Gladiators – The Rock Stars of the Roman Era

Christina here. As I mentioned in my last post, the hero of my new dual time story SHADOWS IN THE ASHES is a gladiator, a word that evokes images of extreme violence and gory death in vast amphitheatres during Roman times. Most of them died young, with the audience baying for their blood, but I was fascinated to discover that those who survived for any length of time could become famous and feted like rock stars! (Women, in particular, seem to have been huge fans!) They feature in mosaics and on items like vases, and were clearly very popular, but what were their lives really like?


Gladiatorial games were put on as entertainment for the masses. They were usually paid for by one of the local magistrates or councillors of the town, who were rich enough to afford to sponsor them. He was called the editor. This was expensive indeed, as not only did they have to pay the lanista (the owner and trainer of gladiators) for use of his troupe, but they also had to provide prize money for those who won, and hire musicians and other entertainers as well. If you’re interested in reading more about how the tradition of gladiatorial games started, have a look at this fascinating article Wench Anne kindly found for me here.

The games usually started in the morning with a procession into the arena – the organiser/sponsor, local magistrates, the gladiators, animal hunters and musicians took part. Musicians performed first, then it was time for the venationes – wild animal hunts, although it was more than that. It could be animals being hunted, animals fighting each other, or others trained to perform in some way. Obviously, the more exotic, the better. This could be followed by acrobats and other entertainers. Around lunchtime (when some people had gone off to eat lunch), public executions were held. They were often done in the cruellest possible ways, not just straightforward killing. Then finally it was time for the gladiatorial bouts.

Gladiators were mostly slaves or criminals, but there were the occasional free men who chose to become one in the hope of fame and fortune. They were owned by the lanista and had to sign contracts for a certain period of time, and the terms were harsh. Living together in caserma (barracks), they trained daily and were given plenty of food. Mostly they ate a lot of carbohydrates to make them strong and muscular. There were physicians and masseurs on hand to keep them fit and healthy. However, they could be severely punished – put in shackles, whipped or branded – and had no choice about whether to fight or not.

Each gladiator was given a role to play – the audience expected entertainment, and it was more fun for them if the combatants were mismatched. There were therefore different kinds of gladiator with various types of armour and weapons, some very strange indeed to make them seem barbaric. It was never an equal pairing and the lanista had to come up with the most exciting combinations. For example, the murmillo fought with a short sword and carried a large rectangular shield, the hoplomachus fought with a 6ft long spear and carried a round shield, while the retiarius had no shield, just a circular fishing net and a long trident. The spectators would have known exactly what each one was and what they could do. It might seem as though a man with a trident and a net should be easy to beat by a gladiator with a sword and shield, but if he could get the sword entangled in the net, the tables were turned. They fought in pairs, always matched for maximum entertainment value.

Gladiators fought barefoot, to give them better grip in the sand the arena was covered with. They were commonly dressed in just a loincloth, often vividly coloured ones, as well as armour and sometimes leather or quilted padding. The armour worn by some of them was quite heavy – greaves (leg protection), arm protectors and bronze helmets of various kinds weighing between 6-15 lbs. I saw examples of helmets in a museum in Naples and they looked extremely heavy and uncomfortable, especially if the fights were taking place during the hot summer months. The retiarius was usually bare-headed, and the men chosen for this role were often the most handsome ones, which made them great favourites with the ladies. Some had quite a fan club!

Each time they won, they were given a prize – could be coins or precious stones – and a palm leaf to signify victory. If they lost a bout, they had to throw down their shield and raise their left arm in surrender, then wait for the editor’s verdict. He had the power to decide whether the man should die or if he’d fought bravely enough to live to see another day. The audience would add their opinion, shouting ‘mitte’ (mercy) if they wanted him to be given mercy, or ‘iugula’ (kill him) if they thought he should be killed. They were obviously a blood-thirsty lot and it’s difficult for us these days to imagine this as entertainment.

To enter the amphitheatre in Pompeii, you pass through a dark tunnel paved with basalt blocks that slopes downwards. As I walked through that into the vast arena, I could imagine what it must have felt like for those men who would be fully aware that they might never get out of there alive. The noise would have been deafening. The crowd – and there is seating for up to 15,000 people in three tiers – would have egged them on to feats of courage. And they could also have boo-ed if they didn’t like what they were seeing. How thoroughly demoralising!

Training a gladiator for peak performance took time and money, and the owner would obviously have been reluctant to have his best men killed. It would also cost the editor more if someone died because he had to pay for the value of the lost gladiator. So there was probably some collusion between the lanista and the sponsor to make sure not too many died. I have read about gladiators who survived as many as 50 bouts, and who were buried in rich tombs. If you were an excellent fighter, it was clearly possible to survive and do well, perhaps even gain your freedom eventually. My hero, Raedwald, is more realistic, however, and decides to try and free himself. He has no idea that he might get help from a very unlikely quarter – a slumbering volcano!

