Sunday, 24 July 2011

Review: Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual, by Philip Matyszak

I must admit I was a bit hesitant about buying this. I’d already got a good book on gladiators (Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport, by Fik Meijer) and was uncertain whether this would have anything extra. As it turns out, it’s the best book in a small but growing series of excellence.

Mr. Matyszak brilliantly blends wittiness with an easy-to-read but informative style. Some of the captions (typically to mosaics) are quite hilarious and the dry wit the author employs helps add some comic relief to a topic that is actually rather horrific.

The book takes a concise look at the rise of gladiatorial popularity, from funeral games to pre-election bribes for the masses to saturating the Colosseum with blood during the reigns of Commodus and Trajan.

Different gladiator types are briefly explained, along with the daily routine of the men (and, occasionally, women) in question. There’s a slightly paradoxical view of them held by the Romans, in that gladiator games are hugely popular yet gladiators are shunned socially.

In addition to gladiatorial combats there’s a quick look at similar/alternative events, such as the beast hunts (a kind of morning matinee for Ancient Rome); the bizarre practice of blindfolding condemned prisoners, giving them swords, pushing them into the arena and telling them to kill each other; and shows involving dwarves and women fighting one another.

The author’s also made good use of the Ludus Nemesis, a German re-enactment group who have, through practical exploration of gladiator armour/weapons, discovered some cunning tricks their bloody forebears might have employed.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic.

For those wondering about getting this or Fik Meijer’s book, I’d say that Meijer’s is more sober and in-depth, but Matyszak’s is more entertaining (without becoming low-brow).


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