With Conqueror’s Blade: Colosseum approaching its Season finale, we spoke to Dr Christopher Epplett — lecturer at the University of Lethbridge, historian, and author of Gladiators & Beast Hunts: Arena Sports of Ancient Rome and Gladiators: Deadly Arena Sports of Ancient Rome — for a retrospective on the gladiator-themed update.

Dr Epplet’s interest in Ancient Rome began when he was a child, and after studying Classics, he went on to get his doctorate at the University of British Columbia.

Read on to see what the man himself had to say on everything from Ancient Rome to gladiators, and of course Conqueror’s Blade: Colosseum.

What do you think of Conqueror’s Blade: Colosseum?

It looks interesting! In terms of the gladiator types—-the Retiarii had a little more armour than I would suggest, although I realise this is a video game and you can't have everything, or you might want to spruce it up. Although you still got the basic weapon right and so forth, such as the spear. I can understand, again, in terms of the game aesthetic where you might want the Retiarii to wear a little more exciting armour, rather than basically walking around in a loincloth. There wasn’t anything [in terms of the gladiator Units] that leapt out at me as being completely off base.

Now you know how we portrayed gladiators in Conqueror’s Blade, how do you feel Ancient Roman culture and gladiators are portrayed in video games generally?

From what I've seen in my limited sample size, it's a little bit like Hollywood in that they often get the broad outlines right, but some of the details are changed. Sometimes it might just be a mistake; other times I can understand it's trying to fit into the design concept of the game.

It's the same with Hollywood where again, they get the broad outline right but they take some shortcuts and so forth for the sake of the narrative or the film, like the movie Gladiator. If you look at that film closely as an ancient historian, there are some things that certainly aren’t a hundred percent correct. One example I'll quickly give is when that gladiator comes out of retirement to fight him. What he's wearing, that fancy helmet, is actually a Roman cavalry helmet that they wore on parade. Evidently, the producers thought it would look nice and it does look cool.

So we've talked about the units in Conqueror’s Blade: Colosseum, and you've said that they're pretty good historically. What do you think of our 6v6 Colosseum mode? Could such large team fights have occurred in Ancient Rome?

There could be on occasion, yeah. I mean, we're more familiar with the one-on-one, but they could have larger groups fighting like that. There's nothing inherently wrong about having a six against six. One of the things they would do, and this would be even larger than six against six, they would reenact ancient battles. For some of their maritime spectacles, they'd find a body of water, or in the early days of the Colosseum, they may have flooded the Colosseum floor itself and put some boats in it.

In our research on keeping gladiators and feeding them and training them, we read that they were taught not to kill their competitor in the bouts if they could help it. Have you found that to be true, or is this only true of when emperors fought, such as Emperor Commodus sparring as a secutor?

Certainly, whenever an emperor got into the arena (the sources don't really go into detail about this), I'm sure various safety measures were observed to make sure that the emperor in question wasn't killed. The one example I can think of in terms of Commodus fighting animals in the arena was they would have an elevated walkway so he could run around and shoot animals with his bow in perfect safety. The one general point to keep in mind is that yes, gladiatorial boats generally were much less fatal and much less bloody than people commonly believe.

One thing to keep in mind along these lines is particularly in the later empire when the economy became worse and worse, and the cities of the empire, including Rome herself, found it more and more difficult to fund the spectacles. One thing to keep in mind in this context is how expensive gladiators were, so if you as an organiser had rented out a group of gladiators to fight in your spectacle, you'd already paid a considerable amount of money, and for any that were killed, presumably, you would have to pay more. So, it was in the spectacle organiser's best interest to keep casualties to a minimum. In the case of the emperors, at least in the early empire, they had all the funds they wanted, so they didn't have to worry as much about fatalities.

Forced servitude as a gladiator was not the most glamorous life, but there was some sort of fame that came from being successful. Would you perhaps compare them to modern-day cage fighters?

I think in certain respects you can make that comparison. I've also heard them compared to rock stars. Certainly, at least some of these gladiators appear to have got a genuine thrill from going out and demonstrating their testosterone by besting their opponent on the arena floor, which goes right along with cage fighters. I think even today we're not as evolved as we like to think we are, I think there's still a hidden part of many people that enjoy combat sports with real risks.

I don't really watch MMA, but I have nothing against it. I don't watch it but I've seen instances or seen clips where the crowd is cheering when a guy gets his arms snapped or whatever. Gladiators and their parallels with rock stars or MMA fighters or what have you—there's the same thing when ancient authors talk about the sex appeal of gladiators. I think at least for some of the gladiators involved; it stoked their ego. We know for a fact some people volunteered to become gladiators. They weren't necessarily compelled to because they were prisoners of war or because they were financially destitute, they did so of their own free will.

We produce a series of articles called Conqueror’s Tales where we write about the historical influences behind the game. We recently published an article on female gladiators or gladiatrixes. What evidence have you come across to corroborate the existence of female gladiators?

It's very scattered. The relief of the two female gladiators fighting [Amazonia and Achillia], that's from modern-day Turkey, and we might perhaps extrapolate from that, that female gladiators were not unheard of periodically. I think despite the moral condemnation that such participants in the games might attract in Rome, one thing that spectacle organisers seemed to have been looking for constantly over time was novelty, because if you kept showing the same thing over and over, eventually, your audience would get bored.

Putting in a novelty like female gladiators certainly appears to have been one way to pique spectator interest. Even in Rome, the appearance of female gladiators from time to time is something that sparks interest again, despite the moral condemnation that we hear about in the sources. That relates to the idea that it was unseemly for women to appear in the arena, particularly women of higher status. It's along the same lines of the same condemnation of when men of senatorial or high status go into the arena. Hence there are attempts through legislation and the like to shut both of these things down. We can certainly say that the female gladiators who we hear of periodically were not an isolated phenomenon.

What meaning do you personally think is correct of the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” gladiator gesture?

I'm not going to die on a hill over this, but I'm almost more sympathetic towards the idea that we've got it wrong, because the basic line is, “the thumb turned” to indicate death. But again, if you think that when you're walking along your thumb's natural position is down, then, it could be this (gestures upwards).

Thank you to Dr Christopher Epplett for speaking with us, and to all our players, we hope you enjoyed Conqueror’s Blade: Colosseum! Stay tuned for news on the upcoming Season very soon.