A Day at the Pompeii Arena
It’s a sunny day in Pompeii on April 8th in this first year of the reign of Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (AD 79). The crowds surge toward the amphitheater for the games given by D. Lucretius Stater Valens, a lifelong priest to the cult of the deified Nero Caesar Augustus. The placards pasted on the walls in the forum promise, “ten pairs of gladiators owned by his son D. Lucretius Valens and wild animal hunts, as permitted by law. The seats will be shaded with awnings.” Pompeii’s is the oldest stone amphitheater in the empire. For one hundred-fifty years it has proudly hosted games and religious festivals, but it’s looking dated next to the modern Flavian Amphitheater which will open next year in Rome. The frescoes of gladiatorial combat and beast hunts decorating the walls surrounding the sand are fading, but the patrons come for the blood sports, not the art.
The spectators pass into the open spaces surrounding the arena where merchants and food vendors hawk their wares. The scent of fresh bread, roasted meats, and sour wine waft through the crowd to mingle with the odor of sweat and hair pomade. People look at their wooden tickets and enter the appropriate gate to spread throughout the amphitheater: the front rows reserved for the leading citizens; the middle for the lesser knights and merchants; and the top for the poor, slaves, and women. Some resent the class divisions at the arena. At the chariot races in the hippodrome, it’s open seating (except for the emperor, of course!) and women mix with the men. (more…)
Busting Gladiator Myths
Before I researched my newest novel, Sword of the Gladiatrix, I got most of my ideas and impressions of gladiators from the media: Russell Crowe in Gladiator and (for those of us of a certain age) Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. More recently Starz had a fantastic (in more ways than one) show that ran for three seasons titled Spartacus: War of the Damned. All of these shows perpetuate some gladiator myths that I hope to bust wide open in this post. They also got a couple of things right, which I’ll point out.
All gladiators were men.
Bronze statue of a gladiatrix
Most were, but not all. Here I’ll give Gladiator a weak thumbs up—they had women in chariots fighting against a group of men in a re-enactment of a classic battle in an arena scene, but other than that, women gladiators don’t show up in most visual media. It’s left to us lowly writers to correct the balance. If you look closely, women in the arena show up in art, literature, and law.
Sword of the Gladiatrix was inspired by a particular stone carving of two female gladiators in the British Museum. More recently, archaeologists have uncovered a bronze statue of a gladiatrix holding a sica—a curved sword. Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, Martial, and Juvenal all write about female gladiators—usually (except for Martial) with some element of dismay or sarcasm. An organizer in Ostia brags on his tombstone that he was the first person to put women in the arena as fighters. My favorite evidence is in the law: The first Roman Emperor Augustus forbade recruiting noble and free women as gladiators. Nearly two hundred years later, Emperor Septimus Severus banned single combat by women in the arena. If women weren’t being recruited and fighting, why have a ban? Human nature being what it is, these prohibitions probably made the fights all the more popular because they were illegal. I’m sure female gladiatorial contests continued for some time. (more…)
Women Gladiators? Really?
Yes, really! Whenever I pitched Sword of the Gladiatrix as my “lesbian gladiator novel,” I encountered raised eyebrows and skeptical snorts. The first question everyone asked: “Were there really lesbian gladiators?” My answer: “Of course!” We know there were female gladiators fighting in arenas for several centuries. Some had to be lesbian.
What really surprised people was the fact of female gladiators. They rarely appear in popular culture. Despite the popularity of Xena Warrior Princess and the myths of the Amazons, female gladiators don’t come to mind in the media-soaked imaginings of brutal, bloody, gladiatorial games. Women warriors? Maybe. Women gladiators? No. Yet they are there in grave markers, classical literature, laws, and art. All you have to do is look. (more…)
Food in the First Century Roman Empire
Prism Book Alliance pitched me the guest post topic: “If your character could only eat ten foods for the rest of her life, what would they be and why?” I was initially stumped then delighted. Historical fiction writers are notorious for their collections of arcana regarding food, clothing, religious practices, architecture, social mores, herb lore, etc. Using such details in our narratives is one of the ways we transport our readers to another time and place. My most recent book, Sword of the Gladiatrix, takes place in the first century and features two women from the far ends of the Roman Empire: Afra, a huntress from the Kingdom of Kush, and Cinnia, a warrior-bard of the rebellious Iceni tribe in Roman Britain. Both have very different cultures and diets compared to the Romans who enslave them, so let’s time travel! (more…)
How I Die a Dozen Deaths
“How do you think you would do in a battle arena?”
When I got this suggested topic, I thought to myself, “Great! Shortest blog post ever—I die!” Then I thought about it and realized there are a few—very few—situations where I might survive. After all I have my protagonist in Sword of the Gladiatrix survive a beast hunt with broken ribs and sprained ankle (more on that later). First some stipulations:
- “Me” is me in my prime when I could play multiple games of tennis, ride my bike for hours, and did weight training three times a week; not the aging, out-of-shape, couch potato I am now.
- I have training for whatever fighting style I’m engaging in.
- The fight would take place at a regional Roman arena (at Pompeii or Nuceria for example), not one of the imperial extravaganzas where the object is to kill as many people and animals as possible.
A little history:
Gladiator shows or munera evolved out of a Roman religious ritual where slaves were forced to fight to the death at a funeral to honor the dead. By the first century they became part of larger multi-day religious celebrations (political theater) usually sponsored by local magistrates and might include plays, music, chariot racing, and other entertainments. By AD 354 gladiator fights declined to just 10 days out of 176 set aside for spectacles of various kinds in Rome. (more…)
Boudica, Queen of the Iceni:
We authors—especially of historical fiction—cannot get along without our research books. (We also like to visit the places we write about, explore museum exhibits, and participate in archaeology and reenactments, but this post will talk about research of the armchair variety.) We prefer primary sources: journals, diaries, letters, histories, account lists, and literature written in the period, describing the people and events we want to write about; but that’s not always possible. For cultures that didn’t have a written language (the Iron Age Celts), or it was indecipherable (Egyptian hieroglyphs until the discovery of the Rosetta stone), or it was destroyed (Mayan books burned by conquering Spaniards); we have to rely on secondary sources. Books, essays, and articles by academics and other professionals in their fields are the best we can do for written research in such cases. But we have to be careful even with those. Just as in evaluating primary sources we have to keep in mind the biases and knowledge of the writer, we have to do the same with secondary sources. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of dreck out there—particularly on the internet—and historical fiction authors usually like to get as close to the truth as possible.
In researching Sword of the Gladiatix, I collected several books, articles, and pamphlets on Boudica and Roman Britain, most of an academic nature, a few of the more “popular” variety. The two biographies of Boudica I review below are the best by far of both types. You can read either or both and get a well-researched, readable history of the Iceni Queen, her times, and her legacy in popular culture. Which to read depends on your needs and nature. (more…)