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Review: Gladiators: Fighting to the Death in Ancient Rome

M. C. Bishop

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Gladiators: Fighting to the Death in Ancient Rome

The book “Gladiators: Fighting to the Death in Ancient Rome” by M. C. Bishop tells about one of the most popular and characteristic pastimes in ancient Rome – gladiatorial fights. The book was published by Casemate Publishers.

M. C. Bishop is an archaeologist and writer who specializes in the war issues of ancient Rome. He already has many publications focusing on selected aspects of the art of war in antiquity. I must admit that I approached the book of the same author, this time describing “warriors in the arena”, with great interest.

The actual content of the book consists of an introduction and six chapters and has a total of over 150 pages. First, however, there is a chronology with important events in the history of Rome and the struggles of gladiators, as well as a list of more important Latin words, which the author later uses many times to better reflect those times. At the end of the book, you will find a list of interesting bibliographic items that the author used when writing his work and an index of words.

Moving on to the content, the author thoughtfully divided the story about gladiators. First, he describes the origins of this pastime. Few people probably know, but the rivalry to the death between two opponents is not an invention of the Romans, but rather it was adopted from the Etruscans, and more precisely from the Etruscan custom of worshiping the dead through struggle. In Rome, gladiatorial fights, as a public event, appeared for the first time probably in 264 BCE. However, what is interesting, after the tragic defeat at Cannae in 216 BCE, despite the enormous burden on the state, it was also decided to organize gladiatorial fights, probably in order to positively influence public opinion and prepare the Romans to continue fighting the Carthaginians.

In the following chapters, the author focuses on the creation of the entire business related to the organized ludi, gladiatorial fights and their peak popularity during the Empire. We get to know weapons, characteristic fighting styles, types of gladiators, their diet, everyday life. In the last chapter, we learn about the likely causes of the decline in the popularity of gladiatorial fights: the constant crisis of the state, financial collapse, a change in fashion in society, or the gradual domination of Christianity and its values. Finally, the year 404 CE is considered. the moment when fights were officially banned, although there are suggestions that the gladiators’ rivalry ended in around 440 CE.

Having read the book, I can confidently say that it was a very pleasant and comfortable reading. The author avoided going into details unnecessarily and tried to show the broadest possible context of gladiators’ lives and entertainment, based on numerous sources included in the content. In addition, the content is varied with numerous graphics and photos showing arenas, reliefs, mosaics, which add color and “flavor” to the content.

The only thing I didn’t like was that the content of the next types of gladiators with very little information in a schematic way from time to time. In my opinion, such information neither adds anything interesting nor tells the reader too much what a gladiator might have looked like. Instead, there could be created a separate chapter with a list of types of gladiators and an illustration showing their potential appearance.

Overall, the book is highly recommendable. Naturally, we cannot expect a comprehensive encyclopedia about gladiators; in my opinion, however, it is a book that is accessible, convenient, and easy to read. The author bases his thoughts on various research and historical sources, without going too far into details. The reader receives everything necessary to get to know the world of ancient warriors in an accessible way.

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