Things You Didn’t Know About
Gladiators, Vikings & Crusaders
As soon as football season kicks off the U.S., we’re once again fed a nauseating diet of war metaphors to go along with the game. All this talk about warriors, soldiers, and battles, has an upside though: it gets us to raid our files on that trio of mythical combatants of ancient times.
Far from unique on their intimacy with pain and blood, or the glory and virtue often associated with them, they’re still tickle our pseudo-anthropological bone. And as it turns out, there are new surprising discoveries that may indeed change, just a bit, our idea of them.
It may come to no surprise, for instance, that gladiators lived an extremely hard life. But a recent trove of skulls and body parts, uncovered in England, put yet another brutal twist to the fate of these brave slaves. And unlike contemporary beheadings by religions freaks, theirs were arguably bloodier.
You’ve always knew that Vikings had been all over Europe, either waging war or not-so-gently settling in foreign lands. But new research has shown that not just the contingent of female warriors, but also, casual texting, were both more numerous and common than we previously thought. Who knew?
And speaking of war and pillage due to religion strife, no other enterprise had a bigger role leaving a legacy of hatred and broken bones in their wake than the Crusades. Now we know that at least the armies of Richard I, the Lionheart, left something else behind too: feces parasites in a castle in Cyprus.
Perhaps the need to periodically update our archives helps us keep in perspective what essentially hasn’t changed in the past two thousand years: humans will be always busy training to crush each other, either to conquer personal freedom, to expand their cultural heritage, or to simply annihilate the followers of a different god.
Then as now, soldiers are sold a bill of lies, wrapped in promises of immortality and ribbons of reward. They will go for the gold and glory and return inside bags of bones, lives and names already lost before the cannons’ first strike. Centuries later, it may be up to us to dig them up out of the dust and study their predicament.
FIGHTERS WITHOUT AN ARMY
Gladiators, for as well trained and combat-ready they seemed in the second century C.E., were closer to today’s WWF than to Marines. Being slaves would prevent them from ever be armed and part of the regular Roman legionary forces, even though they did once rise up against their overlords, led by the legendary Spartacus.
But for all purposes, they were there to entertain the crowds and, eventually, gain if not freedom, at least steady employment. Two recent discoveries, in Vienna and London, add a bit more color to what’s known about these stage fighters: a gladiators school, the first found outside Rome, and partial skeletons from some 40 men.
The building in Austria clearly shows that gladiators were prisoners, living ‘in cells, in a fortress with only one gate out,’ according to archeologist Ludwig Boltzman. Some 80 of them shared the two-story complex, equipped with practice area, heated floors, plumbing, infirmaries, and even a graveyard, for good measure.
As for the heads and pieces of bones dug up in England, there’s no confirmation yet whether they were Roman gladiators, war prisoners, or simply common criminals. The most compelling aspect of the find, though, regardless of whom they belong to, is that they all had a brutal end.
Heads injured or perforated by sharp instruments, when not simply severed from their bodies, could often mark the fate of many a gladiator, according to archaeologist Rebecca Redfern and scientist Heather Bonney, and in the Roman Period, they certainly got busy exacting such grim tasks. Indeed, they did live and die by the sword.
SENDING OUT RUNE VALENTINES
Vikings, the Scandinavian seafarers who conquered parts of Europe and Russia between the 8th and 11th century, were an outstandingly sturdy people, crossing seas and leaving their DNA in both the living and those resting in burial sites. What they didn’t leave much of was their language or signs of their emotional stage of development.
Until now. Whereas Old Norse has indeed become a dead tongue, albeit influencing even modern English, their fame as fierce warriors somehow obscured other aspects of their heritage that remain alive in the many Nordic cultures spawn by it. Take, for instance, the coded runes they used to send each other more er frivolous messages.
By cracking the once undecipherable Jötunvillur Code, Jonas Nordby, a PhD candidate at Oslo University, finally translated characters written on a 900-year old piece of wood found in Sigtuna, Sweden, that had challenged runologists for years. What it said? ‘Kiss me,’ just as any teenager would text on a phone keyboard today.
