ENTERING THE ARENA - Gladiators Hijack My Life
Updated: Feb 17
I sincerely hope it's obvious that, in these posts about gladiators and the Roman arena, we're going to be talking about violence, gruesome death & maiming, execution, corporal punishment, animal cruelty, slavery, oppression, prejudice, exploitation, and all sorts of other gory, nasty, horrifying abuses and practices of the Ancient World and its legends.
I...you know...I hope that's obvious. Maybe?
If you follow the geekery links at the end, they're even more explicit. Because...history. Documentary. Virtual reality. Movie clips. This is not pretty, happy dance. It's not even my personal experiences with violence. This is bloodsport from a culture that has a different moral compass from ours, and it is one of my oldest, most enduring morbid obsessions.
Beware all ye who venture forth: Here There Be Beasties!
TOMORROW...MAYBE - My Obsessions with Acting, Singing & Dance
DRAMA QUEEN - How I Bombed My Theater Major
FINDING FAITH - In a Box of My Oldest Writing
After I dropped my Theater Major in my sophomore year of college, I didn’t want to act anymore. I mean, I did. Acting had always been everything to me.
But I just couldn’t do it anymore.
At the same time, I still needed to tell stories. Theater had always allowed me to touch people in a way that, as an HSP, neurodivergent weirdo, I’d always had difficulty doing. When I used someone else’s words, the mask of someone else’s face, someone else’s identity, someone else’s story…people could accept me more easily, even the ones who didn’t like me as a person. They could smile and laugh and sniffle at my characters in spite of themselves. They could swoon for my music or cheer for my dancing.
When I was onstage, nobody had to like me. But sometimes they allowed themselves to like my arts.
Unfortunately, as 1992 lurched and skidded to a close, I lost my primary artistic medium. I was nineteen with nine months of repressed memories festering in a Tupperware box I'd shoved into the back of the freezer. Suddenly, my lifelong drive to portray stories and characters onstage…to connect with the depth of self-expression that Stephan, my older, wiser theater friend, had explained…all those exercises my instructors at the university had used in the attempt to crack me open so I could splatter myself across the studio in Voice & Movement or to pierce through that cyclopean eye and touch the far side of the camera in Film & Video…the glimmers they’d seen in me during my first two auditions and that beginning half of my freshman year…
I couldn’t do it anymore.
Once trauma had ravaged me to the point where I was unrecognizable to myself in the mirror, my eyes looked as hollowed out as I felt--and I wouldn't have been able to explain why to save my life. I didn’t dare use my voice. It kept betraying me.
Yet somehow I could still dance. Everything I couldn’t speak—not even through the words of a character someone else had created—I could express it through movement. Dance was one of the only things that could light up my eyes anymore.
Modern and especially belly dance had given me a new and expansive vocabulary. At first, the shine and glamor of belly dancing allowed me to hide behind pretty costumes and physical feats of wonder in a way that Modern still revealed too often.
But belly dance was a more supple form. Not softer. It was sinewy. And serpentine movements require muscular tension. So do intricate isolations, which is why my transition to Jazz, Tap, and the fire of Latin Ballroom in my junior and senior years felt even better than Modern.
Belly dance felt best of all. Amidst the swirl of veils and the whirl of skirts, with my mystery-eyes peering out and my hips a-fly in ever greater feats of wonder, I could put myself back together behind the curtain. It actually didn’t take long for me to begin opening up through dance. The movements of belly dance alone are deeply healing.
I had also started dating a martially inclined artist. Kyle was passionate, honorable, visionary, and deeply kind. He loved my dancing so it was an easy way to communicate with him, especially because he spoke the language of movement in his own way. We started envisioning a collaboration between my dancing and his kata. He became my best friend and inspiration, opening me up even further, and all that came pouring out through my dances.
It didn’t matter how people interpreted it. I was doing exactly what Stephan had said I needed to do if I wanted to be an actress—a good actress. I spilled out my guts, my life story, everything I thought and felt and hoped and feared, and I didn’t have to explain any of it. All part of the show, folks.
And yet, there was still something missing.
As I laid staring up at the spinning ceiling fan, baking in the oven of my patio-turned-bedroom between my sophomore and junior year of college, I knew what I had to do.
I just call it the Muse’s voice, and when She commands, there is no denying Her.
20 years old
I have no idea what moved me to read my old writing this afternoon. But something poked me in the forehead. It was kind of like all those BINGS when I was called to take belly dancing, so I drag the box out from under the bed. Here in the sweltering cocoon of my bedroom, surrounded on three sides by blackout curtains, I comb through the big binder filled with my poetry, short stories, snippets, and character notes from high school.
