Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum Exhibit Review

Gladiators.  Even to non-classical civ people, gladiators are a draw.   I reflected on this, along with why I love museums and why the science and history museum is so dimly lit,  as we walked up to the exhibit.  The dim lighting puts one in the mood for reflection, for imagination, for stretching ones mind. The first thing we saw was an actor in the costume of a retiaurius (net and trident man).

Actually, I wasn’t sure he was real at first.  Could he be just a really realistic simulation?  No. Tempted to ask a him question, I refrained, thinking that it might be rude:  I know no etiquette for approaching a live model at an exhibit of historical artifacts.  My initial uncertainty about whether he was real or a moving statue was an excellent way to prepare to enter the exhibit.

Passing through an arch, we entered a small display on Roman hunting traditions, then a larger room with drawings of and stone fragments from the Collosuem.  I’ve been there in actual life, a huge structure bearing up through the ages, its antiquity sitting like a heavy weight, immense, and at the same time, it wears the veneer of the modern day in the air conditioned and glassed-in ticket booth and the cars speeding by.  The fragments in the exhibit, on the other hand, are mostly drawn from the bastulades where the audience would file into the amphitheater through stairs from below.  A dragon’s head, a cornucopia, the carvings are of another era.  As I stare at them, I reflect that although the interest in the violent and dramatic is no different in our current day, in the Colloseum there was nothing virtual.  The blood was a real as the stone of the stairwells.

As I stare at the blocks, I feel as if the impressions drawn from movies like Gladiator and Ben Hur are falling away, and I am “communing with the stones.”  The stones can speak, but you have to know how to listen.  Whereas in movies, a story is fed to you bit by bit, and if the average man can’t follow along, the movie is a failure, with ancient relics, you have to construct the story, and you have to maintain in yourself a reflective spirit. Others give you information, but you are the one who creates your belief.  I sat in the room with the stones for some time, thinking of Ovid who once wrote an essay about how to pick up unattached women at the Colosseum.  I thought about the wild beasts that are pictured in mosaics along the walls, tigers, boars, and lions.  I imagined history:  A young woman wearing a stolla put her hand on the dragon head carved to my right, and walked up the stairs to take her seat.

In the next room we “visit” the ludus, the training camp of the gladiators. The coach or trainer is the lanista, and he is a cross between a football coach and an overseer of slaves, because most of the men are bondsmen and prisoners.  Bowls from which the gladiators ate their gruel, and a picture of a mosaic of the dinner before the fight, a kind of combination cast party and last supper, catch my interest.  And then I go on to the next room.

Here are marble statues of editors (producers of gladiatorial games) and the armor of the gladiators themselves, dressed according to gladiatorial traditions of form and function:  the Provacatour, the Retriarius, the Thracian, the Secutor, all have placards describing their weapons and armaments.  The cards at this point seem like author intrusion to me now, but of course they are necessary, since the artifacts have been removed from where they were found.  The ultimate historical museum experience would be going to a dig, I surmise.

This Roman culture is like ours in wealth.  They had exceeded meeting basic needs, and had gone on to indulgence, entertainment, spectacle.  And then they met the ancient desire for death.  Thanatos, the Greeks called it.  The gladiator’s helmet is the intersection of myth and Thanatos.  It is in the Retiarius’ net too, and in the intricate bronze sandal from a statue of a legionary.

I stop and stare at the closed and latched helmets which literally locked the head in. The round grids over the eyes give the helmet the look of a human fly.  Over the crown are mythic figures.  It is worked with such care, this could not be the helmet of a single man.  It would have belonged to the ludus.  It would have been worn by several, by many.  The gladiator would put in on, say his prayers (to a pagan god) and go and face potential death.  I look again at the helmet, seeking an answer:  how do you do that?  How do you face such a desperate fight?

When there’s no other way, you do what you have to.  The gladiator reminds us of this.  And this, win or lose, makes him a hero.  He is an alter-ego to the Roman woman ascending the stairs of the Colosseum, to the museum visitor who stops and stares at ancient armor.  He is what Jung would call an archetype, a hero, and reflection piece so powerful that he can still draw people 2000 years after he died, and even though they don’t know his name or whether he won or lost.  Perhaps that lack of story is part of the draw.   It’s the reflection on the other, on the past, on the strange and unbelievable, but also to the fact that you have to make your own story in your mind, that draws us to the spectacle in the first place.

Conclusion?  First rate exhibit.  Thanks to the organizers for an excellent hour’s reflection.



One thought on “Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum Exhibit Review”

  1. I love the juxtaposition of your reverence and contemplation for the exhibit and your wry observation that “I know no etiquette for approaching a live model at an exhibit of historical artifacts.” As you note, the dim lighting is meant to take the participants outside of themselves and yet deeply back inward. Thank you for the vicarious field trip.

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