Sunday, September 07, 2014

Chariot Races, Gladiators, and Film

Visages of gladiatorial battles and chariot races often fill the minds of modern audiences with wonder. Ancient Roman sport and spectacle have long-since been an inspiration for popular culture- from books and plays to television and moves.

Chariot races were quite popular in much of the ancient Mediterranean for over a millennium. Roman chariot races were much like modern NASCAR/stock car driving, with both standard regulations and variances in tracks, as well as excitement at both wins and crashes! Perhaps best known for its thrilling chariot race, Ben-Hur (1959) is considered by many to be one of the best films of all time. This historical epic starring Charlton Heston follows a prince who was sent into slavery, and later seeks revenge on the race track. The film is actually based upon a book written in 1880 by Lew Wallace of the same name. Perhaps even more surprising, the 1959 film is neither the first nor the last screen adaptation, with a 1925 silent film and a remake currently in progress, due out in 2016!

Gladiatorial combat reached its popularity in late 1st CE century Rome. While its origins remain murky, they were noted by Roman historian Livy as existing by the 2nd century BCE and became an essential feature of political and social life, continuing through the 6th century. Gladiators were typically- although not solely - slaves, often from military backgrounds. They were most frequently male, although there is evidence of female gladiators, especially during Nero's reign. We do know that  female gladiators were formally banned in 200 CE.

Gladiator (2000) directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe is one of the most appreciated depictions of recent years. In the film the fictional general Maximus, after being betrayed by the emperor Commodus and swept up into slavery, must fight as a gladiator to seek vengeance for himself and his family. The film is also known for its soundtrack and received five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Gladiator : the making of the Ridley Scott epic has more about the making of the film. Though the film plays a bit loose with the history, it is an entertaining film for 21st century audiences.

Perhaps slightly more realistic, and loosely based on historical events, are the many iterations of Spartacus. Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator and was one of the slave leaders in the Third Servile War in the first century BCE. Books, novels, movies and television shows have continuously elaborated on the tale of which historians know relatively few details. Howard Fast's 1952 book Spartacus served as the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas. More recently, the television show Spartacus: Blood and Sand ran for three seasons to a relatively positive reception.

The Colosseum in Rome is the best known location of ancient gladiatorial battles which can still be visited. Started in 70CE and completed in 80, the Colosseum could seat 50,000-80,000 and was the first permanent amphitheater in Rome. Repaired multiple times in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, the ruins are adjacent to the Forum Romanum, both of which are popular tourist destinations.

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