How to Survive as a Roman Gladiator.


In many ways a Roman Gladiator was a bit like a Big Brother Contestant. By which I don’t mean that in the Big Brother household they are battling to the death with Gladius in hand (although perhaps they should be, Channel 5 take note). Instead I mean that Gladiators were both loved and despised just like the fast fading celebrity who finds themselves in the midst of the Big Brother household. You can’t help but think of the average BB contestant as being someone you totally dislike but at the same time you just can’t bring yourself to turn the TV off (even when they’ve just spent the last 10 minutes screaming at someone for eating the last of the coco pops).

Gladiators were idolised. They were the sporting hero of their time. A baby oiled titan. And yet they were hated in the same breath, they were slaves, and much lower status than virtually everyone else in Roman society (apart from the actors, they were real scum). If you were unfortunate enough to become a Gladiator (unless you wanted to be one, free Romans were often drawn to the danger and excitement of the arena although they would of course keep their identities a secret so as not to embarrass their families) then you had to work hard to survive. Balancing both being really good at fighting with having the charisma necessary to win over the crowd.

How did they do this? What top tips would they have shared in order to be triumphant?

Fortunately for you, I (Captain Max Virtus – expert in Bizarrchaeology) have the answer for you. I didn’t discover this answer by reading dusty and forgotten text books or frantically scanning a Gladiator article on Wikipedia, Oh no, I LIVED the life of the Gladiator! Yup, in one of the halls in my castle I built a miniature Flavian Amphitheatre, hired a bunch of highly skilled trainers and then I practised being a Gladiator. I did it all;

  • Took on the role of a Venatore Gladiator and punched a hippo in the face (don’t worry animal lovers, the hippo got to punch me in the face too, and they can punch hard).
  • Practised using a lasso whilst training as a Laquerarii gladiator (don’t try to lasso the hippo you just punched, they really don’t like it and it all goes a bit horribly wrong when they try and lasso you back, having no opposable thumbs).
  • Fought with a Samnite, Provocator and Murmillones Gladiator types, gladius to gladius
  • I even rode on my war chariot as a Essedari gladiator (Unfortunately space was rather limited so this did involve a great deal of awkward reversing).

So what are the most important lessons that I leant? What things can I share with you, dear reader, so if you ever were to be thrust back in time, due to a freak accident with a crazily over excited doctor and a DeLorean, and found yourself living the life of the Gladiator in ancient Rome that you could survive (perhaps even thrive) too?

Top Tip 1 – Never become an Andabatae Gladiator

Imagine the scene, you’re a new Gladiator and you’ve just arrived at the Ludus (Gladiator School) for your first day. Suddenly, the biggest, baddest and brutalist (new word) Gladiator rocks up and starts hanging out with you. You are totally flattered because he is one of the cool Gladiators. He’s then being all friendly and says something along the lines of;

‘Hey dude, you know you would be major awesome as an Andabatae Gladiator. Would you like to be one at the next games?’

Don’t be tempted, don’t even pause to consider the question, just say NO!

First of all, I have no idea why the Gladiator was speaking like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Secondly, Andabatae gladiators were terrible, as your chances of survival were virtually zero.

To become an Andabatae you would have to commit a crime (this could be something major, like murder, or something relatively minor, like not being able to repay your debts) and sent to the arena to die. When you got there, you and a bunch of other criminals would be given;

A Gladius (things are looking up, a sword!)

No armour (that’s not so bad, at least your opponents don’t have any either)

And a helmet (yay!) with no eye holes so you are rendered completely blind (you what?!)

Once your helmet is on your head you would be sent out into the area to frantically wave your sword around, hoping by Jupiter’s left toe, that you hit your opponent before they hit you. Even if you are hit but are only injured you are still going to die anyway, because a friendly chap dressed as Charon (the ferryman to the underworld) will come along with a hot poker to check you’re dead, if not, expect him to wallop you over the head with a hammer until you are (it probably won’t take long, it’s a big hammer).

