On all sides of the fallen gladiator, a roaring crowd thrust their fists forward, thumb pointing upwards, as they howled for the wounded man to be put to death.
Such scenes might be more commonly associated with the bloody Games that Roman London hosted around 2,000 years ago – but this was how we spent Friday night, sitting in the shadow of the buildings that now cover the remains of the city’s amphitheatre.
This structure (whose remains were rediscovered in 1988 and are now displayed in the undercroft of the Guildhall Art Gallery) was a relatively small, provincial venue, capable of holding some 7,000 people – by contrast, the Colosseum in Rome could take around 50,000 spectators. This bank holiday weekend, the courtyard that now stands over the ancient arena is host once more to a colourful clash of ferocious fighters – supplied by Britannia, expert reenactors whose members appeared in the film Gladiator.
From the start, the atmosphere was combative; in the audience, different stands were encouraged to cheer either for gladiators representing the local ‘Londonium’ school, or a team made up of travelling warriors from Dover, Cambridge, and Colchester, while the two ‘referees’ were more interested in riling each other than watching the Games.
Meanwhile, our compere skilfully blended his commentary with a wealth of historical information – facts about traditional pairings of gladiators, explanations of the rites and ceremonies associated with the Games, the rules, and the roles of the various people present – deftly handled to educate without pulling us out of our suspension of disbelief.
We encountered shadowy presiding figures like the priestess of Nemesis – a follower of the goddess of retribution – as well as representatives of the Roman and Etruscan deities Mercury and Charon. This latter pair were entrusted with the task of ensuring that fallen gladiators were truly dead, and not shamming in the hope of being carried from the fray – Mercury prodded the ‘slain’ with his metal staff, and any that twitched had their skulls caved in by Charon’s hammer – something wince-inducingly vividly illustrated for us with the help of an ill-fated watermelon.
The gladiators too die amid spurts of cleverly-secreted fake blood – this is no sanitised spectacle. For anyone worried about taking young children to watch, though, the fighting is carefully-choreographed but not overly gory, and all the warriors parade around the arena at the end, victorious and ‘dead’ alike, specifically to reassure any young audience members who might be concerned about their fate.
A wide range of gladiators fought for our entertainment, all helpfully introduced with reference to their distinctive armour and weapons. We met the heavily-armed secutor – head enclosed in an eerily Cyberman-like helmet – and the retiarius, equipped only with trident and net; the murmillo with their famous ‘fish’ helmet, and even a rare female fighter or gladiatrix.
The fighting itself (presided over a capricious and surprisingly young ‘Emperor Hadrian’) was impressive and completely immersive – what was interesting, if slightly concerning, was how quickly we all got into it. Before the Games began, we had been talking about how alien the idea was, that you would watch people fight to the death for fun, and how different our culture was today. We listened carefully as the compere taught us how, when gladiators had been disarmed and appealed to the crowd for mercy, we could signal that we wanted them to die (with an upturned thumb and a cry of ‘iugula!’ – it is only modern popular culture that associates the thumbs-up gesture with sparing the fighter’s life) or to live to fight another day (with a wave of the hand and a shout of ‘mitte!’. And then as soon as the combat began we found ourselves roaring support for our chosen warriors, baying contemptuously as gladiators fell or lost their shields, and yelling for every fallen fighter to be put to the sword.
Outside the arena (an area scattered with sand, in Latin, harena, from which the space takes its name), for an hour before and after the main event you can explore a series of stalls selling souvenirs and hosting displays about Roman cooking, writing, medicine, and entertainment. There are also opportunities to dress up, with a selection of gladiatorial helmets on hand (of course we joined in!), and a stand where you can handle and learn about Roman artefacts excavated in the city.
As for food and drink, the gin cocktails, hotdogs and souvlaki were popular and delicious, if not especially Roman (though the gladiator-themed drinks were imaginatively named) – though visitors should note that the site is cash only. Cash points are within easy walking distance but it is certainly more convenient to be cleverer than we were, and to visit one before coming to the venue!
Finally, for spectators who are interested in seeing the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, the Guildhall Art Gallery also opens its doors during the spectacle. Around 5m underground you can walk among the stone foundations of the old arena, and see a temporary display of pottery decorated with images of different gladiators, as well as the skull of a man who may have ended his days in the arena (for more information on this exhibition, Trauma, see the upcoming issue of CA, #331).
London’s Gladiator Games are being held as part of the wider Londinium Festival running in the city this summer – for more information on the Games and other events, see www.visitlondon.com/romans
Photos by Simon C B Jones