Gladiators – Back From The Dead Review: Maximus Battles

June 13, 2010 by  
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GLADIATORS – BACK FROM THE DEAD: Monday 14th June, Channel 4, 9pm ALERT ME

Forensic anthropology has certainly gained a strong foothold in the schedules lately, having obviously proved popular with audiences. This can possibly be attributed to the field’s ability to bring history to life in a uniquely visual way, often accompanied by gripping unfolding narratives.

Gladiators: Back From The Dead explores the cruel and bloody spectacle of gladiatorial combat that epitomised the “violent soul of the Roman Empire? via an archaeological dig in York where seventy-five suspected gladiators were recently unearthed. By analysing fragments of bones from six of the reconstructed skeletons, forensic scientists slowly piece together disconnected elements in order to shed light on the lives and careers of their subjects.

One of the first skeletons to be excavated is revealed to have once been a Bestiarii (or beast fighter), a lowly class of gladiator who were not prepared for battle and were probably criminals or rebellious slaves. Pitched against wild animals varying from tigers to pumas, they often faced horrendous fates with their bodies purposefully exposed so as to allow the audience to see as much visceral violence as possible. By examining the bone structure it becomes evident they were never granted formal or intensive training with many dying before they had reached their mid-twenties.

The sinister combination of physical endurance and theatricality expected of the gladiators is best embodied by the story of the Retiarii (or net fighter), famed for their showmanship as well as their fighting ability. Audiences would have been in awe of their worked-out physique as they preened and postured across the sands of the arena. Impressively, one of the skeletons is suspected of having lasted some twenty years of fierce competition judging by the age and damage to the bones.

Incorporating computer graphics and dramatic reconstructions that borrow the aesthetics from Spartacus: Blood & Sand, the sheer scale of inhumanity imposed on these men becomes evidently clear early on in the programme. Almost half of the recovered bodies had been decapitated, leading one expert to conclude this method of death must have been a ‘York speciality’ that had pleased audiences immensely. It’s a ghoulish and foreign concept to the modern viewer that emphasises the shift in human compassion over the last two millienia.

Over one million men died in the arenas of the Roman Empire and, until the chance discovery of these skeletons in York, no complete remains had yet been found. On the basis of this fact alone, Gladiators: Back From The Dead is worth watching, if not exactly aimed at the squeamish and easily horrified.