Maybe you might get lucky and end up being the last man standing and get to live. But your chances are not even half as good as a regular Gladiator. In actual fact, most Gladiators had the best health care in all of Rome, with few battles resulting in death (after all, which self respecting event organiser would want to pay out a fortune to the owner of the Gladiator if they were to die in battle?)

Top Tip 2 – Don’t get the Emperor’s thumb the wrong way around

So, you’ve just won your first big fight in the Colosseum with Emperor Commodus himself watching, exciting stuff! Your opponent lies exhausted at your feet and your stand above him, Gladius raised and ready to strike. The crowd chant around you in an incomprehensible wall of noise. You look up to the Emperor, he’s stood there looking pensive (the lion’s head he is wearing looks slightly pensive too – Commodus wore one as he desperately wanted to emulate his hero Hercules). Then with a nod the Emperor has decided, he extends his arm with his thumb pointed down towards the floor. You respond and with a neat swing of your blade your opponent is dispatched.

WHOOPS! You just disobeyed the request of the Emperor. You are in trouble.

Don’t make this rookie mistake. A downwards thumb means let your opponent live (the direction of the thumb indicates that the blade should be lowered) An upwards pointing thumb means kill them (the thumb is pointing towards the neck, where they should be stabbed).

Don’t forget lest you really embarrass yourself and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Top Tip 3 – Don’t bring Kitchen implements to a Sword Fight

Being a man of wonder I don’t make many mistakes (unless you count letting a Hippo punch me in the head) but one I did make was bringing the wrong weapon to one of my duels. My trainer had explained that in the next fight we would be battling as Scissors Gladiators. So off I went to the kitchen and fetched my finest Kitchen Scissors (they even have golden handles, to go with the theme of my kitchen) only to return and discover my trainer had a metal gauntlet on his right arm, attached to it were two large blades. It’s then that I realised my trainer had said Scissores Gladiators rather than Scissors Gladiator. Suffice to say I lost the fight. Badly.

Go Forth Gladiator, Rome salutes you.

So there you have it, Max Virtus’ Top 3 Tips to survive as a Gladiator in Ancient Rome. With these lessons learnt you stand a good chance of getting your hands on the wooden sword known as a Rudis and earning your freedom. But don’t worry, if you find yourself missing the danger and excitement of the arena once you are free you can always go back for one last big payout. Just be careful, without an owner to have to pay back you’ll find the event organiser won’t provide you with nearly as good healthcare as before. After all, what better way for the crowd to remember the event than with the death of a famous Gladiator?

(Content Provided by the intrepid Max Virtus, as fun a Historyland guide as one could wish for, see his website below)

Thanks Max,

Book Review: The invention of fire by Bruce Holsinger.

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (April 21, 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0062356453
ISBN-13: 978-006235645151LfoV5JOWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The appearance of this book portends ominous events, a grainy, fiery dust cover of a royal coat of arms. No gold embossing for the title, well done Harper Collins, and quality a paper and printing. Usual hardback rule of thumb applies to reading and there’s a helpful map of 14th century London in the front.

It’s good to see Holsinger has found a groove to write in. The main two sided storytelling elements, reminiscent of a TV crime series, that were present in his first novel, A Burnable Book, are still there. On one side information broker and real life poet John Gower narrates his way around London, trying to solve the mystery of the murder of 16 men, found in a privy pit by Medieval sewer workers, killed by a powerful new weapon, the handgonne. The other side of coin reveals the string ends of a puppet master, the props of a powerful hand, who are the keys to the whole mystery yet separated from Gower’s investigations by a trail of silent witnesses, who the poet must track down before they are snuffed out. These two alternate narratives deliberately shield the third key element that ties it all together, and is slowly revealed, piece by piece, as the book progresses.
Holsinger has written another deep, psychological thriller full of threat, menace, violence, mystery, misery and pain, with grime, dirt, dark humour, introspective tangent, intrigue and historical detail with a deeply flawed cast replete with shade and some moments of light, but very few truly noble or heroic figures. This is a dark almost nightmarish world, safe only to those who had been born to it. A dirt of your fingers short lived place, were nothing is guaranteed, not the sight your eyes were birthed with, nor the crown on a King’s head.