We obviously wouldn’t consider gladiatorial games as entertainment these days – what’s your favourite kind of entertainment?


Shadows in the Ashes

Christina here, and I’m very excited because tomorrow it’s publication day at last for my new dual time novel SHADOWS IN THE ASHES! It is set partly in Roman times, in Pompeii 79 AD, just before and during the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This event really fired my imagination and I’ve wanted to use it in a story for quite some time. It was also a great excuse to finally visit the ruins of the city and the surrounding area in the Bay of Naples – you can read my blog post about that here if you haven’t seen it already.

I’ve been writing about Vikings for quite a while now, so it was great fun to switch to another era for a while. But I didn’t go completely Roman as Raedwald, the hero of the story, is a ‘barbarian’ from Frisia (north-western Netherlands), who has been captured and enslaved. He eventually ends up as a gladiator, and is plotting to regain his freedom, as well as revenge on the younger half-brother and step-mother who betrayed him. Was it possible for slaves to escape? Ordinarily, it would have been very difficult, but with a volcano covering your tracks – quite literally – I figured anything could happen!

The heroine in the present also longs to escape, but in a different way. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage, held hostage by the fact that she has a three-year-old daughter whom her husband wouldn’t hesitate to use as leverage against her. Domestic abuse, both mental and physical, is unfortunately all too common, and it was a subject I wanted to highlight. It takes great courage and determination to break free from a relationship like that!

Here’s the blurb to tell you what SHADOWS IN THE ASHES is about:-

Can you forge a new path from the ashes of your old life?

Present Day – Finally escaping an abusive marriage, Caterina Rossi takes her three-year-old daughter and flees to Italy. There she’s drawn to research scientist Connor, who needs her translation help for his work on volcanology. Together they visit the ruins of Pompeii and, standing where Mount Vesuvius unleashed its fire on the city centuries before, Cat begins to see startling visions. Visions that appear to come from the antique bracelet handed down through her family’s generations…

AD 79 – Sold by his half-brother and enslaved as a gladiator in Roman Pompeii, Raedwald dreams only of surviving each fight, making the coin needed to return to his homeland and taking his revenge. That is, until he is hired to guard beautiful Aemilia. As their forbidden love grows, Raedwald’s dreams shift like the ever more violent tremors of the earth beneath his feet.

The present starts eerily to mirror the past as Cat must fight to protect her safety, and to forge a new path from the ashes of her old life…

And here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the story when the heroine in the present begins to realise that perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for her on the horizon:-

North London, 10 April 2022

‘You really should leave him, you know.’

The quiet voice coming from across the hedge made Cat jump, and she forgot to cover her face as she swung round to see who was talking to her. Her neighbour, Suzanne, a woman in her late fifties or early sixties, was peering over the clipped yew. Her expression of quiet compassion turned into one of concern when she caught sight of Cat’s rapidly swelling eye and cheek.

‘The utter bastard!’ she hissed. ‘Honestly, what is it that makes some men think they can act however they like?’

‘No, no, I . . . tripped. It was my own fault,’ Cat whispered, putting up a hand to protect her face from view. ‘Really, it was nothing.’

She’d had worse, but she’d never admit that, especially not to the only person in the neighbourhood who ever talked to her. They’d chatted occasionally across the fence, just small talk about the weather and such, but it made Cat feel slightly less isolated.

‘Hmm.’ The non-committal noise conveyed the woman’s scepticism, and Cat cringed inwardly.

How had it come to this? Why was she lying to protect a man who mistreated her? But she had no choice if she wanted to keep Bella from harm. If she wanted to keep her, full stop. So far, he had never hurt their daughter, but should she try to divorce him, he would be given shared custody of the little girl. Knowing him, he would use that to torment Cat endlessly. Perhaps even turn the child against her through bribery and lies as she grew up. She simply couldn’t risk it.

‘I’d better go inside. If I put some ice on it, the swelling will soon go down.’ She turned away, wanting nothing more than to escape now. The embarrassment of being caught looking like this was more than she could bear.

‘No, wait! Please, let me take a photo. It might help … one day, when you’re ready to walk away. And I’d be happy to testify on your behalf any time you need me.’ Suzanne shrugged and gesticulated towards their adjoining semi-detached properties, modern and purpose-built. ‘These houses weren’t made with thick walls, so I’m afraid I hear a thing or two …’

Cat swallowed hard. This was getting worse and worse. ‘Oh God,’ she muttered, but then a small spark of defiance lit up inside her and she turned back towards Suzanne, lifting her chin a fraction.

‘OK, then, take a photo if you want, but I doubt I’ll use it. I can’t. My daughter …’

Suzanne snapped a couple of quick pictures with her phone camera and nodded in sympathy. ‘I understand. What’s her name again? I’ve seen you with her in the garden, of course.’