For the past two summers, I’ve been working for my dad’s office. The company hired four of the employees’ college students to transform the trailers full of paper documents into microfilm. I've taken one of the old filing boxes for my writing box, and I asked my boss if I could snag a couple of the oversized binders once we’d emptied the documents for filming and shredding. It was all going in the dumpster anyway. So now, almost all my writing is organized by type and by date into a four-inch, hard-cover binder.
I keep meaning to pull apart the dot-matrix printout of my novel so I can put it into the empty one, but it needs to be three-hole punched and I always forget to bring it home to use my dad's or find somewhere on campus. The whole thing still stuffs a yellow folder in the box. I also have it on a floppy disk—a true floppy, not the smaller, hard-case ones that my little word processor takes.
Blackmail Fodder of an itsy-bitsy writer
That novel was my main writing project all through high school. I started it in the summer between seventh and eighth grade—a fun whim with Johnny, of course.
He had come over on one of his flukes and we got to reminiscing about those “Faith and Norman” tales we used to record into his tape player. That got us imagining new stories. We each had one in our minds, so I pulled out two notebooks, one for him and one for me. Then we started writing.
And writing and writing and writing all summer long.
I don’t remember what his was about, because he only worked on it until school started, but I kept at mine until I finally wrote, “The End,” in eleventh grade.
It was about a teenage girl from Minnesota who moved with her older brother to California after her parents’ divorce. All the characters were reminiscent of people I’d known, either from my high school or from our summers at The Lake. One of the main settings, the hilltop Rec. Room, was modeled after the one at the campground my family and I went to every summer weekend from the time I was in third grade until seventh. Some of the scenes were based off the antics that ensued at that place, and I changed the lake setting to some of my favorite beaches from the trips we took to visit my family between San Jose and Oregon.
There's always been something about me and the Pacific Ocean. It appeals to me in a way that the Atlantic doesn't. Not even the Gulf of Mexico. When I've been away from it for too long, it starts tugging at me.
Kyle is hoping that he'll be able to move to Pasadena in the fall. He's gone back down to live with his mom for the summer so he can teach karate and save up enough money to start art school. He really needs to. He's too talented to stay here. There's no way our university can give him what he needs. That thought rips my heart out, but once I graduate, this place will have nothing to hold me here either. I'd miss my parents, but I could see myself being another member of the family who comes back to visit on holidays.
The thought of being at the ocean again...the thought of being able to go there whenever I wanted, but hand-in-hand with Kyle this time...now that would be a dream come true.
I can still feel the sand between my toes. I can still remember that distinct ocean scent--wonderful and almost sort of nasty, but I love it. The rocky coastlines...all the birds...all the colors that the sun paints upon the ripples stretching out beyond the horizon...I can stare at the ocean for hour upon hour.
Hey. Pull that story out. NOW.
There’s that nudge again, so I grin and push the huge binder aside, opening the way for me to roll across the bed and reach once more into the box. There, propped up by half-full notebooks and the shiny, marbled folder of empty lined paper torn from a myriad more, sits the canary yellow folder.
My novel that still doesn't have a name.
But it's the thin, white paperback book that catches my eye. It also brings a fond smile to my lips. It peeks out at the bottom of a stack of small notebooks--the paisley journal my first roommate gave me for my nineteenth birthday, the blue, miniature notebook that stuffed my Christmas stocking a few years ago, and Dad’s old red, leather-bound budget book he gave me before I left home. On top there’s my Spanish pocket dictionary for my new major.
But the book that’s caught my attention is on the bottom of the stack, the largest of them all. I can only see an edge of it, yet it lures me in like a siren call. It’s my one proud publication credit. Snow Tracks.
Eleventh grade was a big writing year for me. In addition to finishing that novel, I’d entered a contest with one of my short stories and won a prestigious spot in a state-wide anthology for high school students. I’d written the tale for my historical fiction assignment in Fiction Writing. That was my favorite assignment from that class—really, from any class I’ve ever taken. We were required to use a time period prior to the 1960s, and we had to include at least five details that would date it to the chosen time period.
Five--hah. I had way more than that. I set the story in one of my longest enduring and most morbid fascinations: the Roman Arena, specifically the Colosseum (2, 3). This gave me oodles of fodder, from the arena setting to the dress of the varied classes in each tier, to what the gladiators fought with and what they wore. (1) It was so fun to research all that and then weave it into a story that made me salivate.
Because one of my gladiators was a female.
And she won.
Oh, I had so much fun writing that!
Leaving the yellow folder where it is, I wrestle the anthology out from under the pile and thumb through it until I come to my story. “Gladiator.” In a rush, all the chants and cheers come sweeping back. The swelter of my bedroom becomes the heat radiating off the arena sands. The curtains surrounding me are the tiers of the Colosseum. My heart races as I flip pages with an ever-expanding grin, and then—
The shockwaves. The flashes like movie clips. One after another after another. I can’t even get through the final paragraphs and get the book closed before it bombards me. Faces, places, snatches of conversation. The sounds and grit and smells and shit of vanquished foes, all baking under the blazing sun. The clang of metal against metal and the cloud of dust from a body slamming into the sand.
