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Thread: Coliseum the Games

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    Coliseum the Games


    Those about to die salute you. Daniel P Mannix.

    By 50 B.C. the exhibitions were rough enough, heaven knows that they ere still fairly well controlled, and on a comparatively modest scale. But in 46 B.C., a victorious general named Julius Caesar political ambitions arrived in Rome. In spite of his triumphs, Julius was in the doghouse both with the Senate and with the people. They suspected him of wanting to be a dictator. Cicero warned him, “You are only a dwarf tied to a long sword. You have the Army but the people will never tolerate you.”

    Caesar smiled. “Sulla, the dictator, tried to subdue the people by force and failed. I have other plans.”

    Caesar knew the Roman mob. He put on the first of the really big shows in Roman history, rebuilding the Circus Maximus to hold them. There was a hunt of four hundred lions, fights between elephants and infantry, evening parades of elephants carrying lighted torches in their trunks, bull fighting by mounted Thessalians and the first giraffes ever seen in Rome ( Cleopatra sent him the giraffes as a present ). The chariot races alone last ten days, from dawn to dark. There were also gladiatorial combats – how many isn’t recorded but the senators were so horrified that they passed a law limiting the number of gladiators any one man could own to three hundred and twenty pairs. Caesar may have had a couple of thousand – practically a small army. He used them as bodyguards when they weren’t fighting in the arena.

    The law limiting the ownership of gladiators didn’t last long. The people went mad over these big games and didn’t care if Caesar became a dictator or not as long as kept them amused. But by now, a number of prominent men felt that the games were getting to be a danger. ‘The people would elect anyone to office who gave them a good show.’ A group of wealthy men decided to give the public more educational entertainment. They hired a troupe of famous Greek actors to perform some of the great classical plays. In the middle of the first performance, a man rushed into the theatre to say that some gladiators were fighting in the circus. In ten minutes the Greek actors were playing to an empty house. After that the performers gave up.

    Although Caesar had staged the games simply as a popularity getter, they gave him an idea. He said to Dolabella one of his top advisers, “This is a perfect way to try out our new weapons and fighting techniques. Our Legions will be fighting tribes from all over the world. Lets pit captives from different tribes against each other, each using his own weapons.”

    This opened up a whole new era in the games. Not just a few professional gladiators fought but whole battles were staged. Tattooed Britons fighting from chariots went out against German tribesmen; African Negroes with shields and spears took on Arabs fighting from horseback with bows and arrows. Thracians who used scimitars and had little rough shields on their left wrist engaged the heavily armoured Samnites. Once the entire arena was planted to resemble a forest, and a company of legionaires, condemned to the circus for various military misdemeanours, had to march through it while Gauls in their native costume and with their native weapons ambushed them. An engagement was staged between war elephants and cavalry to get the horses accustomed to the big animals. Meanwhile Caesar and his general staff sat in the imperial box and took notes. The winning side was generally given its freedom, which ensured a good fight.

    Julius Caesar might be called the father of the games because under him they ceased to be an occasional exhibition of fairly modest proportions and became a national institution. By the time of Augustus, the people regarded the games not as a luxury but as their right. Under the old Republic, the games lasted for sixteen days; fourteen chariot races, two trials for horses, and forty-eight theatricals. By the time of Claudius ( 50 A.D. ) there were ninety-three a year. This number was gradually increased to a hundred and twenty three under Trajan and to two hundred and thirty under Marcus Aurelius. Eventually there were games of some kind or other going on all the time. In 248 A.D. the crowd didn’t go to bed for three days and nights. Augustus and several of the other emperors tried to limit the number, but it always produced mob uprisings. Marcus Aurelius disliked the games but in his official capacity had to attend like a president opening the baseball season by throwing out the first ball. He used to sit in the royal box and dictate letters to his secretaries while the games were going on. The mob never forgave him, any more than a modern crowd would forgave a president who sat transacting official business with the bases loaded and Micky Mantle at bat. Marcus Aurelius was one of the best emperors Rome ever had, but as a result of his contempt for the games, he was one of the most unpopular.

    Claudius, who was probably insane, was very popular. He loved the games and used to make a great point of pretending to add up the betting odds on his fingers ( although he was an excellent mathematician ) as did the crowd. He also used to jump into the arena to berate the gladiator’s chances, and tell dirty jokes. Both Caligula and Nero, probably the two worse rulers in history, were greatly mourned by the crowd because they always put on such magnificent games. Nero who used to light the arena at night by crucifying Christians and then setting fire to their oil-soaked bodies, was especially beloved. Even after he was forced to kill himself by the Praetorian Guard, the people refused to believe that he was dead. For years, opportunists kept cropping up, claiming to be Nero, and always got a following of people who remembered what wonderful games the insane emperor had provided.

