When I was still in primary school, aged about 10, I read the book ‘The Time Machine’, by H.G. Wells. The character in the book, which was actually written in 1895, showing remarkable prescience by Wells of many future ideas and concepts, uses his machine to travel forward in time. I was disappointed by this aspect of the story. I thought that it would be much better to travel back, and to experience things from the past, making history come to life. In my young mind, I imagined all the events that I could return to, and confirm the lurid tales of history. Custer’s Last Stand, The execution of Charles 1st, even the crucifixion of Jesus, were just some of the scenes I placed myself in.
As the years passed, I often played this mental game, and would ask others what they would do, given the chance to use such a time-travelling device. I was normally unsurprised by the results. Most young men wanted to see famous sporting events; The Four Minute Mile, Boxing Championships, or a famous cricket victory, were often cited. Others, more inclined to warlike notions, wanted to be on the beach on D-Day, see the parachute drop at Arnhem, or watch the English archers at Agincourt. As real life became more like science fiction, with space travel common, medical advances never believed possible, and supersonic jets flying the world, the idea of the game grew stale, and was placed on a metaphorical shelf, somewhere at the back of my mind.
Last month, I noticed that the original 1960 film of the book was showing on TV. I never liked the film much. I thought Rod Taylor was a strange choice for the starring role, and the whole production had a stagey, studio feel about it. I had no intention of watching it, but it did serve to rekindle the idea of the old game, removing it from the shelf, and projecting it back to the forefront of my thoughts. I also remembered one of the many ‘rules’ that applied. Only two goes in the machine. Otherwise, you could go anywhere, see anything, and as many times as you liked. Users of ‘my’ time machine could do no harm, and would also come to no harm. They would be able to communicate in the language or dialect of the day, and would not catch, or give, any disease. They could spend 24 hours in the chosen place, or return sooner, if necessary or desirable to do so. They would have something valuable that would serve as acceptable currency, and would dress appropriately to the period, before departure.
I had a long think about this childish game. What if I could do it now? Where would I choose to go, for my two excursions through time? It has taken me a long time to decide. I rejected many times and places as too obvious, and others as too unrewarding, or obscure. I finally settled on both time periods and locations, then decided that I would write this post about the whole idea. Perhaps you will consider it too, and let me know what you would choose to do with your two chances.
My first trip would be to Rome. In 80AD, The Colosseum ( or to give it its real name, The Flavian Amphitheatre) was opened, with inaugural games lasting almost 100 days. This amazing structure has held a lifetime fascination for me. I have been to see it, just once, in 2002, on a trip to Rome for my 50th birthday. It did not let me down. Despite age and decrepitude, the imposing presence of this building left me speechless with admiration. Once inside, it was easy to imagine the crowds, the spectacles, and the sheer scale of the whole thing, against the backdrop of the city at its peak. Of course, I do not condone the pointless slaughter of thousands of animals, and the fights to the death by gladiators, or the barbaric executions of criminals, all of which took place there. But these are the sensibilities of modern man, who shops at a supermarket, enjoys reasonably good health, and is generally sheltered from the struggle of survival. Life in the Roman Empire over 1,900 years ago, was a very different thing to what we understand today.
No other society has ever used this practice of ‘games’ to appease the masses, or to gain favour with the ruling classes. It was uniquely Roman, and was paid for by individuals, not the state. They would spend fortunes to stage these shows, often going into debt for years, or becoming bankrupt, to seek election, to reinforce their place in the hierarchy, or just to celebrate a military victory. Those attending got in for free, and most were given time off from work to attend as well. The games had a religious aspect, and reinforced historical legends, as well as advertising the strength and greatness of Rome, and its Gods, to the known world. They were an industry, supplying wild beasts from all over the Empire, mercenaries to fight in battles, slaves to provide all the necessary labour, and gladiators to fight for the admiration of the crowd. That crowd was knowledgeable, and partisan. They would follow types of gladiators, some preferring the Retiarius, with his net and trident, symbolising a fisherman. Others would support his sometime adversary, the Murmillo, who would be armed with a heavy sword and shield, his head protected by a large helmet, bearing a fish motif. If the men were not fighting well, the crowd would soon notice, and make their annoyance known. They also loved to see re-enactments of famous battles, or legendary encounters between man and beast, and good shows like this would make the person sponsoring the games very popular.
