Canterbury’s Very Own Gladiators

Gary Studley is currently poet-in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum.

Greetings, citizens, I salute you. Or more traditionally, welcome to Blog Eleven.

Not wishing to be too presumptuous or dare imply that you out there and I in here have any kind of relationship, but the last time I wrote to you – in Blog Ten – I touched on how museums, galleries and any kind of gathering will only really be appealing and interesting if you engage with them. No Names here, but I mentioned a guy whom, maybe through exhaustion, maybe over-indulgence, had wanted to usher the folks he was with out of the museum as quickly as possible and so didn’t exactly sell the rich experience to them or himself. Blog Ten went on to say how he was a rarity and how he had been counterbalanced by his charges whom stayed and stayed; translated and read all the information; pointed things out to each other and drew parallels between artefacts and items from their own lives. Basically embracing whole-heartedly what a museum can do for us on its usual, good day.

I read back through the blog before I submitted it to the lovely Annabelle – the poor person whom despite having to upload all my utterances still very kindly says these blogs make her laugh. In doing so, I was struck by how people react in so many different ways to the museum. It’s the same venue, the same artefacts (unless there’s a new exhibit sprung on us all with an elaborate fan-fare), the same information provided, but, depending upon what we – the visitors – bring to the table, we all experience something unique and take away something personal from our visit. In musing on this, I was reminded that during one of my recent writing sessions there had been a fantastic, hilarious incident which directly contrasted with the previously mentioned group leader, when one male of the species had engaged so much with the Roman0

Museum that he nearly did himself a serious injury (well, for the sake of this story!).

To put it into context, a few months ago I had a lively and accidental, out of no-where, chat with one of the front of house ladies, Helen. I had been describing to her (detailed in Blog Three) an incident where two British guys had gone for it, putting on tunics and having a silent fight with the wooden swords provided in the education area for the children to investigate. Helen and I – as you do – slewed sideways into talking about wrestling and in particular about an ex- colleague of hers who could – single-handedly and at will – re-enact entire wrestling bouts from the televised matches of the 1970s. I reminisced about my Saturdays deposited at my maternal grandmother’s whilst Mum and Dad shopped. How I went down the slippery stairs, through the cabbage scented kitchen, and into the tobacco haze of the front-room to watch World of Sport.

The fumes were from my Uncle Mickey – or to put it more kindly, from the pipe he puffed at deep in the corner of the room, where smoke billowed from behind one of those dark, bamboo vanity-screens, and rose to circle the light fitting overhead, as he generously but misguidedly believed it was a way of keeping us little ones nicotine free. Apart from the joy of a huge tin of broken Family Circle biscuits we kids were liberally allowed to help ourselves to, Saturday was full of adults popping in to scream at the horse racing or ‘Ssssssh’ at me or my brothers when the football results were sonorously tolled. But what Helen and I both revelled in from our different counties, houses, front rooms was the same thing – grown men in clown shoes, tiny trunks and myriads of hairstyles. Because we – like grannies everywhere – loved the wrestling.

Now, I’m not being hip and retrospectively choosing to laud Wrestling as high art. I’m not embracing this in a cool, kitsch way. And likewise, I’m not an idiot. I may not believe that every grudge match we were presented with was real. I may now know that some of the feuds that roved back and forwards across the years and our screens were so expertly choreographed they would make a West End musical look clumsy. But no-one can tell me, or Helen, or any handbag swinging fan out there, that being pole-driven into canvas, body blocked by the Union Jack mass of Big Daddy, wind-pipes crushed by 6ft 11 inches of Giant Haystacks didn’t entertain and didn’t hurt. When I was really young I even used to have nightmares brought on just from being stared at through the screen by the vampire hair-lined, Mick McManus.

Modern wrestling obviously has a history going back to sport (including the likes of Greco-Roman or Freestyle) and battle. It would be ridiculous to not link wrestling with both activities. Strategies that can subdue or defeat an enemy in street-fights or war have also been used for thousands of years to entertain. Feats of strength; disputes over honour; hand to hand combat and so forth, can all be taken, moulded and staged to become entertainment for the masses. In the TV-land recent past there were wrestlers, but on the far-off, ever dipping horizon of Roman times, there were gladiators.

And many a man entering the Roman Museum is on a quest, a mission.  You see them peering intently at the excellently detailed depictions of both city maps of Canterbury in Roman times. Whether the Early Roman Canterbury – AD 150 – or Late Roman Canterbury, circa AD 300, they lean in, sometimes wipe glasses, usually try again, and get close to the two-dimensional version of this place way back then and even resort to reading through the accompanying, numbered lists. Roman Public Baths; Roman Town Hall & meeting place, Basilica; Roman Temple or Templum. They get excited at No. 6 – the same number and notes on both maps – and trace across with their fingers to the represented site. Stare intently. Back up. Lean in again. Read the guide-notes for No. 6 – again.