The find opens a new perspective on Viking history, along with new scholarship debunking their fame of brutes as portrayed by pop culture (they didn’t even worn those horned helmets, for the mighty Tyr‘s sake), and the current understanding that women too would join the men in combat, although in smaller numbers.
So what that those who built ring-shaped fortresses in Denmark were also capable of mischief and gossip, when they were not busy dismembering their opponents in battle? Unlike what that teen may think, humans have been texting and promising each other little nothings since way before the invention of a reliable ax. Out of the way.
HIGH NOON AT THE CORRAL OF GODS
Crusaders, willing participants of the bloody Catholic Church campaign to wrestle access of biblical sites in Jerusalem from Muslims, were not unlike contemporary armies, sent to a war they could not win and under a pretense that wouldn’t stand to scrutiny, if it wasn’t for the promise of eternal bliss in heaven.
The conflict lasted over two centuries and cost millions of innocent lives, but despite its formal end at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, it planted the seeds of hatred and undying suspicion that marks the still ongoing struggle for political control of the Middle East region that gave birth to the world’s three major religions.
Despite professing piousness and contrition, the big three – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – are equally, and almost solely, responsible, in one way or another, for the state of constant strife our world has endured for the past three millennia. The assertion may be loaded with anti-clerical fervor but it still holds true.
Besides such sad legacy, University of Cambridge researchers Evilena Anastasiou and Piers D. Mitchell have now also added something else, and foul, to the legacy the Crusaders left behind: dried-up feces and, in them, eggs of two parasites, whipworm and roundworm. Such precious load is now being studied to determine the warriors’ eating habits.
It’s fitting that, along with destroying temples and wrecking trust among nations, the Lionheart’s armies have also stunk up the Saranda Kolones castle, which he had it built in Cyprus. It was their last stop before quiting the whole business of shoving god down the throat of Middle East ‘infidels’.
TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL (& CHAIN) GAME
In the end, whether being gladiators, the skilled slaves the Roman Empire propped up to keep hungry crowds under control, or Vikings, who circled the world but are mostly remembered by the lands they’d departed from, or the infamous Crusaders, in their quest to crush dark-skinned Arabs, their drive is eerily similar.
Through hammers and spears, they all aimed at taking a step up in their own social ladder, either to be better fed than their peers, or garner riches and respect in foreign lands, or earn a ticket of sorts to god’s kingdom. And the door to it was the same for them all: right through the body of their standing opponent.
A major difference would be the nature of their convictions then and now. Whereas it’s reasonable to consider that those who came before were still under a stronger sway of an invisible world, it’s fair to doubt that even the most devout of our contemporaries hasn’t also weighted the value of having a bigger gun, just in case the argument goes south.
Such healthy skepticism being taken as cynicism as it may, those of us with the advantageous hindsight view of human conflict through history should at least be wise enough to consider a few crucial variables. Not the least of it, that either Greeks and Troyans iron their differences by mutual acceptance, or be forever split right down the middle.
EVEN LONG SHADOWS ARE CUT SHORT SOMEDAY
After all, gladiators had to rest their heads sometime, and think about other things than the five best ways to behead someone, even if that was their day job. And many a wise Viking was able to return relatively unscathed to his or her village, to raise a few kids to grow up and choose another profession.
As for the Crusaders, then and now, they may be as beyond redemption as some head wounds. If after all this time, they’re still convinced that their god is better than anyone else’s, then they may be bleeding to death, or seeing their loved ones being slaughtered, and still believe that things will be different on the other side.
The living will always walk over, and forget, the several billion forgotten souls lying right underneath their path, who once thought themselves immortal, living in a land of hope, and professing what appeared to them the most just cause of them all. Apparently, the living will always think exactly alike them, and perish just as well, forever mistaken.
* A Place to Coll