Rolling to the edge of the bed, I grab the folder of loose notebook pages. I scrabble to get my purse off the door handle--scrabble to keep ahold of the visions pummeling my brain. I pry out the first pen I find and start scribbling.
And that's how it happens for me.
For the rest of that day and for many thereafter, page after page piled up around me: scenes of what happened after that opening battle in the arena. Conversations between characters. Notes about where I wanted to take the plot line. Character descriptions and names and general personality traits. Note upon note about fighting acquired from conversations with my black belt boyfriend, books from the library, and that all-informative fount of information: the 1960 epic classic Spartacus. I got ahold of the VHS and it became my bloody bible.
Upon getting ahold of much more in-depth history books than what my high school had, I found mistake after mistake and corrected them. I also inserted a plethora of new juicy details to make my world and characters pop. Granted, this was still only 1992 in Northern Minnesota, but I was at least able to make a nice start on rectifying the old myths and "facts" that were the staples of the day, particularly when one's main source of information came from Hollywood.
Soooo, my decades of detractors, hunching over your crossed arms with your big pouty lips, grumbling, "That's not believable! That's not how they did it!" Okay. You might not find it believable, but I assure you, it's something better: it's historical.
Let's ruin some gladiators, shall we? Thanks, Adam!
Alas. Although my new research was able to slap an official name onto that dreamboat gladiator hailed as "the girls' delight" upon the walls of Pompeii - his name was "Celadus" - I could still not find any historical names of females. When I'd originally written it, I'd blown a kiss to my best friend Mari by giving my pair the names she asked for: Daniel and Chandra.
Hush. We were seventeen.
After a week of research, character creation, binging Spartacus, and scribbling scenes, I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough about who my two arena protagonists were. I paused the plot line. The character notes I had detailed in that blue, three-by-four-inch notebook transformed into detailed descriptions on the loose full-length paper. Those became exploratory scenes in the new 5-section notebook I’d bought for this project.
Like a vomiting volcano, I poured out the lives these two people had lived before coming to the arena, and the vastly different experiences they’d had in becoming the gladiators who met on the sands.
This is not right.
Another realization hit me: I could not truly do what I wanted to do with those characters and keep it historical fiction. At that time, I had never heard of alternate history. I was already pushing it with having a female and a male battle in the arena. In the few brief mentions I'd able to find about females fighting in the Roman amphitheaters, I had read that they were nothing more than a luxury glamour-act for titillation. Either that or humor: "hawt girls vs. ferocious dwarves!"
I yearned to write something else.
Back to the blue mini-notebook that contained all the character notes. Scratch-scratch-scratch! Roman names became fantastical names. Roman towns became places that don’t exist. Kyle had turned me onto the Dragonlance series earlier that spring, so my mind had been swarming with mythical, magical creatures and misty, sweeping landscapes.
Yesssss…that’s it. This needs to be fantasy, not historical fiction.
Okay, great. Give it to me.
And so the Muse did. My imaginary world would not have any sort of Medieval European D&D undercarriage, like so many fantasy tales I’d read. Mine would have a foundation of Ancient Rome. (4)
I could see that I was going to have to pick my Ancient History professor’s brain when the new semester started. Dr. Selwyn had already been excited to hear that I’d written a short story set in the Roman arena, so I couldn’t wait to talk to him about this new project. We’d taken to geeking out about history and archeology over supper at our favorite pizza joint just off campus. He was one of my favorite instructors and destined to become my advisor when I changed majors again.
In the meanwhile, I filled page after page in that notebook for the whole rest of the summer.
The Holy Underwear: more blackmail fodder
Yeahhhh…some of you are going to split your sides to read what your favorite characters were once called. Terrible. Just awful.
Amidst these sweeping changes, my female protagonist transformed from the average-sized auburn-haired Chandra--shades of Faith all grown up. At twenty, I needed a far more daunting warrior than the one I had needed at seventeen, so she became who she is to this day: a black-haired, blue-eyed glamazon, nearly six feet tall.
A few years later, the emergence of Xena onscreen would simultaneously enchant and aggravate me. The Warrior Princess added hefty weight to the scales of that classic of all glamazon tropes, Wonder Woman. At least Donna Gillespie's gladiatrix, Aurianne, was gray-eyed and chestnut-haired. But then, when Russel Whitfield’s book “Gladiatrix” came out with its black-haired, blue-eyed Lysandra, I threw up my hands and cried, "Gah!" For a time, I considered shifting my gladiatrix back to redhead, but that also felt too tropey because she does have a fiery personality. I even tried making her a blonde for a time, just to break the stereotyped look, but my beloved Callisto, Eowyn, Saxa, and Lagerthe helped ease my mind about just keeping her who she is: Ishavanni, the Giant Slayer.
