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Television/DVD: Everyone Loves a Bloodbath Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by Tony Perrottet

[image] A new documentary gives life to the gladiator Verus, described by the poet Martial as fighting in the Colosseum's inaugural games in A.D. 80. (BBC) [LARGER IMAGE]

The poet Martial, celebrating the opening of the Colosseum in Rome in A.D. 80, declared that the edifice would leap-frog in fame over the established Seven Wonders of the World. "Every work yields to the imperial amphitheater," he raved. "Posterity will speak of this one work instead of all the others." His prediction was more or less accurate: Today, six of the original Seven Wonders have disappeared from sight, but the ruined Colosseum still looms like a crumbling wedding cake over the streets of central Rome, exerting a hypnotic fascination. Of course, this has less to do with the structure's architecture than its bloodthirsty purpose as the ultimate setting for the gladiatorial games. If the ancient Romans had used their fifty-thousand-seat amphitheater for flower shows or poetry readings, we might not be quite so obsessed with it.

As it is, every modern age has reimagined the games in the Colosseum, from the Victorian paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema to Spartacus and Gladiator on the silver screen, all wallowing in the sadism and depravity of the events. And now, in A.D. 2004, along comes the BBC's Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story, premiering March 14, at 9 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel (Colosseum is available in DVD for $19.98 from BBC Video).

The hour-long special wisely avoids a dry recitation of engineering facts and figures, repeating the tale of how the Colosseum was designed and built; instead, it plays up the human-interest angle, showing how one individual's story intersected with the historical forces that converged to erect the mighty edifice. It's one part documentary, three parts dramatic re-creation, using all the tricks of the small screen to bring the past to life.

The writers use an appealing narrative device. Only a single description of an actual gladiatorial battle in the Colosseum survives--that between Verus and Priscus, two champions of Rome, in the inaugural games held by the emperor Titus in A.D. 80. These few lines penned by Martial describe a savage fight in which both the combatants excelled, and both--to the acclaim of the crowd--were granted the rudis or wooden sword, signifying their freedom. Colosseum fictionalizes the career of Verus, using reasonable historical speculation--from his capture on the Empire's frontier in the Balkans, through the gladiatorial school, to his grand bout.

The early phases of the show are squarely embedded in the time-honored tradition of gladiator movies, so much so that there is an inevitable sense of déjà vu. (Is that Kirk Douglas slaving away in the quarries? Doesn't that gladiator look a bit like Russell Crowe?) The rustic prisoner's first glimpses of imperial Rome, the initial matches in the gladiatorial school--all are part of the tried-and-true formula. Even the music seems familiar.

Still, this new foray into the genre quickly distinguishes itself from its forebears. For a start, everyone speaks in Latin, although the actors don't exactly have the ancient words tripping off their tongues and sometimes seem to be wrestling to remember their lines. The documentary is particularly strong when it depicts the social world of the gladiators, noting that they had their own guilds, with burial clubs and compensation for the families of those killed. We learn that celebrity gladiators would be traded around Italy like soccer players today, and that the more successful had their own luxury lodgings within the gladiator schools. And there is a marvelous scene of the cena libera, a sort of morbid last supper, when the public could watch the gladiators feasting the night before the games.

But the main event, for viewers as well as for the fictionalized Verus, comes when we finally arrive in the Colosseum's arena. Verus, now famous and successful, is a prime attraction in the inaugural bloodbath, which lasted for one hundred days and saw the deaths of two thousand gladiators. The re-creation of the busy day--criminals are thrown to wild beasts in the morning and mass bouts of lesser-known gladiators lead up to the big fight between Verus and Priscus--is efficiently done and quite gripping. One certainly has to admire the BBC's pluck: It's a courageous filmmaker that tackles this subject in the wake of the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator. Despite its many inaccuracies, that high-budget movie's computer-generated effects are a hard act to follow on the technical front. Many viewers of Colosseum will be unable to help noting that the building isn't quite as imposing as in the Hollywood version, and the vistas of Rome not as grand. Of course, one of Gladiator's big flaws was that the ancient world looked so clean and tidy, as if the gods had come down and given Rome a good wax polish. There was no garbage in the streets, no filth or graffiti on the walls, no dead cats in the alleys. Colosseum is a little more frayed, and has a slightly more authentic aura as a result.

The ultimate gladiator movie has yet to be made--modern directors are unwilling or unable to tackle the essential strangeness of the ancient games, filled as they were with gaudy theatrical touches, pantomimes and live sex acts--but Colosseum is a valiant attempt and a worthy addition to the genre.

Tony Perrottet is the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (2002).

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America