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Gladiators - Fighting to the death in Ancient Rome

M.C. Bishop
“Gladiators – Fighting to the Death in Ancient Rome” is another in the Casemate Short History series and shares a lot with the previous book I reviewed, Greek Warriors - Hoplites and Heroes.

At 160 pages, it’s a relatively short read, but is still informative and concise. They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, which is probably a good thing as the front cover of this book looks like an Italian tourism book. If I saw it in Waterstones, that would’ve been my first impression.

However, once into the book itself, it’s a treasure trove of information spanning hundreds of years of gladiatorial combat in all its forms.

I found the fact that the Romans used to stage mock sea battles within their arenas mind-blowing. Just the logistics involved in creating a man-made lake must’ve been phenomenal, especially when you think it was 1500 years ago. Add ships, crews and combat into the mix and you’re left with a feat that would be complex even using modern machinery.

“Gladiators” also debunks many myths made lore by Hollywood. The movie “Spartacus” was exaggerated, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” had many flaws, not least of which the dress and weaponry used and roles of the combatants.

I found the book informative and useful in most respects. As with all short history books, especially ones spanning hundreds of years, there is a limit to the detail that can be given within them.

I found that slave rebellions were given short shrift in “Gladiators,” which is understandable on one hand as the focus has to be on the arena and the men who take part in the games. On the other hand, gladiators were used quite frequently in the employ of rich men as bodyguards or personal armies. Personally, I would’ve liked to have read more about the actual threat posed by these units of highly-trained combat veterans and their roles in slave armies, such as the infamous Spartacus one.

There's a bit too much repetition for my taste, mainly with gladiator class descriptions. Also, whether this is M.C. Bishop’s fault or there simply aren’t enough primary sources, there just isn’t enough nitty-gritty accounts of what these amazing spectacles were like. To see elephants battling condemned men, or sea battles on dry land are truly awe-inspiring, especially in those days but there just isn’t enough description to put me in the sandals of these legendary fighting men.

That being said, it's still a useful resource, especially for secondary school students, who may find that it ties in with their coursework rather well.

3.5 out of 5 Retiarii
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