Too Young to Die for Glory

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, October 03, 2012

My son was a bit obsessed with the Colosseum for a long time before we went to Italy. Last Christmas my sister bought him this book with its huge pop-up of the Colosseum and a pack of trading cards that depict the various kinds of gladiators who fought there. He really loved it, and would sit in his bed thumbing through the pictures and cards before falling asleep. He really focused on the gladiator and Colosseum stuff in the books I picked up to get the kids excited about Italy (particularly the heavily-illustrated Eyewitness book). In Rome we spent a Sunday morning in the Capitoline museums and then headed down to the Via dei Fori Imperiali to find it closed to traffic. We walked down the middle of the usually-chaotic road right past all the statues of the various Caesars and I was behind him when he first looked to the end of the road and saw the actual Colosseum. He started jumping up and down with excitement and I was ready to retire from parenthood because I didn't think I could get any prouder.

For many years now groups of filthy, grizzled criminals have dressed as Roman soldiers who stand around the Colosseum extorting euros out of unsuspecting Euros who pose for pictures with them. A few years ago the police went undercover and busted a bunch of them for fighting each other in pitched battles over territory, which is possibly the most awesome thing ever. When my son saw these guys his jaw dropped, and I surprised him by opening my bag to reveal that I'd been lugging most of his beloved Roman soldier costume around all day. We buckled him in and he went right up to the "real" Romans and stared them down with his toughest look.

The legionaries were too busy mugging for the camera with a busload of Chinese tourists and talking on the phone to notice my son, much to his disappointment. "I don't think they were real Romans," he said a few minutes later. "Romans don't have phones." So we marched around the entire Colosseum and he just stared up at it and I wondered what he was thinking.

I had never been inside the building before (I was always too cheap and too annoyed with the idea of the crowds I could see puttering about inside). But how could I not bring him in? While my wife and daughter cooled off in a cafe, we waited in the line and all the Italian ladies working the crowd cooed at him and called him "Gladiatore!" (which is how he still pronounces it). Inside he was a tiny spectacle but loved every minute of it. Here he is, I believe, shouting, "Those who are about to die salute you!" I just shrugged as if I had no idea where he picked up such things.

I had to drag him out of there. I'm pretty sure he thought he was going to get to go down in the pits and meet the real gladiators. I couldn't tell him that they had all been gone for more than a thousand years. I might as well have told him I was Santa Claus, too. So I just told him they were all in an important meeting with the lions.

* * * * *

A handful of plastic gladiators we picked up at a tourist shop and this amazing book kept him entertained for most of the the flight home. He learned the names for all of the different styles of gladiators and it wasn't long before he told me he wanted to be a gladiator for Halloween and I warned him that gladiators never wear shirts and Halloween is always cold so he just reasoned that I could just make him a gladiator costume before Halloween and I agreed that it sounded like something I might do.

Yeah, I should just go ahead and change the name of this blog to Nurturing Strange Obsessions. Back home, I bought three board feet of walnut and set to making my son a little amphitheater for his mini gladiator battles. Fighting on that fold-down airplane tray was rather sad and I felt they needed a fancier place to die for glory. Instead of a full Colosseum I just made half so he could actually play with his guys inside it. I cut the wood into six equal pieces and then did the cutouts for the archways on the scroll saw. Then I cut the edges at an angle so they would curve when fit together.

I sanded it for several days and added some embellishments while the kids played at the playground then finished it with linseed oil that really brought out the beauty of the walnut, which I chose because I thought that particular wood would be kind of reminiscent of the grimy patina on the actual Colosseum.

He always throws sand onto the plywood base. I like how he puts Caesar up on the walls so that all the gladiators can do their customary salute before butchering each other, and so he can give a thumbs up or thumbs down when they're done. There are few feelings as good as your kid telling you how much he loves something you've made for him.

The plastic lions and tigers sometimes like to get in on the action. I'd like to say I took this opportunity to teach my children about the horrific history of slavery in the ancient world, or the cruelty of Roman class structure, or even suggest that the Roman arena was like the historical precedent for the squared circle of the World Wrestling Federation, with what Roland Barthes called the same "the spectacle of excess." But, you know, I just jump in with my own gladiator dude and groan a glorious death to the cheering of the crowd.

He decided that his favorite kind of gladiator was the Thracian, with his elaborate griffin-topped helmet and bent sword. I had to admit that was the best one. After all, Spartacus was a Thracian. So I got to tell him the story of Spartacus and his army of gladiators and slaves beating back the Romans. I would have shown him clips from the Kirk Douglas movie but I was afraid he'd yell at the computer like Ralphie in The Sopranos: "They didn't have flattops in ancient Rome!" Here's a real Thracian helmet they found in Pompeii on display at the Louvre:

How cool is that helmet? Now imagine how cool it is to a 4-year-old boy. There's evidence to suggest that this helmet was decorated even further with huge feather plumes. I had to see if I could make one. Shut up. My wife was in Texas for work and there was no one around to tell me not to. So first I made a pattern out of cardboard and duct tape:

Then I cut it out of leather and sewed all the pieces together and he tried it on.

The face mask didn't look quite right, so I redid it with a piece of softer leather. We dyed it with a coat of black and then a coat of silver and then one more really light coat of black.

Then we added the pheasant feathers. When it was done, he didn't take that thing off for two full hours. My neighbors must think we're nuts. I also made him a bent wooden sword, of course, but that only took a few minutes.

So now all we need is a net man. Anybody out there have a four-year-old net man?