Gladiators didn't die. Now the world's expert shares their true story in History's doc series Colosseum

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INTERVIEW: Alexander Mariotti, historical advisor for HISTORY docuseries Colosseum

Alexander Mariotti owns the most extensive collection of gladiator film memorabilia from the likes of Gladiator, Hercules and Spartacus. He's also a world expert on gladiators and the Colosseum and one of the people taking viewers on an awe-inspiring journey in HISTORY's new documentary series Colosseum.

In the new 8-episode series premiering on Sunday, 5 February on the HISTORY channel (DStv 186), the rise and fall of the Roman Empire is vividly reconstructed through the lens of one of the most exhilarating and brutal arenas in the history of humanity: the Colosseum.

Mariotti is a historical advisor and contributor to the new series, offering viewers a unique and personal look inside history's most iconic empire.

Each episode of Colosseum pinpoints one of eight key and diverse characters – all based on real people from history. The series unfolds chronologically, spanning several hundred years, from the arena's astonishing opening day to its last games.

News24 sat down with Mariotti to ask him about some of the myths of this magnificent place – and his personal gladiator collection.

Scientists just revealed why Roman-era concrete is so much more durable than we've used today. What do you make of people who lived centuries ago but, in some aspects, knew and did better than us?

I think we have this perception that the ancients in some way were less intelligent than us, and we are slowly grasping the notion that, actually, the truth is that without the plethora of technology that we have today, people were forced the hard way to become geniuses.

I'm appalling at math, but I don't need to be good. I have a calculator; I have a computer. When you look back, people really had to take the hard route.

When you look at something as fantastic as the Colosseum, which the show brings back to life, you see a structure still standing today, perfectly. That at some point in time – 2 000 years ago – somebody sat down and thought and planned it out with no computers and no technology like today, and people built it. And it's still able to impress us.

Two thousand years later, people from the grave are still able to blow us away, us who are not impressed by a lot, us who can walk into cities with enormous buildings, who can call each other from different parts of the Roman Empire, yet we are still impressed by them. I think it says a lot about the ancients.

What's the best little-known secret about the Colosseum?

There are several, and the HISTORY show does a great job of dispelling some of the myths of gladiators.

A lot of what we think of gladiators comes from film, and that's natural. Film to us is what ancient texts were to the Romans or even sculpture. When you look at Rome, Rome's filled with these beautiful images because people couldn't read. So, for a Roman going to see a column going to see a relief is like us going to the movies. The movies have shaped our modern-day idea of gladiators.

Probably the biggest is that gladiators didn't die. Most gladiators lived. We're talking about a survival rate of 90 to 95%.

It makes sense when you think about the amount of training time that went into these people. You're feeding someone. If you're a businessman and you have a gladiator school, you are paying for food; you are paying someone to train them; you are caring for them medically – that's a great investment to make to then have them die. So surprisingly, gladiators mostly lived.

There's also no such thing as "thumbs-up, thumbs-down". That's in the movies. Actually, we only have three mentions in history of what is called a "pollice verso", which is a pressed thumb or a turned thumb. But we don't know what that means. So when you read a "turned thumb", what does it mean? Where do thumbs-up and thumbs-down come from? It comes from the movies because thumb up has always been positive, and in the 1920s, the director decided thumbs-down means "bad" in a silent movie called Madonnas and Men.

The other thing is that people who make films watch films. They're inspired by old films, not old history. Even in the movie Gladiator, quite famously, you remember the emperor puts his fist out and twists his thumb down – but that's a myth.

What was interesting for you being involved with the making of Colosseum?

I found from the questions they were asking that this would be different.

I have to be honest; I find a good portion of documentaries boring. They are. They're made in a very incorrect way, not knowing how to get people engaged. A lot of documentaries are made for people who are interested in history. What's great about Colosseum is that it's made for people who might not be interested in history – but who will be.

They were asking questions that people don't normally ask. They wanted to tell a more authentic story and give perspectives on this fascinating period of history that people hadn't before, mixing that with an exciting chance to travel back through time and glimpse it.

We see it from the perspective of the gladiators, and we see it from the perspective of the emperor. We see it from the perspective of the people who built the Colosseum. It does such a great job of showing how complex the Colosseum is. It's not just a place where people died. There are so many different levels to it, and the show does a wonderful job of delving into it and leaving people thirsty for more.