Book Review: Greyfriars Bobby and the One O’Clock Gun by George Robinson.

Paperback: 82 pages
Publisher: Xlibris (28 Mar. 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 148360151X
ISBN-13: 978-148360151961fVfjlqJjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

If you are contemplating making a trip to Edinburgh then I think you should consider buying this little book. Greyfriars Bobby, the little Skye Terrier that became so legendary in the late 19th century, is a much more potent symbol of this great city than even the castle that dominates its skyline. For while the battlements rear over the city, creating the most powerful visual landmark to associate with, this little dog represents its heart and soul, and a working knowledge of his peculiar story is therefore a must if you are going to visit the Scottish Capitol.

George Robinson has collected a series of short vignettes that detail some of the most memorable Bobby stories, detailing his origins and cleverly discussing the myths about him, showing us the friends he made and the lives he touched until his death in 1872, and giving us a picture of the spirit of a city that I hope is as real today as it was then, as you will certainly understand if you get this book. Perhaps as you sit in one of the places marked on the map inside, sitting in the park below the castle waiting to hear the startling bang of the One O’clock gun, or at the end of a busy day in your hotel, you might realise as I did how much the culture and spirit of Edinburgh is contained in the trusting gaze of this remarkable little dog. Along with this is an array of incidents that show 19th century life in Edinburgh, from the story of the one o’clock gun to military parades and other interesting things besides.

I don’t know of any city that can boast such a fine recommendation as one that which collectively adopted this homeless animal as part of its character and heritage, giving him one giant home in almost every household he met. I very much enjoyed this little book, with its nice period engravings and succinctly written stories, and I’m sure Scottish history and dog fans alike will enjoy it too.



Book Review: Waterloo by Alan Forrest.

Many books will come out this year and try to explain the tactics and strategy of the Battle 613nhzxJNMLof Waterloo. Others will try to tell the soldiers story, some might even concentrate on the political ramifications. However there will not be many that try to understand the significance of the battle from a historiographical perspective.

Alan Forrest sets out to put the Battle in perspective, to set it in the context of the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s fall, and the collective memory of the nations involved. So many historians over the last 20 years have tried to lay claim to the battle, this book goes a long way to explaining why the debate is so complex.

It begins with a slightly bumpy but conventional description of the battle. In which we see a brief, mostly critical appreciation of all the commanders. Elementary passages of the well known fight, familiar to many enthusiasts account for much of the rest of the first part. Nevertheless there is a deal of interest to be found here, not last that Forrest appears to agree with Huw Davies’s theory that the battle as a needless occurrence, and a diplomatically driven gesture by Wellington, who sacrificed the lives of his troops for later political gain and that Napoleon was doomed from the beginning.
However as the author apologieticaly notes at the start, he is not an a military historian and the book is not strictly military history. I found there to be a few glitches which the author assures me will be ironed out in paperback and e-book editions. I will simply say here for the uninitiated that the Duke of Wellington and Blucher did not meet on the evening of the 17th of June at La Belle Alliance.

Nevertheless do not dismiss this book. Once the guns fall silent the road smooths out and the pace picks up. The main point of the book is to show the impact of the battle at the time, attempting to explain why we think about Waterloo the way we do today. In this sense it is the legacy of the Battle that is the driving force of this book. A subject, the waters of which, are darkly muddied by many national agendas, and which is excellently illuminated here
One of the biggest questions is why Britain remained the central figure in the play? As Forrest astutely notes, it is not so much that Britain hijacked the battle, but that the other countries let it fall from their memory so that by WW1, it was almost utterly obliterated from their national consciousness’ leaving only the British story intact. He shows how the battle was soon made the property of politicians, authors and others who had not fought there, and who can be principally blamed for the proliferation of the “British” myth. How in France defeat was built up into a giant monument to former glory, how Napoleon was not defeated by Wellington or Blucher but by God. This monument which promptly fell on them in 1871 and likewise ignored Much of the real record. How the Prussian and German States, ignored it in preference to Leipzig, the Dutch polarised its memory around the Prince of Orange and the Belgians were so busy staving off Dutch overlordship that first the Napoleonic regime seemed more attractive to remember.
In essence it is a book whose subject appeals to me as a small but valuable addition to a Waterloo library, a vital post script for those emerging from the avalanche of heavier tomes concentrating on the main battle and its political ramifications.


