Book Review of Fik Meijer, the Gladiators

Fik Meijer, The Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport, trans. Liz Waters (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), xviii+267 pages. I must admit that the gaudy cover of this book was off-putting at first glance. I picked it up at a variety store in an airport terminal and frankly, I thought it looked somewhat hokey. A quick perusal of the book, though, soon convinced me otherwise. And as I read it over the next few days I realized that this 2003 work by Dutch historian Fik Meijer is a gem. The very fact that the topic of gladiators is of perennial interest provides space for Meijer to argue that the modern West is as deeply fascinated by violence as Rome ever was.[1]

He first explains how the bloodiest “sport” in history evolved to become a key aspect of Roman society. Details regarding the lives of the gladiators—everything from the various types of gladiators who fought in the arena to the financial details of the shows—and the building of the Colosseum in Rome (the most spectacular of over 200 such amphitheatres in the Roman world by the third century a.d.) are then given in a lively prose style that is at once informative and fascinating reading.

The chapter “A Day at the Colosseum” brilliantly recreates what it would have been like to have attended one of the shows for a day of bloody and brutal entertainment. Although I have read the accounts of Christian martyrs for a good number of years now, I was completely unaware that their deaths would have taken place during what Meijer terms the lunchtime interval between the morning programme when there would have been animal fights and the afternoon “attraction” of the main gladiatorial fights (p.147-159). Meijer actually draws on the North African theologian Tertullian (fl.190-220) for some of his information, citing the second-century author more than half a dozen times.

Three final chapters deal with sea battles, the burials of slain gladiators and the end of the gladiatorial shows. Although Constantine issued legislation abolishing the shows in 325 a.d., it was not until the fourth decade of the following century that the shows finally ended.

All in all this is an excellent work and helps students of the Ancient Church understand in part why that ecclesial tradition, reacting against the violence of their world, was so solidly committed to non-violence.

[1] See pages 1-12, and his brief reviews of the movies Spartacus (1960) and Gladiator (2000) (p.220-231) as proof.