History’s Most Deadly Sport
Email this review


An unapologetic look at the blood-soaked rituals that marked Roman social life for centuries.

Frustrated by historians who wag their fingers at Rome for sponsoring a uniquely lethal form of mass entertainment, Meijer (History/Univ. of Amsterdam; Emperors Don’t Die in Bed, 2004) offers a defiant, scholarly study of gladiators, from their ambiguous origins through to their demise in the Christianized empire of the fifth century. He vividly reconstructs intimate details of the gladiator’s life and explains how, after the completion of the Colosseum, gladiatorial games reached both their logistical zenith and their greatest popularity. Meijer excavates the brutal camaraderie of the gladiator schools, giving extensive, though broad, accounts of where gladiators came from, how they were viewed by Roman society, how they were trained, how long they could expect to live and, in some moving passages, how they died. The author also explains gladiators’ different fighting roles, listing both their weapons and their conventional adversaries. This is where to learn the difference between a thraeces and a provocatores, or to find out which one traditionally fought the murmillones in the arena. Yet for all of its rich and often jarring detail (we learn, for example, that criminals’ bodies were dragged from the Colosseum floor by large hooks), Meijer offers only tantalizing clues rather than a convincing theory about why the Romans so loved their brutal games. His lack of critical perspective weakens the few conclusions he does attempt, and his declared aim of describing rather than judging the gladiators occasionally leads him to romanticize them.

A properly exhaustive and impressive history of gladiatorial combat—and a strangely wistful account of the most violent public entertainment known to humankind.

Pub Date: Dec. 7th, 2005
ISBN: 0-312-34874-6
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2005