Discussion: Roman narrative

When reading ancient narratives about gladiators, condemned prisoners, and mistreated animals in the arena, many of us cannot help but experience a powerful emotional response. After all, these are highly affecting stories by design, with narratives that ask readers to draw close comparisons between themselves and those suffering in the arena.

To imagine oneself in the shoes (or sandals) of those facing violence and death in the arena was part of the popular appeal of Roman bloodsport from the very beginning. And yet, the sympathy felt toward such figures was to some extent at odds with the distancing and dehumanizing strategies that allowed munera to remain a central and popular element of Roman culture for centuries. Indeed, narratives about the Roman arena across time have tended to highlight this very paradox and, in the process, offer cultural criticism as well as personal inspiration, despair as well as hope.

In an effort to critically but compassionately engage with the many individuals involved in Roman sport — the roaring crowd, owners and trainers at the gladiatorial ludi, Christian martyrs, Stoic philosophers, even narcissistic emperors — this assignment asks students to compose their own first-person narrative set in the arena.

In writing this narrative, you will be in good company. The appeal of the arena proved irresistible for poets, philosophers, and proselytizers living under the Roman empire, all of whom leveraged the popularity and symbolism of such events to further their own agendas. Writing what amounts to historical fiction, you should yourself also take liberties and follow your own interests—inventing characters, complications, etc., as suits your overall purpose. Note, however, that the grading rubric detailed below gives special incentive for you to demonstrate both historical awareness and a human sensitivity to the competing emotions, ideologies, and commitments at play in the arena.

Although your story will inevitably be fictional in many, if not most, of its details, it should nevertheless be anchored to a certain historical moment about which we have substantial evidence. For example, you might consider setting your narrative at a specific time and place, such as the riots outside the amphitheater in Pompeii in 59 CE or the inaugural festivities at the Flavian Amphitheater 80 CE. But you might imagine instead a more generic munus legtimum presented in a far-flung Roman province, perhaps featuring one of the gladiators commemorated by a funerary stele, or “gravestone”. You might also consider taking for your historical basis a pre-existing ancient arena narrative but creating an original and complementary story by adopting the first-person perspective of another individual.

Whatever you choose, in composing your narrative, imagine that your reader to be generally familiar with the world of Roman sport. For example, a sentence might simply read “I fell to my knees, groping helplessly in the dust for my gladius” without the further explanation, “a short sword which gave its name to gladiators.” Like any good work of historical fiction, your narrative should be immersive. “Show, don’t tell” your audience what matters. Ultimately, your story will be a success if it leads readers toward a fuller and more personal understanding of the customs, practices, personalities, and ideologies of ancient Rome — a very different time with a very different sense of sport.

GRADING RUBRIC

___ / 20 PTS: LENGTH

Narratives should be 600-1,500 words in length.

___ / 20 PTS: NARRATIVE POWER

Not all stories are well-suited to the above-specified length, so choose your topic and its presentation carefully. Consider what will be most effective to put in or leave out. what narrative shortcuts can you might strategically employ to demonstrate your knowledge of the ancient world without resorting to long exposition. Does it give the impression that this narrative could only happen in a situation like the Roman arena (and not, for instance, a modern locker room or boxing ring)?

___ / 20 PTS: HISTORICAL ACCURACY AND DETAIL

Does your narrative square with the world portrayed in Futrell and other available, reputable, sources (e.g., The Romans historical textbook by Boatwright and Talbert)? Your narrative should not cover all aspects of Roman sport—you’d need far more than 1,500 words for that. Rather, it will be successful if it richly explores a handful of related issues.

___ / 20 PTS: EMPATHETIC / EMOTIONAL POWER

Does the submission provide a compelling psychological portrait? Does it highlight the difficult decisions and situations faced by those in, and around, the arena? Even if the narrative privileges a particular perspective (e.g., that of the lanista or martyr), does it acknowledge, or at least leave room for, contrasting perspectives?

___ / 20 PTS: POLISH

Are factual, typological, and grammatical errors kept to a minimum? Does the submission give the impression of careful thought, work, and editing?

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