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Gladiators at Pompeii

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Gladiators at Pompeii
By Luciana Jacobelli. (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 2003. English Edition Published May 2004. Pg. 128. Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-89236-731-8.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - September 3, 2004

The gladiators were undoubtedly hugely popular among women. This is confirmed by ancient literary texts, such as the famous passage from the satirist Juvenal...and numerous Pompeian graffiti. It is the very passion excited by these sweethearts of the arena that led archaeologists to hypothesize about a certain romantic and dramatic love story between a rich matron and a gladiator, after a bejeweled female skeleton was discovered in the Gladiators' Barracks. Perhaps this woman fell victim to the eruption during a daring and fatal encounter with a local champion.(Pg. 49)
Gladiators are inexorably associated with the Roman Empire. From funeral rites to huge political extravagances, Roman history is infused with details about gladiatorial contests. In Gladiators at Pompeii, Luciana Jacobelli provides a concise and thrilling overview of the history of the gladiatorial combat, from its inception to its demise when gladiatorial games were outlawed in the 5th century AD. This overview is combined with an examination of the gladiatorial spectacles held in Pompeii, including a fascinating glimpse at the gladiator related graffiti that was preserved on the walls of Pompeian buildings, when the town was buried during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

In providing background information about gladiators and their competitions, Jacobelli provides an enthralling description of the various types of gladiators, including: Details provided vary greatly, depending upon how much information is know about each category, however whenever possible she has including information about the equipment they used, the clothing they wore, and who they were most likely to fight against. She also details how various types of people, such as slaves, freemen, criminals, and women, came to find themselves fighting in the arena, how they trained, and what their lives where like.

In addition to the gladiators themselves, Jacobelli also includes information about the amphitheaters in which the games were held, what normally took place during the course of an entire spectacle, including interesting tidbits about the use of public restrooms, and how the games were paid for. She also provides information about the various gladiatorial associated riots and revolts that occurred, including the Revolt of Spartacus. Most important, Jacobelli shows how the gladiatorial games appeared to the Romans of Pompeii by quoting literary references to the games, as well as detailing how gladiators were depicted in both private and public art, including paintings, reliefs, statuary, and depictions on pottery. In this book she also explores the archeological evidence that has been uncovered at Pompeii, and elsewhere, which has provided additional details about the lives and activities of the gladiators, and how the gladiatorial spectacles were used as a propaganda tool by astute politicians.

Gladiators at Pompeii is amply illustrated and it concludes with an essay by Riccardo Lattuada that illustrates how gladiators, and their competitions, were transformed into the knightly tournaments of the Middle Ages and the formalized duel, and how gladiatorial combat has been depicted in art and literature, through to the modern day. Gladiators were the movie stars and prime athletes of their age, and the romantic myth surrounding them still persists. Throughout the breadth of the Roman Empire, men and women of all classes thronged to the arenas to see trained fighters compete against each other and to see condemned criminals despatched with the utmost of gore. Through the visage of a city frozen in time, this book gives you a taste of the thrilling competitions, the public acclaim received by the gladiators, and the political significance of the competitions, as it was perceived by the average Roman living in Pompeii. A fascinating book, Gladiators at Pompeii will serve equally well in the college classroom, as well as in the hands of anyone interested in this aspect of ancient Roman history.


Related Reviews:

Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum, edited by Victoria C. Gardner Coates and Jon L. Seydl.
Thirteen essays that chronicle how our understanding of Pompeii and Herculaneum have changed over time, and the place these sites hold in popular culture.

Gods and Heroes in Pompeii, by Ernesto De Carolis.
In this well illustrated book, De Carolis examines the paintings, frescoes, and other pictorial wall decorations uncovered in Pompeii.

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