Thursday night saw the premier of ITV2’s latest attempt to replicate the runaway success of their summer smash hit Love Island. Their latest formula preserves the combination of toned and tanned young people soaking up the Mediterranean sun but throws in the curveball of some ancient history. Welcome to Bromans.
The tagline, Modern Geezers in the Time of Caesar, neatly sums up the appeal of this new offering. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Joey Essex hijacked a Tardis and piloted it into the centre of the Colosseum, Bromans is the show for you.
If, however, you’d rather take the titular role in the emperor Nero’s production of Daniel in the Lions’ Den than tune into such a show, then I would like to convince you to give it a chance.
The premise of Bromans is to take eight fit young men out of the gyms of the 21st Century and transplant them into the Colosseum of imperial Rome. Will they be able to cut it as gladiators, or will the arena chew them up and spit them out?
To help the boys in their adventure, they’ve all brought their girlfriends along for the ride. Ostensibly, the girls are on-hand to learn how to live life as Roman matrons. If the first episode is anything to go by, however, they will be spending rather more time wrestling each other in gold lamé bikinis.
For all that Bromans’ existence is predicated on testing just how much naked flesh can be shown on a major British television channel on the cusp of the watershed, the producers have made an effort to provide some historical information along the way.
Take the first two challenges: the episode opened with our lads chained naked at one end of the arena while their girlfriends wrestled to win them clothes. In terms of aesthetics, the appeal of this is unclear (see above). Historically, however, what better introduction could there be to daily degradation and humiliations suffered by the novice gladiator?
For all their celebrity, we should never forget that gladiators were among the lowest of the low: largely slaves and prisoners of war, even the minority of Roman citizens who volunteered to fight in the arena suffered the social stigma and legal disabilities of infamia.
After this ritual humiliation, the boys engaged in a trial of strength: hurtling around a street circuit dragging a chariot piloted by their lady.
I must admit to being impressed by the effort that had been put into sourcing an authentic chariot. Attempts to divine exactly how a Roman chariot might have worked have always been hampered by the fact that: a) none survive; and b) representations of chariots on mosaics tend to prioritise showing crashes.
To make their authentic chariot, Bromans’ props team seem to have taken a trip to the British Museum to study the only surviving 3D model of a Roman chariot: a child’s toy that could fit in the palm of your hand.
So congratulations to the Bromans team! This excursus into the arena gets plenty right in terms of historical accuracy and simultaneously manages to be an entertaining slice of reality television in its own right.
Bromans’ greatest success, however, is to capture something rather more tangible about the world of gladiators. The vanity, the preening, the machismo: how different is the arena really likely to have been? Your average Roman may not have wanted a gladiator for a neighbour, but the men who fought in the arena were reflections of many of the virtues that Roman culture held dear: power, violence and, for want of a better word, manliness.
Ultimately, our view of Roman culture will always be incomplete if we fail to incorporate the vulgarity of Bromans. The picture of Rome given to us by writers like Cicero and Seneca is one of philosophy and rhetoric, they would like us to forget the blood, sweat and sand that occupied the centre of Roman life.
So I would urge everyone to tune into the next episode. If it makes you feel queasy, if it makes you feel cheap, ask yourself whether you object to ITV’s product, or whether you have a more deep-seated objection to the realities of non-elite Roman culture.
Bromans will not let you forget the essential coarseness of life in ancient Rome, and for that we should be grateful.
The next episode of Bromans is on ITV2 at 9pm on Thursdays.
Andrew Sillett is a Departmental Lecturer in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford. Andrew’s specialism lies in the literature of the late Roman Republic and early Empire, with a chief interest in life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero. You can find Andrew on Twitter @AndrewSillett.
Image: All Bromans images are screenshots from the television show and are used under Fair Use
Image: Roman Chariot [via VRoma Project}