A US debut from British historian Baker renders a real taste of the unenviable gladiatorial life.
Baker quickly puts the reader into the world where the gladiatorial contests took place. Rome was then a powerful warrior state, a militaristic culture that prided itself on martial discipline, that appreciated the virtue of a courageous death (“To the people of Rome, how one faced death was at least as important as how one faced one's life”), and that, by rejoicing in the display of blood, “demonstrated their utter contempt for suffering and death.” In his trim, formal voice, Baker explains that the first gladiatorial fights started in 264 b.c. as a substitute for sacrifices honoring the recently deceased, nourishing the dead with the blood of the living. But the events grew in importance as Rome grew more imperial and as emperors found them important acts of political propaganda: The more impressive your gladiator shows, the greater your following. Gaining momentum, as they became part of the festivals celebrating the cycle of nature, gladiatorial battles—fought by slaves, criminals, prisoners of war, not a few free men, and occasionally women—soon became frequent entertainments on the Roman calendar. In one particularly vibrant chapter, Baker unfurls a day in the amphitheater as it was played out under the reign of Commodus. It starts with a hunt in the morning, where wild animals sent from the provinces—lions, tigers, bears, bulls, elephants, even rhinoceros—would fight each other and professional fighters known as “bestiarii.” Then a few executions at lunchtime, in which the condemned—unarmed—were slain, then the full-bore gladiatorial fights in the afternoon. Baker also covers the architecture of amphitheaters (some had systems of pipes that would spray spectators with perfumed water), as well as the story of Spartacus, and makes brief, enlightening forays into Roman political and cultural history.
An entrancing popular study of a topic so outlandish and atrocious from today's perspective that it can't help but fascinate.