So tonight I took my daughter to see Spartacus And The Roman Legion, a live gladiatorial pageant put on at the LA Equestrian Center’s Equidome by a French historical reenactment group called Heroes Of Antiquity and a company called Histor’Event (and assisted by some American re-enactment clubs).
Saw the offer via an email from Groupon and jumped at the chance to see guys in Roman cuirasses and half armor duking it out on the sand. I’m a sucker for sword and sandal stuff, from Ben Hur to HBO’s Rome. My daughter wanted to see the cavalry horses.
Though Groupon advertised chariots and sixty combatants, I counted about thirty, representing Thracians (though they looked a bit more Celtish/Gaulish to me) and Roman legionnaires. No chariots either, just two horses. This might’ve been a miscommunication between the performers and Groupon however, as the two people taking tickets at the door had no idea what I was talking about when I sheepishly told them I hadn’t thought to print out my confirmation email since Groupon had said I could just show up with photo ID.
This is not to knock the show. It was still a one of a kind experience. Here in America we have Civil War, Medieval Times, SA Cowboy, and World War II re-enactments (even a few Revolutionary Era) by the dozen. How often do you get to see Roman soldiers and gladiators clash?
I’m a huge fan of history as any of my readers know, and I’ve been mulling around a story centering on gladiators and ancient Rome for about a year and a half now, so as I said, I leapt at the chance to see re-enactors in action. There’s something about watching the stuff actually being used that you don’t get from watching movies or reading histories. The clatter and clank of the armor, the swords on the shields, way people move and react. The gear was pretty authentic as you can see by the photos.
The first half of the show was a sort of pageant or play loosely retelling the history of the actual Spartacus (one of my favorite historical personages), from his capture and enslavement in Thrace, through his insurrection, and at last to his final battle. After the death of Spartacus and his followers at the hands of Crassus’ legion, a guy dressed as Charon came out and ushered the slain to the Underworld. Spartacus refused to go, and so was cursed to return two hundred years later during the reign of Commodus as a gladiator once more. The segue to the second half was admittedly a bit goofy, but it was in the tradition of Roman entertainment and I was willing to go with it.
Now at this point let me say that the sun had gone down (this being an hour and a half program), and the temperature in the Griffith Park foothills had definitely dropped to the high thirties. The Equidome is covered, but open air, so it was C-O-L-D in them thar hills. And these guys were dressed in period, meaning little more than loincloths for the gladiators.
Now when the guy playing Spartacus was killed and condemned to sleep for two hundred years, he was laid out in the sand and covered with a sheet (and I mean of pillowcase consistency) while everybody else left the field. What followed was a fifteen minute (more like twenty) intermission while people got up to use the bathroom and grab tacos and soda.
In the meantime, Spartacus remained on the field.
My buddy took my daughter to the concession stand and I sat there watching this guy laying in the center of the damp sand, in a loincloth, under a thin sheet.
Now the writer/romantic/what-have-you is gonna come out and say that my thoughts sort of went to the historical Spartacus, how little was actually known about this guy who had broken free of slavery and used the skills taught to him by his masters to cause all of Rome to quake. After Spartacus and his fellow gladiators escaped their school at Capua, he turned his men into an army and raided Roman country homes, freeing slaves wherever he found them, arming them, and thus swelling his own ranks, until the Senate itself was convening specifically to discuss how to deal with him, fearing he would set his sights on Rome itself. It’s really an inspirational story (and actually did inspire the abolitionist John Brown to attempt a similar feat in the 1850’s against the African chattel slavery institution), and a testament to the kind of strength an individual can summon, such that his name lives on centuries after even the grandchildren of anyone who actually ever knew him have turned to dust.
I don’t know if the guy portraying Spartacus has as high an opinion of his alter-ego, but I got the feeling he did, because he lay there in exactly the same posture (in thirty degree weather in a loincloth, I remind you), unmoving, for the entire intermission.
That took dedication.
You will never catch me playing the asshole American card and denigrating the guts of a Frenchman ever again, that I swear.
The second half of the show was much more enjoyable. The announcer claimed the outcomes of the subsequent combats were not predetermined, and I can believe it, since Spartacus, outfitted in my favorite gladiator gear, that of the trident and net (or retiarius) wound up losing to a Thracian gladiator. Audience participation was encouraged. Before hand we were given tissues, and after each combat were instructed in the traditional ‘live or die’ signals (waving the tissue called for the loser to be spared, whereas a sort of knife hand gesture meant death) to influence the decision of Emperor Commodus (seated in a canopied area of the arena).
I have read that the horse duel (said to be between two young men from disapproving, wealthy families) with spears was choreographed, but when the weapons and shields were ditched it became a sort of galloping bare knuckle brawl, with each man trying to wrestle the other from the saddle, and looked pretty dang dangerous for horse and rider alike. If it was staged, it was very well done.
After the show, the participants were good enough to stick around and take pictures with all and sundry, so I and my buddy snapped a few, including one of my daughter and Charon and a lady legionnaire that just impressed the hell out of her (and let her hold her gladius, which to Nolie, was a delight).
All in all, it was a fun spectacle. The first half is just a bit disorganized, but for me, it was worth it to see these professionals in action. These weren’t pudgy goat-bearded history buffs imitating Rebel yells and burning through Pyrite (and don’t get me wrong, I like watching those guys too), but real athletes, diving from horseback (and riding hands free), flipping over each other, rolling under sword swings, smashing shields together, and appearing to have a heck of a good time.
I read a bit on the troupe that put the show together (here), and apparently they have a large scale to do annually in Nimes, France, where they also maintain a modern day gladiator school. I believe this was their first American outing (and understandably smaller in scope). Attendance Saturday night was admittedly pretty sparse, so if you’re in the LA area, I urge you to attend the Sunday performance.
Give these guys a reason to come back to the USA, cause next time it’ll be a bigger show and it’s better than sitting home on your butt watching TV.
Here’s the Youtube channel of the company behind the show, where you can see videos of the action.
Check ’em out, LA!