The History Reading Room: Gladiators, Nordic Scotland, and Champing

A roundup of my favorite history-related stories I’ve clipped recently!

Gladiators: Live Fast Die Young
From BBC History Magazine’s HistoryExtra blog:
http://www.historyextra.com/article/feature/gladiators-facts-ancient-rome

Everybody has ideas about Roman gladiators.  They’re a mainstay in movies, and we all have an impression of what it would be like to have to go into a ring and fight another person to the death, surrounded by cheering fans.  In the 80’s and early 90’s I used to watch a show called American Gladiators, which tried to capitalize on this view of the powerful athletic warrior fighting his (or in this case, her) way through a series of challenges and demonstrating physical feats.  Incidentally, the TV show was resurrected a few years ago, and it’s still hugely popular on youtube.  I’m not going to admit to you how I know this.

The point is, we love gladiators.  Interestingly, we don’t have that many artifacts of the fighters themselves, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that Europeans had any objects at all with which to learn about them.  All the impressions came from ancient texts, and random inscriptions or relief carvings.

In 1993 we got an even clearer picture of the lives of gladiators when Austrian archaeologists working in Ephesus in Turkey discovered a cemetery marked by tombstones of gladiators.  The headstones gave the names of the men, and showed their equipment – helmets, shields, palm fronds of victory.  The skeletons showed their wounds and the injuries that caused their death as in the case of a skull pierced with three evenly spaced holes which had been administered through a barbed trident.

The find allowed historians to reconstruct the gladiator through the bronze armor and weaponry, including 15 helmets ornamented with mythological scenes.  Gladiators were divided into categories – each would be armed in a similar manner, with similar defensive armor, and then they were thrown together in ways designed to show a variety of forms of combat.  Each kind of equipment would have provided different kinds of protection, allowing a good gladiator to have a strategy of which spots were vulnerable in his opponent.

All gladiators wore at least a loincloth and belt.  Some were heavily armed with leg guards and bronze greaves strapped over their legs.  Each carried a small shield which was a different shape depending on the type of sword or spear that would be carried.  The heavily armed ones also wore heavy bronze helmets with broad rims and face guards with low visibility.  Breathing in the helmets is difficult.  There were lots of combinations of armor including one type who only wore armor on one leg, or different types of helmets.   One type was shaped like the head of a fish because his opponent was equipped as a fisherman.

What clever people, these Romans, to think of all these types of physical combat with which to amuse, or frighten, their spectators.  Each fight had rituals and rules that would have been clearly understood by the audience, and each fight also had a referee.  Gladiator shows were also almost always produced by leading citizens to build their political base, and the walls of Pompeii are covered with painted election notices along with notices for gladiator shows.  I would love to make a comment here about how it might be more appropriate if citizens were the ones producing the gladiator shows and forcing the politicians to compete, but I’ll leave that up to the reader to infer.

While gladiators who won could be rewarded with riches and wealth, odds were that he wouldn’t live for very long to enjoy it.  In the cemetery the Austrians found, one veteran had 14 victories, but few survived more than a dozen flights.  Their skeletons show that of the 68 bodies found, 66 were males in their 20’s.  These were strong men with hard training programs, as demonstrated by the enlarged muscles in their arms and legs.  They also had a good layer of fat to protect from cuts.  Strong, healthy men who fought and killed for a living.

Often at the end of a fight, a defeated gladiator who hadn’t been killed would be forced to wait for a life or death decision as voted by either the referee or the audience.  If death was the vote, it was expected he would take it willingly, and it would be made as quickly as possible.  Accepting death in a quiet and graceful way was the epitome of virtue.

Northern Lights at John O'Groats in northern Scotland.

Northern Lights at John O’Groats in northern Scotland.

Scotland: Marketing Viking Raids as Tourism
From the NY Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/travel/scotland-viking-history.html

Vikings are getting a lot of press right now, what with Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and other nordic-related shows becoming so popular.  Scotland is embarking on a tourism campaign to capitalize on that popularity, embracing their Nordic links, and inviting people to explore their own unique Viking history.

During the bid for Scottish independence last year, the talk was all about how Scotland has more in common with Nordic countries than with England, and that those similarities – small size, environmental awareness, oil reserves – would lead to its success on its own.  Now there is a consulting firm that helps businesses capitalize on their Nordic roots, including food made from the same ingredients you’d find in Oslo.

Northern Scotland is much closer to Norway than it is to London, with Northern Lights and Scandinavian-style architecture in places like John O’Groats enticing visitors to come and experience the nordic side of the British isles.  The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has a section on Viking invasions, which began in the 8th century and are recorded in the chronicles of monks as they document the pillaging invaders making their way through the Highlands.  In the museum they display the softer side of the Vikings showing jewelry and tools, and demonstrating how many Vikings set down roots in Scotland and engaged in agriculture and family life.  Of course this isn’t unique to Scotland – By the time of the Norman Invasion, the blood of the Anglo-Saxons was mixed with that of the Vikings.  And anyway, Normans were just a different branch of Viking: Norman comes from the word Norsemen or Northmen – ie Vikings.

Northern England especially shows the evidence of the Vikings settling down rather than just raiding.  Old English and Old Norse both developed out of the same roots, and are still in use today.  For example, Old English had several words for “child” including cild and bearn.  The common Old Norse word for child was barn.  In the souther parts of Britain that repelled the vikings, child has become the main word.  But in northern England, people still call a child “bairn”.   We also see the Norse impression on places – for example the Old Norse addition of “beck” to a place from “bekkr” meaning brook, for example, Birbeck.  English is full of these Norse additions, showing just how fully they integrated inso society.  There’s a great book by Melvyn Bragg called The Adventure of English which I highly recommend if this is at all interesting to you.

Champing at West Stourmouth

Champing at West Stourmouth

Instead of Airbnb, go Champing!
From the Telegraph travel section
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/11654657/Churches-the-new-Airbnb-as-champing-proves-popular.html

This is something I love.  Churches opening their doors and letting travelers sleep in them at night.  Imagine spending the night in an ancient dark church, potentially haunted, the same way travelers for centuries have been finding hospitality in churches and monasteries.  I am a fan of this idea.

The Churches Conservation Trust began offering guests the chance to sleep in a Grade I or Grade II listed church for the 2015 camping season, with three available to choose from.

“Guests enjoy a two-day break, including one candlelit night at the church of their choice. Whilst the ‘champers’ are free to roam the historic buildings and the surrounding countryside, the Churches Conservation Trust can also arrange activities such as canoeing and yoga.”

The cost is about £60 per person per night, and in the FAQ they outline what’s included.  There are no shower facilities, but guests normally just stay for a night, so it’s not a big deal.   There aren’t really toilets, but they can do a porta-potty in the vestry.  Breakfast is included, and is generally a hamper delivered, or breakfast at the local pub.  You have exclusive use of the church while you’re there, and dogs are allowed.  Two of the three churches even have phone charging outlets.  Kids under 10 are free with a small cost added for breakfast.

Seriously, this sounds like an amazing opportunity, and though it’s over for this season, I’m going to definitely start thinking about next year.  What an amazing opportunity, to spend a night all to yourself in this old building filled with history!

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