Classics prof talks gladiators
Harvard professor explores the bloody spectacle of Colosseum’s ancient combat
Published: Monday, November 14, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 04:11
Gladiators in ancient Rome were a brutal anomaly in one of the most advanced civilizations in ancient times, according to an expert who visited the university Thursday.
Kathleen Coleman, a professor in Harvard University's department of the classics, lectured in the Trabant Theatre on behalf of the fighters whose voices have been, for the most part, lost to history.
Coleman discussed the lives of the gladiators, their role in society and the bloody spectacle's popularity in Ancient Rome.
"Gladiators are a real paradox in the history of western civilization," Coleman said. "How could the Romans feel good about such an undignified practice?"
Coleman spoke to the standing-room-only crowd as a part of the department of foreign languages and literatures' Distinguished Scholars Lecture Series.
The need for violent and often bloody displays clashed with the civilization's overall agenda of advancing society, yet these performances became a major part of Roman culture, she said.
Romans used fights to showcase the vastness and power of their empire. Exotic animals such as lions, elephants and the occasional rhino were brought into the arenas for show, battle or to aid in public execution, Coleman said.
She said she seeks to clear up misconception about the gladiators, who are seen as heroes in today's society but were actually slaves of the Roman Empire.
Coleman said the empire stretched from Hadrian's Wall in modern-day England to parts of Afghanistan. There existed a working government with a senate and an emperor, a strong education system and technologically advanced infrastructure including aqueducts, which channeled water into the city.
Archeologists are still finding evidence across the empire, including jugs and vases with depictions of gladiators and advertisements written on city walls, which illustrate the stories of arena events. The depictions have shed light on the lifestyles of the fighters, from clothing, to names, to practices, she said.
As the empire expanded, the Roman army captured and enslaved defeated warriors, forcing some to be gladiators. Coleman said the Romans would also build arenas in cities they conquered, while Rome's Colosseum housed the battles in the empire's center.
"Wherever the Romans went, they brought gladiatorial combat with them," she said. "All of the conquered lands have remnants of the combat. Gladiators seemed to raise morale wherever the empire stretched."
The goal of gladiators' battles was not to kill each other, because they were seen as investments, Coleman said. Approximately 5 percent of fights ended in deaths, and gladiators were forced to wear armor mainly so they could survive to the next fight, she said.
Some fighters could barely see under their helmets and removed them in combat, exposing themselves to danger and sometimes death. In the only documented gladiator cemetery, which was discovered in northern England in 2010, the majority of deaths were due to head injury.
Coleman said the exhibitions were a focal point of the ancient culture, and called the Colosseum's seating structure a "microcosm of Roman society." The emperor and senators sat close to the action, slaves sat in the "nosebleed" section and everyone else sat in-between.
"The classes would never even come in contact with each other at the events, because each level had its own entrance," she said.
These stadiums were unlike modern equivalents, as alcohol was not permitted and personal space was very limited. Coleman said stadiums were packed to the brim, fitting twice as many fans as would have been expected.
"This was either due to the fact that they were much skinnier than we are these days, or there was absolutely no personal space," she said.
Ancient Greek and Roman studies professor Annette Giesecke said today's appetite for violence is satisfied by movies and sports.
"People compare football, soccer and any number of professional sports, though these are not, of course, usually life-threatening," Giesecke said. "I actually think that the movies have replaced this sort of spectacle."
There are few surviving written works from the empire, and freshman biology major Madeleine Rouviere said she was impressed that nearly all of Coleman's facts came from archeological investigation.
"I thought it was neat that these discoveries have led to a better understanding of the gladiators," Rouviere said.
Freshman Elizabeth Catt, who is a history and public policy double major, said she did not have much knowledge about gladiators before attending Coleman's speech, and found the speech exciting.
Though the topic could be morbid at times, Catt said the professor was able to engage the audience nonetheless.
"She had a good way of adding humor to a gruesome topic," Catt said.
Though the gladiators were slaves, that didn't mean they didn't achieve recognition, and sometimes celebrity status. The professor likened them to a 20th-century equivalent.
"They were the Ninja Turtles of Ancient Rome," Coleman said.