The Fighting Gladiator by Dwight C.McLemore, 2014, Paladin Press, Boulder CO,
11 by 8 ½ inches, 272 pages. $39.00. Isbn – 978-1-61004-882-8
Dwight C. McLemore has carved out a niche for himself writing books recreating or describing techniques of historical of armed combat. His work on bowie knife fighting techniques, for instance, is well known among fans of the subject. In this book, McLemore takes on the task of describing the ways in which ancient Roman Gladiators fought and offers training methods showing how a modern weapons enthusiast or historical re-enactor could train to fight in a similar style. It’s an interesting and eye opening book on the subject full of beautiful illustrations.
To properly evaluate this book, two important factors need to be understood. First, although McLemore knows a great deal about historical and modern hand to hand combat and weapon fighting techniques, very few details of the training and fighting techniques of the Roman gladiators were recorded. Almost none have survived to the present day. Therefore the bulk of this book is educated guesses based on, for example, Roman era artwork depicting gladiatorial matches. For instance, in Chapter One, McLemore gives a detailed demonstration of his methodology by showing an illustration of a carved stone relief depicting a match between two gladiators, one of whom is a hoplomachus, a class of gladiators that normally entered the arena holding a spear.
This hoplomachus is engaged in close combat, but has no spear and is instead clutching a short sword. Why? Asks McLemore. Where did the spear go? Since spears are often thrown, McLemore hypothesizes that the hoplomachus would enter the arena, hurl their spear at an enemy, and then follow up the missile attack with a charge while holding their second weapon, a short sword. Throughout history this has been proven to be an effective use of such weapons. It would also, as McLemore notes, be exciting and entertaining for the crowd of spectators who would watch the matches. Furthermore it fits the descriptions of heroic Greek combat in the Odyssey and Iliad, works known to the Romans. Since the gladiatorial matches of Rome were intended as entertainment as much as anything else, McLemore argues that this is how the Hoplomachi fought. He then uses his background to create training methods that improve and teach how to throw a spear, switch to a sword, and close a gap quickly.
The highly animated line drawings depict the techniques quite well, and make many concepts involving techniques and suggested training equipment clear. The large size of the book enhances the pictures and makes them clear and easy to see.
Although McLemore’s background is quite impressive, he is not just a skilled martial artist but also a retired army colonel, it is worth mentioning again that these techniques are logical by hypothetical descriptions of how gladiators might have trained and not historically recorded techniques. These are interesting. MeLemore also includes thoughts on how to create training equipment for safe (or safer) training in such combat. For instance, he gives instructions on how create a simulated large Roman shield that is safe for training by cutting off a large portion of a plastic garbage can and using it for the base.
In the book, McLemore analyzes the fighting styles of five different kinds of gladiators. These include the hoplomachus, a spear and shield equipped, armored fighter inspired by the Roman image of a heroic Greek fighter, as well as the thraex, the murmillo, and provocator, who were all various kinds of sword and shield equipped armored fighters. The final class of gladiator he examines is the dimachaerus, an armored fighter who fought with two swords but no shield. Sadly, he does not include the retarius, the unarmored or lightly armored net and trident using fighter, but realistically this style of fighting is so unusual that it probably falls outside McLemore (and almost everyone else’s) realm of knowledge.
In conclusion, this wonderfully illustrated book is an interesting and valuable addition to anyone who has a library on either ancient gladiators of Rome or else varied techniques of weapon combat. It covers an obscure topic, but one McLemore apparently had a strong interest in. (The editors tell me that this was his last book with them and he chose the topic out of interest in the subject.)