Brussels in the Summer.

The Brussels Waltz. It was the age of the Waltz. That scandalous peasant dance that was exhibited at Almack’s in 1812 which had so many ladies of a certain age reaching for their smelling salts. With the hands in constant contact, palm to palm, with bodies pressed close and the gentleman’s arm around the lady’s waist, it was the romantic ideal that encapsulated the spirit of the age a decade before Strauss wrote a note. The Times and oddly even Lord Byron had dressed it down in typically high minded prose but by 1814 this continental obscenity, this affront to good English taste, was the rage of all the fashionable house parties and balls in Brussels who wanted to cause a stir. Any dandy officer worth his salt would have paid good money to be taught how to masterfully twirl a lady around a dance floor with gentlemanly grace and manly reserve. It was as if a stage had been set by a genius of dramatic production. All the ingredients were there, elegant young ladies, fashionable gowns, brilliant uniforms and dashing young officers, a dinner party every night and a ball or two every week. With hindsight it is plain that there was almost a mathematical certainty that romance and tragedy had to collide at some point and create a legend. However at the time the large British expatriate community were blithely unconcerned with the march of history.

Wilson's Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.
Wilson’s Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.

British Invasion. Almost as soon as peace was declared in 1814 the invasion began. The city had always been an attractive destination for the aristocracy before the French Revolution, indeed as a young man the Duke of Wellington had lived there with his mother for a while. It afforded a slightly cheaper cost of living, in a fashionable European city, that in many ways resembled a British Spa town, and had none of the current dreary political upheaval then occurring in other capitols. The Belgian capital was best accessed by canals from Ostend, after a sea crossing most civilians were unceremoniously dumped on shore but had the consolation of a barge trip through the countryside to the city. Separated into upper and lower towns and ringed by the old defensive walls, life in Brussels centred on the salons of the wealthy inhabitants, the fine lawns and landscaping of the park, the fine avenues and the grand hotels. Since the “Little Peace” of 1803 had afforded the well heeled in Britain little opportunity for travel, they quickly seized their chance to descend on the Low Countries in 1814 and live it up after 12 years of isolation. The British quickly made themselves at home & the Belgians were shocked and perplexed by the balls that usually lasted past midnight and their copious drinking habits. Yet these glitterati were not the first to besiege Brussels. There had been a British expeditionary force operating in the country under General Graham since 1813, and though he had not convinced the French to surrender a single fortress, he had at least managed to keep them bottled up inside them. Graham had briefly assumed command of the allied forces, and had his headquarters in Brussels, before giving up command to the Prince of Orange in August 1814. Thus there were already a good deal of scarlet uniforms and gold lace present in Brussels when in March 1815, news came that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was once more in control of France. If anything the slow buildup of British, Hanoverian, Dutch, Belgian and other national troops across the country only added to the glamour of the social scene, and most likely extended its shelf life. Instead of packing up and going home the British expatriates stayed on, after all the allied powers were to attack into France to fight Napoleon, not defend Belgium.

A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.
A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.

