Roman Vampires!!

Gladiators shown on the late Roman Gladiator M...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the reasons I eventually ended up in Classics (and I’m sure it’s the reason many folks end up there) is that no matter how long you’re at it, there is ALWAYS something ‘new’ that you can happen upon which has interest for various reasons. A case in point is an article at Scientific American‘s blog, which is chatting about the history of transfusions. Here’s the incipit:

Medea, the sensual and ravishing sorceress of Greek mythology, enters the royal chambers. Knife in hand, she commands the servants to bring her an old sheep. Plunging her knife into the animal, she bleeds it nearly dry and then casts the limp sheep into a bubbling cauldron.  Its feeble bleating is soon replaced by the frolicking leaps of a young lamb. In this marvelous spectacle, Medea has demonstrated her ability to transfuse life to the dead and dying.

Her husband’s enemy, the elderly and bedridden King Pelias, is next.

Medea turns impatiently to the king’s daughters, who hover in a trance, drugged by the witch’s herbs and humbled by her otherworldly powers.  “Why do you hesitate and do nothing?” the enchantress snaps, “Go, now.  Draw your swords and drain out his old blood, so that I may fill his veins with young blood.”

Slowly, the women approach their father, who looks up at them with trusting eyes.  Then, like ravenous beasts, they pounce.  Mimicking Medea’s brutal and precise cuts, the daughters deftly slice open Pelias’s veins and drain them dry. Medea flees the scene, smug in the success of her deception.

… no problem there,  but then it goes on a bit later:

For the Ancient Greeks, blood was a magical elixir.  Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), one of the great historians of the Roman Empire, described the mad rush of spectators into arenas to drink the blood of fallen gladiators.

Despite my interest in ‘gladiator culture’ I had never heard of this before and — as often — I’m generally skeptical when I read unspecified references to Pliny the Elder on the internet insofar as they tend to be second or third hand, if they exist at all. In this case, however, it pans out … although it is put in the context of being a cure for epilepsy. Here’s the Latin (via Lacus Curtius … 28.4 using the numbering there):

Incipiemus autem ab homine ipsum sibi exquirente, inmensa statim difficultate obvia. sanguinem quoque gladiatorum bibunt, ut viventibus poculis, comitiales [morbi], quod spectare facientes in eadem harena feras quoque horror est. at, Hercule, illi ex homine ipso sorbere efficacissimum putant calidum spirantemque et vivam ipsam animam ex osculo vulu, cum plagis omnino ne ferarum quidem admoveri ora mos sit humanus. alii medullas crurum quaerunt et cerebrum infantium.

For the Latinless, here’s John Bostock’s translation (via Perseus … 28.2 using the numbering there):

Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts teeming with life, as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts even, upon the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons, forsooth, consider it a most effectual cure for their disease, to quaff the warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast! Others there are, again, who make the marrow of the leg-bones, and the brains of infants, the objects of their research!

FWIW, Celsus also mentions the drinking of gladiators’ blood for epilepsy (3.23.7), and seems to specify that it’s from a recently-killed gladiator (again, via Lacus Curtius):

Some have freed themselves from such a disease by drinking the hot blood from the cut throat of a gladiator: a miserable aid made tolerable by a malady still most miserable …

Folks might want to read on in the Pliny translation for some other ‘cures’ “derived from man” … Since I’m not a Twilight fan and won’t make any connections to that — but seeing as it’s Julius Caesar’s birthday and all — we can all ponder whether all the gladiatorial interest mentioned in regards to Julius Caesar is somehow connected to his rumoured epilepsy … hmmmmm

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3 thoughts on “Roman Vampires!!

  1. 🙂 No “hmmmmm” necessary. We know from the sources that Caesar’s physicians prescribed abstinence and fasting to treat his alleged epilepsy. So that’s rather the opposite, especially since cult followers of Venus were refraining from eating/drinking meat/blood. So if we are to insinuate something, we should rather insinuate that Caesar, son of Venus, refrained from meat and blood as well. As for his gladiatorial interest: many men of power or wealth had their own gladiator school. That was nothing unusual.

    • Furthermore, Caesar used the gladiators and instructed their coaches to create spectacles for the people. He himself doesn’t seem to have been “interested” in the gladiators and their fights, because he was criticized for attending to politics and his correspondence during the shows.

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