Television Review: Lost City of Gladiators

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 11/4/2019


The popularity of gladiators spread throughout the Roman world. Because interest in these fighter slaves continues today, new archaeological sites are being uncovered and investigated using the latest technology. In what would become modern-day Austria, the city of Carnuntum once thrived along the Danube with as many as 60,000 civilians plus military personnel. It functioned not only as a military base and trade center but also housed gladiatorial facilities (or, to use the Latin, ludi, or “schools”) as well as two large arenas. Lost City of Gladiators, a 2016 documentary looks at the finds using experts and actors to show what life was like for gladiators and the role they played in the provincial city.

In 50 minutes, the show does a good job of explaining how the scanning and imaging was created. Of the visible ruins, only the two arenas and an arch survived for the average person to see. Rather than start with traditional, destructive excavation methods, the archaeologists first scanned the area non-invasively using photography, radar, and magnetometers via plane and land vehicles. This way, they could be certain there was something worth digging up before they disturbed the soil. Using the resulting images, 3D computer models were made that experts and the show’s production team used to recreate the entire city.

Why did teams of experts go to this area of Austria? The arenas and arch had been visible for generations. However, some older photographs showed odd changes in the soil that suggested buildings or features. 21st century technology proved that something was there making it easier for investigators to pinpoint what parts of the buried city they might explore in depth. What they found was the first complete gladiatorial school found outside of Rome itself. The use of computer image overlaps with the landscape was wonderful; revealing layer by layer what it may have looked like.

After all of the high tech scanning, a traditional dig confirmed what the imaging had found and revealed new details about the site. The narrator tells us that gladiators could be slaves, prisoners (who would be slaves), or even a free person looking to make money or get fame. The show wants to focus on one such free gladiator, and I fear this creates the wrong image of gladiators for the layperson. However, I did appreciate that there was no one way that the training camp was discussed in the show because, yes, scholars today cannot know with certainty how any one gladiatorial troop functioned. The degree of “freedom” the gladiators had might vary greatly not only by the troop but also by the personality of the owner and his squad. A veteran of the arenas who felt close to earning freedom would be less likely to run away than a recently captured enemy sold to the lanista, who owned and operated the training camp, rented out the gladiators’ services, and controlled the gladiators’ lives.

For some reason, the show turns to the ancient city of Ephesus on the west coast of modern-day Turkey, where gladiator remains have been found and tested. While it is interesting that we get insight into what and how much those gladiators ate, can we really say this information transfers well to what happened far away on the Danube? While I would agree that meat was rare in the ancient diet, I can’t say that other foods would be as commonly available in one location as in another.

Then the show takes another turn to look at the known military camps that were situated to protect the northern boarders of the empire. From a discussion of the military camps an assertion is made that the military camps owned or used gladiators at the second arena in Carnuntum. There is zero evidence offered for this claim.

The documentary goes back to the gladiators and looks at some equipment and armor, but it quickly turns to sexuality and the sexual appeal of the fighters. The details in showing us how the would be lovers might prepare for their liaison were fine, but this is historical fiction not fact based on anything found in Carnuntum.

The documentary shows fights in the arenas. These are well done in terms of who is sitting in the seats and how the fighting is done. But throughout them I keep asking, “Who is this Atticus?” I did some digging and could not find a historical gladiator with this name. The closest was Marcus Attilius, a Roman who sold himself into slavery to pay for debts during the reign of Nero, but that background is not the same as what we are given in Lost City of Gladiators so I think he’s a fictional creation for this show. That might well have been mentioned.

Three experts are used on the show. Wolfgang Neubauer, an archaeologist from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute, was tasked with scanning the site and then led the further investigations. Marcus Junkelmann, a historian and experimental archeologist best known for his reenactments of ancient military life. He speaks about what is known about lanistae, their businesses, and their training methods. Fabian Kanz, a forensic anthropologist, talks about his study of gladiator remains and how wounds were treated. All do a good job in carrying out their assigned tasks.

Overall, this show is a balance between documentary and docudrama. I wish the show had not felt the need to create a gladiator for us to follow and just focused on the evidence that was found. It could have covered the same information without giving the false impression that evidence had been uncovered pertaining to a specific historical person and his experiences as a gladiator. It would also have felt more like a show about the city of Carnuntum, as the title promised, had they stuck to the evidence found right there and then.

Lost City of Gladiators is a co-production of several European companies. It recently aired on the Smithsonian Channel and can be found streaming on cable services or the channel’s premiere online club.

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