You grew up in Africa, then went to Scotland, and as the saying goes, "all roads lead to Rome". How did your perspective of Africa and Scotland infuse your view and work on the Romans?

Well, that's another myth – that all roads lead to Rome. That's actually a joke that the Romans thought was funny because there was only one road when they said it.

Indeed, my experience is reflected in what the Romans had. I think I'm a very great ancient Roman, having travelled to different parts of the world. Yes, a great portion of my childhood was spent in Africa, and I think that the Romans were very curious people, but they were also people that were a combination.

When you look at what the Roman Empire is, it isn't this small city-state. It's this entire swath of land, of cultures and languages. That's what happened to me. I was very fortunate to see different parts of the world and to be inspired by many different cultures, which gave me an entirely different perspective.

It also pushed me towards history. It's fascinating when you travel to different places because you learn different histories. Every school teaches the history of its place. The games in the Colosseum were essentially about bringing different parts of the unknown world to this small place in the middle of Italy.

When you think about beasts – lions – lions do not live in Rome. They don't live in Italy. The Colosseum was this way to bring Africa and parts of the Roman Empire to Rome. In many ways, we're doing the opposite today when watching Colosseum: We are diffusing and taking Rome to other parts of the world.

Do you own the world's largest collection of items from films like Gladiator, Hercules and Spartacus? Where did that hobby or collection idea start?

[He laughs.] Yes. It is, unfortunately, true! I have a list of long-suffering partners who have been horrified by it. I've often had a room that's locked. 

It actually started by complete accident. I had many friends who worked on the [2000] film Gladiator. Initially, I got these things to reuse them. But this is where film and television really have an impact - people mostly watch films rather than read ancient books. I was also surprised by people's reactions to them. They're sort of mini-relics. They evoke a feeling or a memory. I have many pieces from Gladiator, which is an incredibly famous film, but it is also a film that shaped people's perception of Gladiators and the world of gladiators.

This obsession we have with them in recent times has to do with film. The film Gladiator allowed us to be in the Colosseum; to see the games. That excites us. That's what's great about Colosseum on HISTORY is that it does exactly that. It gives you, as a viewer, a chance to be in the Colosseum. So when you have a helmet or a sword or an item from a film, it's almost like you're there. It makes it feel as if history is in your grasp. We're looking for a way to span these 2 000 years that separate us from people who we are still fascinated by and find mysterious.

You grew up and have become a world expert on gladiators and a gladiator guide. Looking back, what do you make of having carved this out as a career and doing something you love?

I had this childhood in Africa, but every summer, we would visit my grandfather, who was born across the road from the Colosseum. I remember my father telling me lions fought here, and that was a link between two places that, as a child, were so far for me.

When I was small, I went to the Kruger National Park, and you could feed lions; I don't know if you can still do that anymore. Then when you go to the Colosseum, and you're in the underground, and you've heard a lion's roar, you think: Can you imagine a lion's roar here?

Secondly, Roman history, to me, is personal. I've lived in the shadow of the Colosseum. And it's had an effect on me. When you go to Italy, people are often a little taken aback at the pace of life - if you live in New York and London, which I'm in at the moment, the pace of life is so different, and it's frustrating.

You go to Rome, and people are just sitting back and having their coffee, but how can you not when you have 2 000-year-old monuments? And it's a constant reminder of how fleeting time is. I'm always present when I'm in the Colosseum thinking. It's not that far ago. It seems so long ago, but it isn't.

In regard to my career, I was very fortunate. When I was in Africa, I thought I would be an artist since my mom's an artist. My father's always loved history, and I've really been so fortunate to fall into it, and this fascination with gladiators just grew. Roman history, to me, really is personal. My family is from Rome, and having lived around the Colosseum since I was a boy, it's part of my own history.

I was fortunate to work at a museum where we had access to real helmets and weapons and stuff, and we rebuilt them authentically. Then we started to look at how they worked. And I worked on films like Troy and Rome, and people were fighting; it was a chance not only to delve into how functional these weapons were but also to shape the way films are and to give a bit of real history instead of inventing it.

Colosseum airs Sundays on HISTORY (DStv 186) at 21:05 from 5 February.

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