    P37 - 39
    Little since could ever compare with the Circus.

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    Naumachia / naval battles


    Naumachia / naval battles


    The demand of the crowd, not only for bigger and better games, but also for novelties, kept increasing, and the government was hard put to it not only to provide elaborate enough spectacles but also to think up new displays. Possibly the most elaborate demonstrations of all were the naumachia or naval combats. Julius Caesar originated these displays in 46 B.C., digging a special lake in Mars’ Field on the outskirts of Rome for the show. Sixteen galleys manned by four thousand rowers and two thousand fighting men fought to the finish. This spectacle was later surpassed by Augustus in 2 B.C. He had a permanent lake built for these fights, measuring 600 metres long by 400 metres wide, on the far side of the Tiber river. Marble stands were constructed around the lake for the crowd. Traces of this gigantic construction project still remain. One engagement was between two fleets of twelve ships, each with crews of three thousand men ( beside the rowers ), to commemorate the Battle of Salamis. The men on the opposing fleet were dressed like Greeks and Persians. Later, Titus gave a naumachia on a lake that could be planked over. On the first day gladiators fought on the planking. On the second, there were chariot races. On the third, the planking was removed and a sea fight took place, in which 3,000 men were engaged.

    The greatest naumachia of all time was, the naval engagement staged by Claudius. As Augustus’ lake was too small, the mad emperor decided to use the Fucine Lake ( now called the Lago di Fucino ) some sixty miles east of Rome. This lake had no natural outlet and in the spring it often flooded many miles of surrounding countryside. To overcome this trouble, a tunnel three and a half miles long had been cut through solid rock from the lake to the Litis river to carry of the surplus water. This job had taken thirty thousand men eleven years to finish. For the dedication of the opening of this tunnel, Claudius decided to stage a fight between two navies on the lake. The galleys previously used in such engagements had been small craft with only one bank of oars. For this fight there to be twenty-four triremes ( three banks of oars ), all regulation ocean-going warships – and twenty-six biremes ( double bank ). This armada was divided into two fleets of twenty-five ships each and manned by nineteen hundred criminals under the command of two famous gladiators. One fleet was to represent the Rhodians and the other the Sicilians, and both wore the appropriate costumes.

    Nineteen hundred desperate and well armed men could be a dangerous force if they decided to band together and turn against the crowd, so the lake was surrounded by heavily armed troops. In addition ,a number of regiments were put on rafts equipped with catapults so that they could sink the galleys if necessary. The hills around the lake formed a natural amphitheatre and on the morning of the fight the slopes were covered with over 500,000 spectators. As the lake was several hours’ trip from Rome, the crowd brought their lunches and picnicked while watching the fight.


    Fortunately it turned out to be a nice day. As the lake was nearly two hundred square miles in size, the fight was restricted to the south western section, the rafts being lashed together to form a semicircle across the lake and mark the limits of manoeuvring. The emperor Claudius sat on a specially prepared dais in a superb suit of golden armour covered with a golden cloak, while the Queen Mother Agrippina, in a mantle of cloth of gold, sat beside him. In addition to the infantry surrounding the lake, there was also a detachment of cavalry mounted on magnificent Sicilian steeds drawn up behind the royal family. In order to handle the mob, the slopes had been divided into sections, each section under the care of a magistrate. A big tent had even been put to care for the wounded after the battle – after all, prisoners were scarce and the survivors could always be used again in other spectacles. As matters turned out the tent served another purpose. Fifteen women in the crowd gave birth during the fight and had to be cared for in the tent. It is an interesting example of the mob’s passion for these fights that women in the advanced pregnancy travelled sixty miles from Rome so as not to miss the naumachia.

    The signal for the onslaught was given by a silver Triton that rose from the lake and blew on a golden conch shell. This mechanical contrivance must have taken some doing, but it was nothing to many of the tricks the Romans were able to dream up. If they expended the same amount of skill and ingenuity in improving their weapons, Rome might never have fallen. At the conch shell signal, the two fleets approached the royal dias: drums beating, trumpets blowing and the crews saluting with their weapons.

    The triremes were about 33 metre long, each equipped with an iron beak or ram in the bow. In the bow was reared up a long beam with a spike on one end and the other end fastened to the foredeck by a heavy hinge. This was the corvus or ‘crow.’ When the corvus was dropped on an opposing galley, the spike sank into wood and held the two ships together. It could then be used as a gangplank for boarders. The ships carried a single square sail which was effective only if the wind was dead stern. Julius Caesar’s records show how astonished he was when he saw the Venetii ships tack but for some reason or other it never occurred to the Romans that this manoeuvre might be handy for a sailing ship and they never changed their galley-rig.

