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Prof appears on the History Channel

September 22, 2008

Prof appears on Discovery Channel this week

Classics professor Eric Nelson will once again be featured in prime time, this time talking about torture, animals and the environment, all in the time of the Caesars. Nelson will be featured this week on a Discovery Channel program, “Machines of Malice,” which will first air Tuesday, Sept. 23. He will also be travelling to Vancouver today (Monday) to work on an Animal Planet program, Animal Gladiators. Both programs will look at how Rome dealt with its prisoners – not very nicely – and the animals it used in the Coliseum games. Some animals faired a bit better than the convicts, simply because they were so expensive to capture, transport and care for, Nelson said.

In both films –Animal Gladiators will air later this year – Nelson worked as an expert consultant, giving a flavor of the culture of the time and the mindset of the population.

“Machines of Malice” will look at how “advancements in technology” – such as electricity – are soon often used to inflict pain and death, like the electric chair. In Nelson’s case, he will be in the segment focusing on implements of torture in the Greco-Roman era, such as the cross, fire and the wheel, and famous torture devices such as Phalaris’ Brazen Bull and Apega of Nabis.

Nelson’s footage was filmed over three hours in a Los Angeles hangar where NASA used to assemble the space shuttle.

He was also on the set to make sure the producers didn’t make a factual mistake, such as the idea that Romans or the ancient Greeks would torture someone by strapping them to a wheel and pushing them off a cliff.

“Probably didn’t’ happen,” he said, “The Greeks were famous for strapping someone to a wheel and torturing them, but not for rolling them off a hill.”

Interestingly, the Greeks and Romans essentially didn’t have prisons. If you were convicted of a crime, the way you would die – by crucifixion, in the Coliseum or the mines – or by beheading (for Roman citizens)– came about rather swiftly.

And they crucified people a lot, he noted. One mass crucifixion (the remains of Spartacus’ rebellion) stretched for 300 miles along the Via Appia leading from Rome. Romans considered the convicts subhuman and not worthy of mercy, he noted.

Animals captured for the shows in the great Coliseum weren’t torture, but in the end, did die. During the time when the great shows were at their height, between the first and third century AD, thousands of animals from tigers to hippos, died. So much so that the species were virtually wiped out in certain areas.

“There are letters from the first century AD that repeatedly ask Cicero for some leopards from Asia Minor,” Nelson said. “He essentially writes back and says “There aren’t many left, you’re going to have to ask someone else.”

There is much evidence that the ancient world, with fewer humans and many more animals “was a wild and wooly place,” he said. Clearing out predators so that farmers could move in, was “seen as a good thing,” Nelson said.

Nelson also appeared in a documentary three years ago on the History Channel.