research that has hitherto not been widely available in English. It covers combat arts, Greek sports, chariot racing, and the theatre. Pride of place is, as the title suggests, given to gladiators.

There are many ways of studying the gladiators. While many works, in keeping with the spirit of the current age, have dealt with psychological aspects of violence, this book is firmly planted in the study of material culture. While many delve into the Renaissance to find the roots of modern fencing, fewer seem to be interested in Medieval combat. Going even further back in time there are only a handful of serious researchers. Mentioning gladiators to the majority of Classicists is likely to produce looks of distaste that would not be out of place among the elite of ancient Rome. There is great popular interest in ancient warfare that is not matched by scholarship. Films such as "Gladiator" should suggest that there is a large market for popular books. The current volume fills a niche that is both historically accurate and easy to read. The authors should be proud to have tackled such a subject.

Most may assume that the further one goes into the past, with heavy unwieldy weapons, the more ungainly any martial science would be. In the case of the gladiators, this may not be the case, as the material evidence demonstrates. There were famous schools of training as well as efforts to prepare participants for battle with wooden weapons. Given that vast sums of money were spent on the games, it would be inconceivable if training was not considered important. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the traditional secrecy of trade guilds, no records survive that outline methods. Yet all is not lost. One has only to look at the elaborate helmets with solid grating to see a very early rendition of a modern mesh fencing mask. These would have afforded protection while remaining easy to see and breathe through. Helmets such as these appear to have passed away with the coming of Christianity and the banning of human blood sports. There is therefore no real link between Medieval touranament armour (not to mention modern fencing masks) and the Roman period, yet clearly the Romans were concerned with some of the same issues that had to be dealt with in all ages. This point is one of the strengths of the book.

There has been much debate over the gladiatorial helmets recovered from Pompeii. As the authors note, despite the fact that they appear ornate, they had an average weight of 4 kg. The sheet bronze (only one example was iron) averages between one and three mm thick. This compares with the average thickness of military helmets from the same period of 1mm. It is almost inconceivable that parade armour would be made of thicker and heaver material than bronze for military helmets. Indeed, experiments confirm that helmets made to the same specifications as the ancient examples suffer no or very little damage when struck with a sword with full force. The helmet of course made the games possible in that the head would otherwise be a prime target that would stop the fight sooner than the audience may want. As an aside a helmet that obscured the face of the fighter would add menace to the games, as well as make it less likely for either the audience or the opponent to feel sympathy! for a fighter who fell.

The actual fighting aspects of Roman gladiatorial equipment cannot be ascertained from sources in Greek or Latin, and must be tested today. Termed "experimental archaeology" by some, it can led itself to either superficial television presentations or serious research. In this case reconstruction leads to serious research. As the author Marcus Junkelmann notes, the techniques were entirely different from modern fencing: "The swords were so short that blades can have crossed only in exceptional cases. A man would attack and defend principally with his shield, impeding his opponent with it, forcing him back, tempting him forward, feigning an attack to provoke the wrong reaction, or striking horizontally with the lower edge of the shield. The sword would be held back behind the cover of the shield so that the gladiator could thrust straight at his target in a surprise move." (p. 67).

The book offers other glimpses into what can be gleaned by experiment, and suggests that a unifying element of the various styles of gladiator (which are all considered in the book) all place an emphasis on protecting the extremities while leaving the body core exposed. The head face and neck were usually covered with a helmet, and the right arm was covered by padding, the left being covered by a shield. Legs were usually protected if the fighter was equipped with a small shield. This reduced the chance of stray hits ending the bout early, and encouraged a more aggressive match. Experiments also suggested that the main reason for protecting the sword arm was not to resist blows from the opponent, but to cushion collisions with one's own as well as the opponents shield.

The book is copiously illustrated with both armour and depictions of fighters, and it seems that more emphasis should have been placed on what is known of fighting technique from experimentation. Clearly the book is designed for the general audience, and they are directed to other sources depending upon their interests. The author of the chapters that discuss the experimental archaeology, Marcus Junkelmann, has published a book in 2000 Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren. This is an excellent book but, sadly, it is not available in English. The current volume presents something of a taster of this book, with a much greater emphasis on ancient depictions. Particularly at a low price, this book represents several hours of pleasurable and informative reading.

Journal of Western Martial Art