It is already more than a week since we went to Rome for a short break to celebrate Mrs S’s birthday. First on the list of places to visit was the Colosseum. A relative had told us before going “Enjoy walking around, soaking it all in” which we did, our jaws dropping at the sheer scale of the architecture and the easily-imagined spectacle of what took place there. The Colosseum was begun in the reign of Vespasian (AD 69-79) and financed using the booty acquired from the Judaean campaign. Vespasian’s sons Titus and Domitian completed the work and opened the Colosseum in AD 80. It would have held about 75,000 spectators.
I was particularly interested in some displays presenting the archaeological evidence of what the Roman audiences were doing, the remains of some of the animals that had died in the Colosseum and the models that show how the arena worked. You can see gaming pieces and remains of the food that was being consumed, including pips and stones from peaches, olives, cherries, walnuts, melon, dates, grapes and plums and pine kernels. A brilliant artist’s impression shows the Roman audience holding DIY barbecues in the stands, whilst gamblers quarrel over the outcome of a dice game.
- Roman lamp from the Colosseum
I was thrilled to see a Roman lamp with decoration depicting the arms and armour of the gladiators because we have an example in the Manchester Museum. Although it has lost some its central disc and the nozzle is chipped, our example is clearly the same design. Both lamps have lost their handles unfortunately. A variety of shields, helmets and other equipment is shown in the band around the hole for topping up the reservoir. A crested Corinthian helmet can be seen top right in the image of Manchester Museum’s lamp below. The Colosseum example dates from the 1st century AD.
Roman lamp showing gladiatorial equipment in Manchester Museum’s collection
A similar range of arms and armour can be seen on the tasteful silhouettes of gladiators that decorate the signage around the Colosseum. The sign below may depict a Samnite with trademark feathers on his helmet and round shield.
Signage at the Colosseum
A small display shows the skulls and bones of some of the animals that died. It was sobering to reflect on the vast numbers of animals – let alone people – that died there. Bear, ostrich, horse, deer and the more mundane leg bone of cockerel are attested. The latter is another old friend because in the Manchester Museum collection is fighting cock leg bone with the characteristic spur. The male birds are set to fighting each other and people gamble on the outcome. Combats involving wild animals are attested until AD 523 during the reign of Theodoric.
Animal remains from the Colosseum
Roman lamp used in ‘Dig Stories’
Since the opening of Ancient Worlds last autumn I have been doing some work to support colleagues in education who are using the new displays for teaching. I suggested some Greco-Roman objects for a session called ‘Dig Stories’. Debbie Doran in our education team chose some oil lamps for use in the session. One of the lamps is a Roman lamp showing two gladiators fighting. Last week I spent some time trying to identify which gladiators in particular they are. There is, it turns out, a bewildering variety of gladiators: secutor, thraex, samnite, murmillo, retiarius, even a gladiator woman or gladiatorix, to name but a few!
Detail showing two gladiators – perhaps secutors
The list is bewildering but no doubt the Roman audience in the arena had a connoisseur’s appreciation of the different kinds of gladiator and his or her weaponry and equipment. I can imagine Roman schoolboys collecting sets of gladiator-themed cards or stickers in the same way that we used to collect cards or stickers showing footballers or dinosaurs in the 1970s and 1980s. There were always rare issues and buying the stickers from the local newsagents was ruinously expensive as I recall. Playtimes were mostly taken up by impromptu ‘swapsie’ sessions to try and collect the full set. I don’t know if they ever released a ‘Gladiators of the Ancient World’ set but I can just picture Roman schoolboys shouting “I’ll swap you my murmillo for a secutor but my gladiatrix is worth both!”
The heavy rounded helmet, shields, arm protectors and greaves used by the gladiators on our lamp seem to identify them as secutors. It’s interesting that the gladiators are mirror images of one another, which suggests the gladiator on the right is left-handed. The British Museum has a relief showing two women gladiators ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achilia’ (presumably their professional fighting names) who are also shown as mirror images of one another. This may be no more than artistic licence, however. There are certainly lots of representations of right-handed gladiators squaring off, with the shield and the sword held appropriately. It does raise the question of what evidence there is for left-handedness in the Ancient World. Was it simply beaten out of men who had to hold their shield and weapon in a certain way in order to maintain an effective military formation? A hoplite holding his shield on the right hand side just wouldn’t work would it?
Relief showing women gladiators in the British Museum
You can find out more about the different kinds of gladiators from Susanna Shadrake’s The World of the Gladiator (2005) which features reconstruction drawings and photos of re-enactors equipped as the different kinds of fighters. It’s good to know that ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achilia’ were freed after thrilling the crowds.
Gladiator lamp at Manchester Museum