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From Roman Gladiators to Red Sox, We’re Still Here

Sports and fans: a tale as old as time

Boston Red Sox holiday decorations include a ballpark replica, a Red Sox-themed tavern and a Christmas tree ornament.
The Christmas Village collection of Fenway Park, with a Red Sox tavern and homemade Boston Strong ornament made by a friend, with dirt from Fenway Park’s outfield.

Since time is standing still for Red Sox Nation this off-season, why don’t we time travel a little bit? There’s nothing else to do besides furiously refresh social media in hopes of some free agent movement. So, instead, let’s step back to a particular gladiator battle from the Roman Empire. We’ll get back to those Fenway Christmas ornaments in the photo. Indulge me for a minute.

We learned about this particular battle from an artifact called the Colchester Vase. It was discovered in a Roman grave in 1853 in Colchester, England. It was originally thought to be an urn for human remains, which, in fact, it was full of. Rituals and objects associated with death are common throughout human history but what’s special about this vase is its unusually specific depiction of three scenes, with the crucial one highlighting two gladiators fighting each other one-on-one. Their names are emblazoned clearly: Valentinus and Memnon. The inscription provides some details about them too, like how many contests Memnon had won (nine) and which army regiment Valentinus served in.

Tests of the vase prove it was created in about 200 AD from clay that was dug locally in Colchester. In Roman times the place was a capital city called Camulodunum. According to a team of art historians and archaeologists affiliated with the museum where the vase now resides, this is evidence that gladiators actually fought in Britain, and not only farther south in the Roman Empire.

The tests have also shown that the gladiators’ names were carved at the time the vase was made, signifying that it was created specifically to honor them. Who would do that? The researchers speculate it was someone with an interest in the battle, like the gladiators’ owner (they were enslaved), a trainer or sponsor, or someone who had seen the contest and wanted to commemorate it.

In other words, a sports fan. They think the person who made or commissioned the vase is also the person whose remains were inside of it. That sounds like a true fan to me.

Based on this new evidence, they are now able to call the vase the first piece of confirmed sports memorabilia, like any current-day baseball card, commemorative cup, or my Fenway holiday ornaments.

There is something about the universal appeal of sports, about why we all keep tuning in, from the immortal Taylor Swift recently declaring that “I’ve been missing out my whole life” until she discovered football, to why we obsessively want to know—and quickly—where the free agents like Yoshinobu Yamamoto will end up.

We (you and I and the rest of us on the inside) know that sports are important, that they’re not just a game, as people sometimes like to say. We know that sports can be a delightful way to pass an afternoon, a sure-fire way to bond with strangers, a distraction from tough times (individual or collective), an opportunity to create family traditions and memories, a source of pride for a city or region.

I have two kinds of sports memories. There’s the atmospheric kind, where sports have created a mood or set an adventure in motion: my uncle grading papers with the Cubs game always on in the background, convincing my friend Tribs to meet me for the second game of a double-header because I was convinced that Nomar was going to break some record in that second game (I was wrong, it didn’t happen, and Tribs’ car got locked in the parking garage overnight. Stupid but priceless), taking my little sister to her first game and her asking me for advice on how to heckle the other team (it was the Yankees, so that was easy). Glorious memories. Some hilarious, some which have become a little more poignant over the years because people go in and out of your life, but all full of feeling, even today.

And then there are memories of amazing athletic achievements from games I’ve been to: Claudell Washington stealing home against the Sox (I’ll never forget the sight of him lumbering down the third-base line), Jon Lester pitching that classic no-hitter, Big Papi swatting the last hit I’d see him get in person. These moments all still captivate me. I still tell these stories.

Dan Secatore wrote on this site that: “We watch [sports] in the hopes of seeing something sublime…” (followed by some additional words of admiration for Shohei Ohtani). We’re in complete agreement on both points.

Sports, like holidays, like relationships, offer us a chance to experience something special. But it doesn’t always happen and that’s okay. Nothing wrong with an uneventful day at the ballpark. Sometimes you’re watching when that something special happens, and it’s so amazing that you tell that story forever. Maybe it’s ridiculous, like Peter bringing a Yankee fan to my birthday Red Sox game and taunting me the whole time, that bastard, and maybe it’s history-making. Either way, it’s one more story woven in with all the others that make up a life and connect it to others.

This Colchester Vase has been something like an early Christmas present for me. I like this continuity of the timeline of sports fandom. These feelings of connection and passion and wonder aren’t something we invented along with the modern versions of the sports we care about, or the players we care about who play them. It really is timeless. It’s bigger than me. Bigger than the world’s first verified (though unnamed) sports fan, who wanted to remember two competitors and the sporting event that left a mark on their life.