Ishavanni, by Kyle Kane
From the first scene I wrote in that overheated room, there had never been a millisecond of doubt in my mind about what this was. I was writing a novel, and there was no question that I would finish it.
After all, I’d done it once before. All the things I’d longed to say to my high school and elementary tormentors but could never come up with on the fly--my spunky protagonist had said them to hers and she, unlike me, knew how to back them up. All the ways I’d wanted my teenage love life to go, and all the bravery I wished I’d had--I’d written an entire novel about it.
I might have locked away my voice and buried it, but I had given it ink and stacks of blank paper. Writing fiction was even closer to my heart and a more intimate mode of self-expression than dance. In fiction, I could bare my soul and speak my utter truth. I could--as Stephan had said--reveal my most intimate and vulnerable self right there on that page for everyone to see. Instead of being obscured in the ambiguity of movement, it was misted over and over-saturated in make-believe hues.
Even the things hidden in the depths of my subconscious found their voices on those pages, although I wouldn’t understand this until years after I got my memories back. I wrote about all those pieces locked in the Tupperware containers. They were overblown and dramatized, but that’s what made it safe to let them peek their heads out.
Because the characters were not ME. The villains were not MY villains.
And yet, they always are. All my protagonists are me and not me. All my villains are also me, they are my foes, and they are the issues I wrangle with in the larger world as well as the world within me.
I didn’t at all understand this when I wrote my first novel and my gladiatrix, but it didn’t matter.
The same thing was happening in dance. When the music called to me--especially all the foreign music so different from the sounds of my own culture surrounding me--it lit me up from inside. The music on the radio and on TV had too much baggage. I tuned it out. Just like I didn’t want to write in a contemporary setting, I didn’t want to dance to those American sounds. I didn’t want to feel those rhythms. I hungered for Arabic, Spanish, Latin, African, Irish sounds…anything but the world in which I lived.
I especially didn’t want to hear country music. The genre had never been my favorite, but ever since my freshman-year boyfriend had dumped me for a “good girl who was worth marrying,” I couldn’t stomach that twang, the drawling words and saddle-sway hips, the sound of one shit-kicker clunking on the floor as it crossed over its brother in that laid-back, slick-grinned, hood-eyed smirk. Arms crossed. Head tipped like, “Hello, darlin’.”
It made me want to stab eyeballs.
It made me want to crush throats.
It dripped freezing water down my spine, raised my hackles, and curdled my guts.
I had no idea why. I attributed it to being a Fire Sign who was heartbroken and offended over a breakup.
It was so much more than that. My subconscious knew it. Many years later I would come to undersand. Right there in the original plot lines of that gladiator story lies the architecture of my childhood wounds and my buried memories. The story has dramatically shifted now, just like the characters have, but in its rough draft regurgitation, the crumb-laden roadmap is obvious.
All through that summer, this new sword-and-sandals tale drove me so relentlessly that, whenever I wasn’t at work or dancing, I spent the majority of my time in that overheated room, wearing my bikini and shorts on top of that queen-sized bed, crammed in wall-to-door with the fan blowing across my sweat-slicked skin as page after page became a mountain of words.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: GLADIATRIX: "Gladia-what?!" Female Gladiator. And yes, they really did exist.
--OR: if you're interested in this fighty aspect of my life, this is another crucial piece.
FOR YOUR GEEKING
1) The Gladiators
-- 10 More Things You May Not Know About Gladiators - especially if all you know is the Hollywood version
--The Insane Real Life of a Gladiator (Bwahaha! He said, "Commode-us.")
--What did the Gladiators wear and fight with? - way more than the Usual Suspects we see onscreen
--The Argument: Were Gladiators Vegan? - major carbs, some protein & fats and YES - a mineral-bomb drink made of ash. Yummy. My gladiators have named this concoction "Ass--I mean, Ash Swill."
--Fascinating Facts About Those Ancient Arena Sex Symbols
2) The Amphitheater
--Walking Tour of the Colosseum as it is today
--Virtual Reconstruction of the Colosseum as it looked when it was built
--Virtual Reality Tour of the Original Colosseum with architectural, functional, and cultural info
--Walking tour of the Amphitheater in Capua - the second-largest amphitheater in Ancient Rome where Spartacus trained, fought, and rebelled
3) The Underground
--The Hypogeum - the mind-blowing underground mechanical marvels of the Colosseum that made the structure's foundation and allowed them to belch up wonders and horrors from beneath the sands
--The Colosseum now has an underground tour! Eeeeep!
4) What did Ancient Rome look like? (Cinematic Animation Tour)