“Roman Theatre, Teatrum, for drama and spectator sports, its stage now under Castle Street, near the Three Tuns Pub.”  

Spectator sports? Execution surely? Could be – at a pinch -a salve for the masses? Entertainment?

They look again. By AD 300 the Teatrum is huge, semi-circular, with columns, arched windows and porticos, three floors of gloriously triumphant architecture, but the only hint of the expected, the one clue as to what’s wanted is the steeply banked seats. At least in the less developed, lower walled, easier to see, AD 150 version there appear to be people. Some seem to be on a stage, but down on the floor three figures appear to be holding sticks or pointy things. And there’s one guy who might be waving a shield – but the scale it’s painted in means that he appears to be holding it well over head height, so even though it can’t be,  it looks like an early balloon? Or maybe an inflated pig’s bladder? Like a football – if that were possible? Oh, it’s so frustrating!

Almost oblivious to spouse and kids now, around the corner and down a bit is the military section. They try there. There are large graphic cut-outs of cavalrymen in striking war poses and a life-size dummy of a cavalry man in a rather Donald Trump-like stoat-wig standing proudly by his horse. All of them – whether foam -board or plaster – have armour and the drawing itself shows an assortment of the weapons both foot and horse soldiers would have had to use – swords, daggers and javelins. And although the figure has a helmet and armour, at least he doesn’t even have to pretend to carry their usual 60 – 90 pound packs. The men read on – absorbing the idea of 4 Roman legions and auxiliary troops landing hot off the boats from France in AD43 – a 40,000 strong invasion advancing through Kent. Impressive yes, but not enough.

There is a pause and significant nod at the amazing find of the Bridge Helmet – amazing enough because it is one of only five Iron Age helmets ever found in the UK and even more so because – if it could be proven that it belonged to a Roman soldier – it would be the first direct piece of archaeological evidence from Julius Caesar’s invasions. And found right here on our doorstep.

The men move on, circling the museum, getting excited in the section on Life and Death in Roman Canterbury where two distinctly sword like shapes actually turn out to be swords! Where the information card reveals that yes, they are! In 2015 they look a little worse for wear, elongated rust parallelograms resting in resin / fibreglass sheets, Californian temperature and humidity  gauges set to protection mode. In 2nd or 3rd century AD they would be pristine, cavalry long-swords known as spatha, forged from iron with scabbards of wood like willow. They would probably be so heavy that they’d need to be wielded with two hands. Brilliant, but here, now, today, they can’t be picked up. Man after man after man just wants to hold one in their hand and yell “I am Spartacus!” Or deliver in a vaguely Roman / German/ Estuary – but really Australian – growl, “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of… General of… Loyal servant to… Father to… Husband to a… And I will have my vengeance…! ” Or – rather cringingly, hold one reverentially still before vrooming it in slow motion through the space in front of their very own shining eyes, making noises like lifts doors or like a lightsaber.

With the absence of our expected spectacle in early Canterbury’s version of the Coliseum; of handy four foot long blades to crack heads; and the shortage of huge, oiled men throwing nets or clubbing with maces; or the lack of a trident to attempt to pin down a lion like a tiger moth, we have seen no evidence of what every book or film or series or magazine tells us that Rome was all about and in short, we cannot be gladiators.  The museum’s example tunics are itchy; togas, well, look like our own sheets; and the gift shop swords are minuscule. So we men cannot even dress up as gladiators and play!

But one man wasn’t going to give up. He was on a mission from the minute his wife chose the destination. At the top of those steps leading from the street he left day-by-day reality behind and instead had a vision, with every footfall down and through the museum he was determined to realise his dream. So, as stated many moons ago at the start of this blog, this man engaged with the Roman Museum so much that he attempted to squeeze his 6 foot, 17 stone body, one arm at a time, into the mock-Roman breast-plate clearly designed for children’s dressing up fun – and nearly dislocated his shoulder in the process.

Now, I’d love to tell you that his probably long suffering wife seized the day to the nth degree and gave him the classic Thumbs Down gesture, but she didn’t. However, she did have such a good laugh that she seemed to be struggling to not wet herself – and particularly so when their son whipped out his phone and documented the whole thing. Success all round – well, nearly!

We may all be mere mortals, but we can strive to be gods.

Ciao!

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