Gladiators and lions in the Arene de Lutece—the Lutece Arena, Paris

Gladiators and lions in the Arene de Lutece—the Lutece Arena, Paris.

Today I am looking for the gladiator. I know I will not find the Roman gladiator, but I will find the place where he fought so long ago in the city of Paris. The ruins of the Arene de Lutece—the Lutece Arena—are still there for all to see. Which was once not the case.

I am looking for a gladiator because I was wondering why Irish author James Joyce likened an Irish fighter with a gladiator of ancient times. The English soldier, Percy Bennett (1869-1936), known as Pucking Percy or Battling Bennett, was in the boxing ring fighting middle-weight Irishman Myler Keogh in the Portobello barracks. The Irishman won. 

Keogh, from Dublin, was a professional boxer, born 1866, with a boxing career spanning 1889 to 1904, although some reports say he continued to 1911. With 17 bouts and three professional contests, he became a boxing champion. The Englishman became an international rugby union player for the Welsh team of Cardiff Harlequins. 

“It was a historic and a hefty battle when Myler and Percy were scheduled to don the gloves for the purse of fifty sovereigns … The soldier got to business, leading off with a powerful left jab to which the Irish gladiator retaliated by shooting out a stiff one flush to the point of Bennett’s jaw. – James Joyce, Ulysses.

What is a gladiator? A gladiator is a swordsman, fighting other gladiators, and wild animals, in the time of the Roman Empire. Gladiators often fought in an arena, as a spectacle for citizens to see. They were celebrated as strong, mighty, intellectual, committed, honourable, and brave. 

And so, I walked to the 5th arrondissement of Paris to find the ancient Lutece Arena where gladiators once fought. 

In the Latin Quarter in Paris is a Roman arena called the Lutece Arena. It was still visible during the reign of Philippe-Auguste in the 12th century, then disappeared under rubble. The site was rediscovered in 1869 and now incorporates a garden, as well as a skateboard park, an oval, and a boules area.

Constructed in the 1st century AD as an amphitheatre, the arena has terraced seating that could seat 15,000 people. There are nine niches that once held statues. Five small rooms are located beneath the lower terraces, probably to hold animals. After 577 AD, it became a cemetery. 

Between 1860-1869 it was planned to be a tramway depot, but author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) undertook to save the site as an archaeological treasure. The tram lines were dismantled in 1916, and now a Metro line runs underneath, leaving the site above intact.  

Here, in this large protected area of Paris, people can enter for free, sit on the benches and take in the sights of the ancient arena surrounded by modern buildings. For those with ancient imaginations, they will see the famed and honourable Roman gladiators in the very heart of Paris. 

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