The Shadows Lengthen. Despite the endless minutiae of running an army Wellington somehow managed to mix business with pleasure. There is not a work on Waterloo that does not mention a “Dalliance” or “Affair” with the heavily pregnant Lady Harriet Webburn Webster. Since Wellington never disclosed a single personal remark about who he spent his time with, I will not add to the weight of words theorising about the affair, as it can never be anything but unprovable gossip. Nevertheless what is certain that he was usually always entertaining or in attendance on fashionable ladies, probably as much for their company as the fact they probably knew more about what was going on than did his adjutant general. More important was his social strategy of bluff. The Capitol was full of French sympathisers, and while he felt certain that Napoleon was going to advance against his western flank via Mons, he knew however that this was an unsubstantiated hunch, and that intelligence gathered at this stage was nothing but an indicator. Since 1808 Wellington had worked only on firm information, therefore since he knew nothing of Napoleon’s intentions he dug his heels firmly into the ground, while watching over his right shoulder. While he waited he played, in public he was the not a military commander, nor was he stern and distant as his formidable reputation suggested, he was an aristocrat on holiday. He was charming and witty and was always seen to be having a good time, but in private he was busy organising the army, arranging payment, food and supplies, sending for trusted officers, and scanning intelligence reports, while growing more and more concerned that Napoleon would strike first. Apart from his administrational work he would breakfast alone in his house on the Park and usually dine with his staff. He had large dinners every day and by the 4th of June he had held 3 large Balls and was planning to hold another on the 21st of June to mark the second anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria, which up till then had been his greatest victory. The Duke was a fixture of Brussels society, and the star around whom the little galaxy increasingly revolved. Because he maintained an air of carefree gaiety to the public nothing changed in Brussels, except that more officers became available to socialise with. Gentlemen still went to “Reading” Clubs to gamble, there was carriage and horse riding, strolls and picnics and outings into the country, cricket matches, military reviews, hunting parties and the racing days provided by the Prince of Orange and the Earl of Uxbridge were always popular and hostesses vied with each other to entertain. However the gay and carefree British expatriate community living in the Belgian capitol, like animals scenting the air for danger, sensed the mood changing. Something was going to happen that would bring and end to their way of life, perhaps they felt things reaching a peak, and the only way to go now was down. It was no secret that the Duke of Wellington’s army was in Belgium to fight, but when it would do so was anybody’s guess. The wise heads suggested that the Duke was awaiting word that the Austrians and Russians had invaded France, which would be sometime in July. Until then there had been an air of tranquility, a miasma of springtime holiday activity in a little London created overseas, for almost a year now, hardly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape and the concentration of the Duke of Wellington’s army, indeed the influx of officers and dignitaries likely prolonged the fun, cloaking the reality that Napoleon was massing troops on the borders of France. Now spring turned to summer, the days began to stretch and the shadows began to lengthen over the lawns in Brussels park. But just as one can tell, after a long summer day of activity that the night is fast approaching, both soldiers and civilians began to realise that they were playing on borrowed time. The constant passage of military couriers seemed to tell their own story.

A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it's 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington's street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.
A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it’s 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington’s street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.

Save the date for the 15th. Charlotte Duchess of Richmond was a noted socialite, who had presided over several balls already, and she was determined to pack in as much as possible before the army marched. Seeking out the Duke of Wellington, who himself was behind many of the balls and dinners in the city, entertaining most nights, she asked him in the true regency fashion of Austen or Heyer, whether she could give a ball without it being interrupted. She asked for no secrets, and no reasons, just if she could give her ball. “Duchess” Wellington said fatefully “You may give your Ball with the greatest safety without fear of interruption” in truth he could not say anything else and maintain the facade of calm. The date was set for the 15th of June. In the meantime the round of balls continued. The Duchess of Richmond knew how to do things properly, and she engaged two officers of the 7th Hussars to hand deliver her invitations to the officers of the cavalry when Lord Uxbridge held his next field day at Grammont. Despite the rumours of the army preparing to march, no one could be sure of anything except that on the 15th the Duchess of Richmond would be giving a very select and private ball at her home in the Rue de Blanchisserie. Roughly 230 invitations were sent out, over half were to officers. Yet it was not really a large ball, though it was reasonably well attended, for there were 1,064 officers in the army and most were from the staff, nor was it yet the event of the season. It was to be a private party thrown at private expense. Had it been on any other day it would have been little different than any other ball and faded into the parchment of history like all the others, but it was not to be. Josh. Sources. The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball: David Miller. Dancing into Battle: Nick Foulkes. Wellington, the years of the sword: Elizabeth Longford. Freshly Remembered, The story of Sir Thomas Graham: Oglander. Your Obediant Servant: James Thornton Cook to the Duke of Wellington. Spencer and Waterloo, letters 1814-1816: Spencer Madan. Wellington, the iron duke: Richard Holmes.