So, arriving in good time in my machine, I join the crowd heading to the Flavian Amphitheatre. It is hot, dusty, and incredibly smelly. However, once we arrive, and eventually take our seats, strictly allotted by social class and official standing, we are shaded by the huge canvas canopies, moved into place by sailors, and altered as the sun changes direction. There are cooling sprays of water, humidifying the air, and settling the dust of the arena, and they are perfumed with flowers and scents, to sweeten the air inside too. There will be speeches from the dignitary sponsoring the games, as well as a distribution of bread, and cheap wine, to further impress the crowd. Trumpeters announce each event, and musicians play in the intervals. Numerous hawkers move around the tiered rows of seats, selling sweets, cakes, and fresh water, an expensive indulgence. In the corridors surrounding the entrances, all manner of services are on offer, from dentistry to prostitution. Communal toilets are plentiful, and cleaned and serviced by slaves, who will bring you sponges to clean yourself, if need be.
The morning session of the games begins with the stampeding of beasts. Many are simply killed by archers or spear-men from the sides. All the animals are terrified, by the bright light of the sun in the arena, after hours of darkness below, and by the tremendous noise of the roaring crowd. They would never have seen such exotic animals outside of the arena. There were no zoos, no TV documentaries, and few indigenous animals of interest. Now, they could see zebras, buffalo, alligators, large cats, giraffes, and all manner of unusual birds, all together in one place; and all being killed, in a variety of ways. On next, the Bestiarii, specialist animal fighters. These men would take on the animals in single combat, or in larger groups against a lot of animals, and were often unpaid, simply trying to show their bravery. Some unarmed prisoners might also be sent out, with the intention that they would be killed by the animals, as a form of public execution. There would then be a break in the proceedings, allowing some of the audience to rest, others to have lunch, or just socialise with friends in the crowd, and to avoid the hottest part of the day.
When the games resumed later in the afternoon, the main event would attract a full house, which in the Flavian Amphitheatre, could be up to 60,000 spectators. (Though some historians suggest even more, up to 85,000) They all wanted to see the gladiatorial combats. Not only did they have their favourite types, they also supported individuals, well-known men who had survived many contests, becoming celebrities in the process. There would be gambling on the outcome of the matches, fan clubs, swooning females, and chants of support; all still familiar today, at football matches, or pop concerts. The early show would begin with large numbers of lower-ranking gladiators, sometimes as many as 50 pairs fighting at once, moving around the arena, to afford a good view to all, at some stage in the proceedings. After this was over, the dead cleared away, and the sand refreshed, there would be a ‘comic’ interlude. This could involve any number of bizarre scenarios, that would have amused the Romans of the day. They might have a contest between gladiators who wore solid helmets, without any eye openings. These ‘blind’ combatants would lurch around, swinging wildly at their opponents, egged on by a jeering crowd, in their version of ‘look behind you’. Other untrained gladiators would be pushed out onto the sand, poorly armed, and tied together by ropes, often having to be branded with hot irons to make them fight to the death.
The end of this day of games is approaching, and smaller groups of gladiators appear on the sand. The crowd goes wild. These are the stars of the show. Their owners have been paid a small fortune for their appearance, and if they do well today, and survive the fighting, the men will be rewarded with good food, wine, and a willing woman. They may even get the chance to service a lady of quality, and receive gifts, to add to their savings. These men are very different from those who have gone before. Professional, incredibly fit, and brimming with confidence and bravado, they appear fearless, under their flamboyant armour and stylised headgear. Each pair fight for much longer, and with much greater skill than the earlier contestants. If they please the crowd, they might be spared if they lose the fight, though that would be rare. The watchers yell the names of their favourites, even arguing and fighting amongst themselves, when a much-admired man falls. They gasp at skillful moves, and moan when someone receives a serious injury; or rise to a tremendous cheer when a champion is once again victorious.
As the day draws to a close, people begin to leave early, to avoid the rush. The last few fighters complete their matches, men dying unnoticed by the departing throng. There will be many more days of games to come. More slaughter and executions, some larger battles, and other chances to see the celebrities in action. Time for them to get home, avoiding the robbers, pickpockets, and unsavoury characters of the night. Time for me to get back into my machine, and return to the present, having experienced something I have wondered about my whole life.
My second trip in the Time Machine is much more mundane, but no less satisfying. I would go back to Friday 7th June, 2013. In possession of the winning numbers from last night’s unclaimed Euromillions Lottery, I would buy a ticket at my local shop, and wait to claim the 100,000,000 Euros on Saturday morning. That might even be enough to build a real Time Machine.