I have a passion for gladiator history. Call it a byproduct of growing up on ’80s WWF (fun fact: I met André the Giant when I was eight years old, which is QUITE an experience). The latest exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is definitely a testament to the glorious history of blood and circuses.
I’m going to get my few quibbles with the exhibit out of the way first. The re-created costumes on display are not good. They are, at best, the work of a semi-talented cosplayer. They look cheap and not at all like something someone would wear into a life-or-death match in the sands of the Colosseum.
Which is sad because they are given a lot of prominence in the exhibit, and the explanation for their necessity is buried much further in. Actual gladiator gear is very, very rare, and most of what has survived from those times is hoarded by a museum in Naples. The exhibit has some of it, among the items a sword, a helmet, some sandals and a set of greaves that must have belonged to a frankly enormous man. Seeing these actual bits of gladiator history was an amazing, awe-inspiring experience, and I wish they had been the first things I saw rather than a bunch of lackluster costumes.
That aside, the exhibit is astounding. There is a whole section on gladiator health that is bloody fascinating to our health-crazed modern society. In addition to a set of doctor’s tools, there was a long explanation about gladiator diets. Did you know that the gladiator corpses we have exhumed are almost completely free of cavities because of their high-calcium diet? Neither did I, and I’ve got three books on my shelf on this subject.
The most humbling moment for me was getting to touch pieces of the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as The Colosseum with a capital C. It’s one of the true wonders of the ancient world, a building that is so important to antiquity and history that most of us can picture it without ever having been within a thousand miles of the place.
And the exhibit lets. You. TOUCH IT.
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These are rocks. I’m not going to exaggerate. As rocks, they are not terribly interesting. I have found better rocks in my apartment complex’s dog park. And yet, they are part of a building that is older than Christ. A building that was famous across the world for thousands of years. These stones represent an unbroken chain of humanity’s achievements stretching back over an amazing amount of years. To actually be allowed to touch one, to put flesh to stone, was to feel the passage of time and history in a way I'd never had with mere books.
The exhibit caps off with a carnival. That’s probably not the right word, but I’m using it. In the back is a small — and if you think about it kind of incongruous — catapult game in which you can hurl boulders at a plastic sheet. It’s fun, but why?
There is also an oculus-enabled Xbox game back there that lets you experience ancient Rome in glorious VR. It’s a really neat way of adding flavor to an exhibit, though the experience did remind me why as a gamer I don’t typically like the oculus. Too many people are still convinced that the same game design aesthetics that incorporate steps work when a VR player can mimic the ascension of those steps without feeling queasy, and that happens in this part of the exhibit. Still, it was fantastically engaging for all the upset tummies.
The gladiator exhibit is small, and parts of it are too focused on our ideas of the gladiators than their historical realities, but for all that, it is a marvel of the ancient world come to Houston. I highly recommend it.