    As a result the galleys depended almost entirely upon their oars. The rowers were not in the holds of the galleys but sat on a sort of superstructure projecting over the ships’ sides. This was to give the men greater leverage with the oars, for moving one of those big ships even with fifty rowers must have been a tough job. There was one man to an oar and they sat at different levels so that the oar blades wouldn’t interfere with each other. In the stern sat a man who gave the rowers the time with a drum and two overseers with whips walked up and down platforms running fore and aft to make sure everyone was doing his best. The ships were built long and narrow for speed and were very unseaworthy craft, although they were ideal for a battle on a lake. They were almost identical with Greek galleys of a thousand years before. All the Romans added, except for the corvus, were foot ropes for the men to stand on while reefing the sail, and shrouds so they could climb the mast. The Greeks had to use a ladder.

    The combined fleets passed in review and as they came within hearing distance of the royal dais, the men gave the traditional cry of “Hail Caesar, we who are about to die greet thee!” Claudius shouted back gaily, “That depends on you my friends,” meaning that if a man put up a good fight he wouldn’t be killed. However, the crowd yelled, “Good Caesar! If it depended on us, we won’t bother to fight.” Then the two fleets sailed away together, the crews shouting congratulations to each other.

    The mob howled protest and Claudius, jumping off his throne, ran down to the shore, yelling insults at the crews and swearing to have the soldiers set fire to the ships and burn them alive if they didn’t fight. Claudius was crippled ( he may have been a polio victim ) and was also weak in the head. He used to go into insane rages, and this was a typical one. The crowd laughed themselves sick at his antics but finally the crews got the idea and, dividing into two fleets, made ready for the battle. Agrippina led the emperor back to his throne where Claudius, seeing the crowd laugh, began to laugh too,and got hysterical.

    When the royal family got Claudius quieted down, he gave the signal for the fight by dropping his handkerchief. Instantly the war trumpets of both fleets bared out and the galleys began to move, the drummers building up the strokes as rapidly as possible, for it was of vital importance for the ships to have the maximum amount of momentum when they met.

    The galleys fought, they first tried to ram each other with the iron beaks in the prows. If this manoeuvre succeeded, the rammed galley sank within a few minutes and nothing more needed to be done. If the ramming failed then each galley tried to plough through the oars of the enemy. As the oars were forced back, the handles crushed the rowers at their benches and the disabled galley could then be rammed at leisure. If this manoeuvre also failed, then there was nothing for it but to board with the aid of the corvus and slug it out man to man.

    On the first onslaught, nine of the Rhodian galleys were sunk by ramming and three of the Sicilian. Many of the Rhodian had lost one or more banks of oars and could not manoeuvre. They managed to crowd together at one end of the lake and the Sicilian fleet surrounded them and attacked by boarding. The fight, which had started at ten in the morning, went on until three in the afternoon. The Sicilian triremes put up a desperate resistance, Tacitus saying: “The battle, though between malefactors, was fought with the spirit of brave men.” Several of the Sicilian single banked galleys, however, did their best to keep out of the fight. At last “when the surface of the lake was red with blood,” the last of the Sicilian fleet surrendered. Three thousand men were killed. The fight had been so exciting that Claudius pardoned the survivors on both sides except for the crews of the three Rhodian galleys who had been rammed, because he thought that they hadn’t charged into the fight fast enough, and the crews of the six of the Sicilian single-banked galleys who had been gold-bricking.

    This exhibition was such a success that four months later, Claudius gave another show. As he was out of fresh prisoners ( all the Roman jails had been swept clean to provide crews for the galleys ) he had to be content with a less elaborate production. This time he had a bridge on pontoons stretched across the lake, widening in the middle to a platform about a hundred metres wide. Two armies of about five thousand men each were raised from prisoners of war, newly arrived jailbirds, and slaves. One was dressed up like Etruscans and the other as Samnites. Each side was given the appropriate arms, all the Etruscan weapons having to be made especially for the event as the Etruscans had ceased to exist as a nation three hundred years before. However, some of the old Etruscans’ double-headed battle-axes and bronze lances were still in museums and these were carefully duplicated by the Roman smiths.

    While the bands played, the two armies marched across the bridge from opposite sides of the lake and met in the middle. Claudius had given orders that no one was to be allowed to swim ashore. If he fell of the bridge he had either to drown or climb right back. At first the Samnites seemed to be winning, pushing the Etruscans back and holding the wide centre part of the bridge. But the Etruscans rallied and finally drove the Samnites off the span. All the Etruscans and a few of the Samnites who had shown outstanding courage, were given their freedom.

    Those about to die salute you. Daniel P Mannix.P 39 - 44
    Today we pay the invaders phenomenal wages for kicking a ball in soccer. I could think of better ways for them to earn their keep.

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