‘Isabel, but we call her Bella. She’s, um, named after her grandmother, so we don’t want to confuse the two.’

She shuddered at the thought, and sincerely hoped her daughter would be nothing like her mother-in-law when she grew up. The woman was as cold as a hoar frost; a control freak who had raised her son with an iron fist. It was no wonder Derek thought violence was acceptable, really, although it was still no excuse. From what Cat had gathered, he’d been subjected to corporal punishment from an early age. He had been just ten when his father had died, and from that moment on his mother had expected him to ‘be a man’. No excessive emotions allowed. No weakness either. In fact, she’d done a fine job of turning him into an insensitive brute. It was a shame Cat hadn’t realised that until it was too late.

Suzanne put her phone in her pocket. ‘Now, please, will you do me a favour? Whenever something like this happens, come out here and call for me and I’ll take a photo. I’m usually in the kitchen or living room, so I’ll hear you. I’ll download the photos to my computer and date them, then if you ever want to, er … break free, I’ll send them to you. Deal?’

She held out her hand across the low hedge and Cat felt compelled to shake it. There was something firm and reassuring in Suzanne’s grip, giving her a tiny spark of encouragement. And an even smaller flicker of hope.

‘Deal,’ she whispered.

‘And just in case you were wondering, you’re not alone. I was in a similar situation some years back. It might feel hopeless right now, but it is possible to get away, trust me.’

Cat blinked away a sudden rush of tears. She’d probably never have the courage to leave Derek, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared. Perhaps she could do it. Break free. One day. But not just yet.

‘OK,’ she murmured. ‘Th- thank you, Suzanne.’

I enjoyed switching eras and writing about the Romans. Is there a period in history you would like to learn more about?

Please leave a comment below for a chance to win a giveaway – a signed copy of the book and a small Roman reproduction coin pendant.

(SHADOWS IN THE ASHES buy link:- )

Nicola on the Grand Tour!

Giovanni_Paolo_Panini_-_Interior_of_the_Pantheon _Rome_-_Google_Art_ProjectNicola here. Back in the 18th century it was considered part of a gentleman’s education to take the “Grand Tour,” a trip through Europe with Italy as the main destination. The young, upper-class man of means and rank would set out, accompanied by a long-suffering tutor or family member, on this educational rite of passage and would return home supposedly with a greater understanding of classical culture and often with some works of art tucked under their arm.  The phrase “bear-leader” that you come across in Georgette Heyer originated with the poor tutor/chaperon/guardian who had to try to keep the youth out of trouble and instill some knowledge in him!

With the advent of mass tourism in the nineteenth century, these itineraries were opened up to the rest of us; women, families and those without a title (!) who would take a guide book along rather than a tutor. So, when we (my husband and I, to quote the late Queen) planned a holiday to Italy to see the Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we decided to take in at least a few other elements of the Grand Tour on our way – a journey through the Alps, some shopping in Milan and a stopover in Paris!

Read more

Italian Inspiration – Part 2

HerculaneumChristina here with Part 2 of my Italian adventures.

Having visited Pompeii, of course I also had to go to Herculaneum. It’s a nearby town that was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD at the same time as Pompeii, and I’d been told that most people nowadays find it more impressive. This is because it is much better preserved, with a lot of the upper storeys of the houses still intact, and the paintings on the walls in situ. I’m afraid I have to disagree though.

H streetDon’t get me wrong – I loved Herculaneum too, it's a fabulous place! Walking around its narrow streets in the Italian sunshine made me feel as though I had travelled back in time 2000 years. The houses were beautiful and gave me a lot more details for the story I’m planning, and I can see why people would prefer it to Pompeii. But to me, the latter was more poignant because it’s so big and the scale of the tragedy that occurred there just hit me in the gut. I can’t explain it, but that’s how I felt.

Read more

Italian Inspiration – Part 1

Christina here and as I was lucky enough to go to Italy recently, it’s time for some more armchair travelling. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey as much as I did, albeit vicariously!

VesuviusI was a little girl the first time I heard about Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This tragic event really stuck in my mind and ever since then, I’ve wanted to go there, but I never had the opportunity until two weeks ago when my dream finally came true. Sometimes, when you’ve wished for something for a very long time, it turns out to be a disappointment. Not Pompeii though, or any of the other sites we visited! I was enchanted.

BTW, this wasn’t just a pleasure jaunt, it was for research purposes. For a while now, I’ve had a timeslip/dual time story brewing in my mind set against the backdrop of Vesuvius’ eruption. I’d already done quite a bit of reading on the subject, but there is only so much you can do with facts on a page. Actually visiting a place is invaluable, and so my husband and I set out on our fascinating journey.

Read more