Wednesday, April 19, 2006

How Gladiators really lived

How Gladiators really lived: "The fury of gladiatorial combat first came to Ephesus in 69BC, courtesy of Lucullus, the Roman army's commander-in-chief. The city was a vital centre, on a par with Alexandria in Egypt, or Antioch in Syria. Under the Emperor Augustus, it became the first city of the Roman province of Asia, and the residence of the proconsul. A political and commercial centre with a population of an estimated 200,000, it sat astride trade routes that ran from West to East, and from South to North.

To accommodate the contests, the eastern part of the Ephesus stadium built by the Greeks was converted into an elliptical arena. One of the biggest monuments of the city, the stadium was oval-shaped, about 330 yards long and 160 yards wide. Some 25,000 spectators - half the capacity of the Colosseum - could watch the athletic games favoured by the Greeks. Centuries later, people could watch chariot races, and the gladiator combats that began in the afternoon with the participants, right arms raised, hailing high officials, nobles and senators with the ritualistic words: 'Those who are about to die salute you.'

There was no mistaking the purpose of these fights: they were designed to impress people with the might of Rome, and they allowed the cities of the entire empire to show that they belonged to it. Significantly, the Ephesus contests were organised by the high priest who oversaw the worship of the emperor. In the amphitheatre, the audience embodied the Roman nation, the sovereign people of the Earth. It was the people, and not their ruler, who decided whether a vanquished gladiator had demonstrated sufficient fighting spirit and courage to obtain a pardon. The people could also decide to grant a gladiator freedom - most of them were prisoners of war, slaves or condemned offenders - just as they could call for his execution on the spot.

When a gladiator died, his body was carried only a short distance from the scene of his last stand. Some 300 yardsaway, off a covered passage built with huge limestone blocks, lay a cemetery. There, the body was placed in a sarcophagus that rested on the ground. No other objects were buried with the body. But the dead man was often honoured with an inscription that would guarantee him later recognition. Some epitaphs carried the word 'gladiator' in both Latin and Greek, and detailed the cities he had fought in and the victories he had won. One related how Pandos, from Asia Minor, had won 10 contests and that, even though he had had the sun in his eyes, he had managed to kill an opponent 'as if he were a donkey'.

The epitaphs were discovered in 1993, when archeologists stumbled across them as they tried to trace the path taken by holy processions from the centre of Ephesus to the Temple of Artemis - one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - on the city's outskirts. The cemetery, now covered by an orchard and off a street where shepherds walk their sheep, yielded not only the inscriptions but also - much more excitingly - enough material to allow for the first mass autopsy ever performed on the bones of gladiators."