The real gladiators: Kathleen Coleman discusses Christians in the Roman arena for Assembly Series

Harvard classicist was adviser to Gladiator film but you won’t see her name listed in the credits

The overwhelming popularity of the 2000 Oscar-winning film Gladiator is a recent example of the hold of the Roman spectacle on our collective conscience. Many of these images first take shape from Biblical stories of Christian martyrdom.

Ancient Rome was a brutal place, but did Hollywood get it right? Are the images we carry around with us the way it really was?

The answer is so much more fascinating and complex than these simplistic depictions, according to Harvard classicist Kathleen Coleman, DPhil, who served as consultant to Gladiator filmmaker DreamWorks. Unfortunately, her script suggestions were ignored. (See Lubbock Avalanche-Journal article: Gladiator leaves historical accuracy of Rome in ruins.)​

At 4 p.m. Thursday, April 11, Coleman will give an Assembly Series talk that paints a real picture of the Roman arena spectacle, explaining Roman penal theory and practice regarding Christian martyrdom in the context of the expectations and attitudes of both the Roman authorities and audiences.

Coleman’s talk, the annual John and Penelope Biggs Lecture in the Classics, will be held in Steinberg Hall Auditorium on Washington University’s Danforth Campus; it is free and open to the public.

Coleman is the James Loeb Professor of the Classics at Harvard University. She joined the faculty at Harvard in 1996 after teaching Latin at Trinity College, Dublin, for several years.

Prior to that, Coleman was a lecturer in the Department of Classics at the University of Cape Town, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Latin in 1973. Two years later, she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in classics from the University of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); in 1979, she earned a doctoral degree from the University of Oxford.

For information on upcoming Assembly Series programs, visit or call (314) 935-4620.