GLADIATORS AND CAESARS
The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome
The British Museum -- 21 October 2000 - January 2001
Bread and circuses - panem et circenses - were what Romans demanded of their emperors, if we are to believe the satirist Lucian. For more than five hundred years spectacular events in amphitheatres, circuses and theatres, in an age when the multi media we now all take for granted did not exist, were the most important leisure activities of the masses throughout the Roman empire.
This exciting exhibition will look at all aspects of the entertainment industry in ancient Rome and point up many surprising modern parallels, using objects lent by European museums in addition to major pieces from the British Museum's own collections.
Individual sections will be devoted to gladiators and their fighting styles and techniques, heavy physical sports, chariot racing and the theatre, all seen from a variety of perspectives.
The exhibits range in size from a huge stone relief showing gladiatorial combat to the tiny bone discharge ticket which gave a gladiator his freedom. In between are bronze models of chariots, gladiators' tombstones, bronze and pottery figurines of gladiators and wrestlers, stone busts and statues of boxers, theatre masks of pottery and stone, a floor mosaic with a pair of gladiators, frescoes and stone reliefs showing scenes from plays and a plate with a portrait of an actor.
Lavishly ornamented gladiatorial weapons bring vividly to life the splendour and brutality of the arena, while graffiti cut into wall-plaster celebrate long-dead gladiators. Everyday objects such as oil-lamps and knife handles decorated with images of gladiators, actors and charioteers remind us that spectators then as today bought fan merchandise.
The imagery of chariot racing above all had an enduring popularity, partly because the rewards and hazards of the race-course were seen as a metaphor for life. Circus scenes are depicted on frescoes and other wall decorations as well as on the sides of richly carved sarcophagi, while a terracotta plaque records with terrifying reality the consequences of a chariot crash.
2000 years on the Roman games may seem remote in time, but their fascination continues. This exhibition will show that they mirror many features of sport today, not least in their intensity of public interest. The theme is strongly represented in films. Many people have lasting memories of 'The Robe', 'Spartacus' ( telling the story of the most famous of all gladiators, who led an uprising against Rome which symbolised the fight against slavery) and 'Ben Hur'. To explore this connection a major film programme will accompany the exhibition. There will also be an audiovisual presentation, including computer reconstructions of arenas and an extensive educational programme.
Gladiatorial games, which had Greek and Etruscan origins in funerary celebrations and religious festivals, first took place in Rome in the year 264 BC. In Rome itself public holidays, featuring magnificent and costly shows, came to occupy more than half the year. Comedies, tragedies, pantomimes and bawdy folk plays were staged in the theatres; in the arena of the Colosseum, opened in AD 80, gladiators fought in pairs or with wild animals to satisfy the blood lust of the crowd; and hundreds of thousands of race-goers packed the stands of the Circus Maximus to enjoy the thrills of chariot racing.
These shows satisfied people's need for excitement and hero-worship, just as for example football, boxing and Formula One racing does today. Fan clubs developed, bets were made, political issues were aired, the latest victories and defeats were endlessly discussed, and brawling occasionally broke out.
Politics were deeply involved. The organisation of games came to be part and parcel of electioneering in towns and cities but was increasingly used as a means to consolidate the power of the reigning emperor.
The top gladiators, charioteers and actors were folk heroes, and the power of their universal appeal was recognised and exploited by politicians and emperors such as Julius Caesar, Augustus and Nero, who used games to manipulate a sometimes volatile public, whether to pacify or reassure at times of crisis or to achieve political ends.
February 2000 6/00 Gladiators and Caesars:
The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome
For the people of ancient Rome, visits to spectacular events in the theatre, amphitheatre or circus were part of daily life. For more than 500 years gladiatorial games, chariot races and plays were the most important leisure activities of the Roman masses, satisfying their need for excitement and hero-worship. This exhibition will look at all aspects of the Roman entertainment industry and point up many surprising modern parallels, using objects lent by European museums and major pieces from the Museum's collections. Sections will be devoted to gladiators and their fighting styles, heavy physical sports, chariot racing, the theatre, and the manipulation of the games by politicians and emperors such as Julius Caesar, Augustus and Nero.
The theme is strongly represented in films, and the exhibition will be accompanied by a major film programme. dates 21 October 2000 - 21 January 2001
There will be an admission charge
location West Wing Exhibition Gallery room 28 - Thanks, Gill