October 15, 1998
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Lions and Tigers and Gladiators

Classics professor investigates spectacles of the Roman Colosseum

By Ken Gewertz

Gazette Staff

Kathleen Coleman knows what it's like to be thrown to the lions. She also knows about hacking opponents to death with a short sword, impaling them with a spear, and rendering them helpless by entangling them in a net.

She acquired much of this knowledge through editing a collection of Latin epigrams, Liber Spectaculorum or The Book of Spectacles, by the first-century A.D. poet Martial.

The collection, which survives only in fragments, commemorates the opening of the Roman Colosseum in A.D. 80, an event of unprecedented pomp and extravagance that mesmerized the city's population for 100 days. In his verse narrative, Martial describes some of the highlights of the occasion -- encounters between professional gladiators, a mock sea battle, and a fight between a rhinoceros and a bull. All the descriptions are laced with extravagant praise for the emperor Titus, who built the Colosseum and sponsored its gala inauguration.

Liber Spectaculorum is not considered typical of Martial's work. He is better known for the satiric strain in his later epigrams. But as a cultural and historical document, this early collection is unparalleled, which is precisely why Coleman is interested in it.

"It's a tremendously important window into the mentalité of the era," she said. "We only have about 200 lines, and we have no way of knowing how long the original was, but it's the only surviving vestige of an epigrammatic collection commemorating a specific public event. We assume that it was one of many such works that were written at the time because this sort of thing was what poets were trained to do."

Coleman was appointed professor of Latin in the Classics Department, effective July 1. As a classicist, she is known for her ability to integrate findings from archaeology, art history, Roman law, and literary texts, and out of these varied fragments of a long-vanished civilization to generate insights that make that world come alive.

"Her published work shows an active engagement with texts, and with the problems and issues that reside in those texts," said Gregory Nagy, the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature.

"I must stress the complexity and comprehensiveness of the research and training required for this kind of research. Professor Coleman is clearly in a position to do just that. She is a world-class authority in Flavian-era literature, history, and archaeology."

Coleman's work on Martial reveals many unexpected and bizarre aspects of the Roman spectacles, but the real value of her investigations is to throw a stronger and more penetrating light on Roman society in general.

Her work on gladiatorial combat, for example, shows that Roman audiences appeared to be more interested in seeing skilled, evenly matched fighters than they were in viewing simple carnage. Gladiators were highly trained specialists who usually confined themselves to one fighting style. Even women are known to have engaged in professional combat.

Performing no more than two or three times a year, gladiators often would be matched with opponents of comparable skill but equipped differently from themselves. A lightly armed but highly mobile retiarius, for example, using only a trident and a net, might be matched with a much more heavily armored but slower secutor. Spectators hoped that the unique advantages of each would balance themselves out and result in a close fight.

"This was a highly professional organization," Coleman said. "You didn't go to the Colosseum to see people messing around. You went to see the most professional performance possible. And there is evidence that the spectators gambled heavily on the outcome."

In some ways, these combats were not unlike present-day championship boxing matches, but there were other events that have no parallel in our own society. Public executions were sometimes carried out as a form of entertainment, with the prisoner forced to play out a mythological role. In his poem, Martial describes how a criminal is cast in the role of Orpheus and mauled to death by a bear (a bit of poetic license since the mythological Orpheus was torn apart by maenads).

Although Martial's collection refers specifically to the Colosseum, a sort of Superbowl of Roman spectacle, it is important to remember that similar events, on a smaller scale, were taking place throughout the Roman world.

"Most people don't realize that this was happening on an Empire-wide basis, from Britain to Turkey, from the Rhine to North Africa. Every little administrative center had games, even if all they could display on any one occasion were four pairs of gladiators."

The bill for these spectacles was paid largely by wealthy private citizens. In the highly stratified Roman society, providing public entertainment was one of the ways in which the wealthy were expected to contribute to the well-being of the state. It was also one of the ways holders of public office cultivated the loyalty of their followers. In the later Empire, this custom became a liability. As the expense of holding a government position grew greater, fewer and fewer people wished to take it on. Thus the games may have eventually contributed to the Empire's decline.

This term, Coleman is teaching a course on the Roman games as well as a seminar on literature of the Flavian period. She has taught at Harvard before, as a visiting professor during the 1996-97 academic year, and that experience had a great deal to do with her decision to accept a permanent appointment.

"I found Classics here to be a particularly lively department," she said. "Both the graduate and undergraduate students are just seething with energy."

Although she finds the subject matter of Classical studies to be a source of endless fascination, she believes its true strength is its method.

"What you realize is how few facts we have about antiquity. This forces you to make connections between tiny disparate fragments. You learn to respect the silences in the record, but you also learn to listen to the whispers of these little pieces of evidence with your hearing aid, as it were, turned up to maximum volume. It's an extremely scientific area of the humanities. What we're really about is not teaching facts, but tools of analysis."

Coleman's book on Martial's Liber Spectaculorum, including an original translation of the poems, is scheduled to be published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford. She is currently working on two other books dealing with various aspects of Roman spectacles and has served as an adviser and contributor to a BBC documentary called The True Story of the Roman Arena.

She is the author of Statius Silvae IV: Text, Translation, and Commentary (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988; republished, 1998, Duckworth) and co-editor of F.R.D. Goodyear: Papers on Latin Literature (London, Duckworth, 1992). She has also published numerous articles on Roman literature and culture.

Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Coleman earned two bachelor's degrees, one from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1973 and one from the University of Rhodesia in 1975. She earned her D.Phil. from Oxford University in 1979.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College