Museum  July 26, 2023  Christopher Siwicki

Step Into a Day in the Life of a Roman Gladiator

Courtesy of Colchester Museums

The Colchester Vase.

Gladiators: A Day at The Roman Games is the first major exhibition on gladiators that has been organized in the UK in over twenty years. It brings together artifacts from the Colchester Museums’ collections with over fifty loans from institutions across the country, including the British Museum. The exhibition takes you to a day at the games exploring the experience of the spectators as much as the reality of gladiators who fought and died for public spectacle. 

While the show takes you through “a day at the arena,” that concept posed some challenges for Glynn Davis, Senior Collections & Learning Curator at Colchester Museums. “You can’t re-create a ‘typical’ day at the games because it’s such a hodgepodge of sources for 400 plus years and things changed over time. We’ve tried to imagine a day of what could have happened.”

© The Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum

A Pompeii Murmillo Gladiator helmet.

Davis emphasizes the appropriateness of holding this exhibition at Colchester Museums. “We have a nationally and internationally significant collection of Roman archaeology. “We also have the Colchester Vase”. 

One of the highlights of the show, the Colchester Vase is an extraordinary ceramic vessel found in a Roman grave in England in 1853 and dating to the late second century AD. Around the body of the pot are three scenes depicting an animal hunt, a pair of men fighting a bear, and two gladiators facing off against each other, Memnon and Valentinus, with their names, which were thought to be stage names, inscribed above. New research on the vase earlier this year has shown that it is made of local clay and therefore attests to gladiatorial activity in the area.

“The exhibition is not gladiators across the Roman world because you’ve always got to centre an exhibition. You’ve got to ask why are we doing it? Why are we doing it here?” But neither is the show just about Roman Colchester though, but rather contextualized within Roman Britain more broadly. “This means we get to include fantastic local objects as well as some big loans.”

© Colchester Museums. Courtesy of the Colchester Museums.

Installation view of Gladiators: A Day at the Roman Games at Colchester Museums.

The show has many great unique objects on view. They have the “best-preserved gladius” (the Roman short sword) in Britain, from the Storiel Museum and Art Gallery in Bangor, Wales. “We have plenty of iron blades and pieces of scabbard, but what makes this example special is its completeness, including a bone and ivory hilt.” Davis notes that there is next to no gladiator armor that has been found in Britain. “The Hawkedon helmet, on loan from the British Museum, is possibly an example. It’s double the weight of an infantry helmet and was tined, so it would have shone bright silver.”

There is also a display of arms and armour, with the star piece being a Murmillo helmet that was discovered in Pompeii and is on loan from the British Museum. And with the collaboration of artist Gary Erskine, who has worked with Marvel and DC comics, the show has an appropriately graphic-novel feel.  

The focus of the show is not only the combatants though. The premise is that the emperor is coming to Colchester, as the capital of Roman Britain and, because of this, games are being put on in his honor.

©Colchester Museums. Courtesy of the Colchester Museums

Installation view of the exhibition A Day at the Roman Games at Colchester Museums

“Because it is an imagined date we can bring together different material and think about how to use our collections more broadly.” The exhibition aims to create the idea of an experience at the games, involving aspects of Roman religion, society, and culture, not simply what happened in a gladiatorial match itself. 

“You go on a journey in the exhibition. First of all, you encounter the gods of the games, then while still outside of the amphitheatre you hit the market vendors”. Davis seems particularly taken with their display of an ancient snack and a souvenir stall. “Here we’ve got all our best Roman glassware, a cheese press, and high-quality tableware on display.” 

The recreations are grounded in research. “If you look at the famous painting from Pompeii that shows the riot in the amphitheatre, around it you’ll see the little stalls with the canvas canopies. It is also what researchers think was going on at Roman Chester in Britain, because the material evidence shows people eating outside the amphitheatre.” 

©Colchester Museums. Courtesy of the Colchester Museums

Installation view of the exhibition A Day at the Roman Games at Colchester Museums

The exhibition then progresses through the day’s events. “In the morning we have the beast hunts,” he said. The curatorial team worked with Colchester Zoo and acquired taxidermy specimens and replica skulls. “We don’t think there would have been elephants, hippos, ostriches, or a lot of big cats, as in the Colosseum in Rome; here in Britain it was boars and bears, but they are as terrifying and deadly as anything else.”

After the presentation on the morning beast hunts, there is a display on the midday executions, which explores the gladiators’ fame, social rank, and position as slaves of the arena. “They’re enslaved and suffer from infamia (they’re excluded from legal protection), which means they’re the lowest of the low, but they can also be celebrities. There’s a balance of saying well, yes, some could have been celebrities, but the majority are not and thousands are just dying.”

The show concludes with the actual gladiatorial matches and some debunking of common misperceptions. “We start to unpick some of the falsehoods, like it was always a fight to the death. Gladiators are professional fighters.”

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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