Author Mary Winston Nicklin Illustration Graham Roumieu
“Charlton Heston was wrong,” announces Stellan Lind, a tall Stockholm native wrapped in a toga, speaking to the 500 spectators in a large hippodrome 50 minutes outside Amman, in the Roman ruins of Jerash. “The chariot race was seven times around the Circus Maximus, not nine! And the spikes on the chariot wheels in Ben-Hur? Another Hollywood invention.”
With that, a trumpeter sounds the signal and a Roman legionnaire clad in full regalia enters the arena. From under a steel helmet, the centurion barks a command in Latin. Rows of soldiers emerge from another door and march toward one another, raising their shields and clutching their gladii. The soldiers advance and begin the “fight.” Amid the loud clashing of metal, the unmistakable sound of an imam’s call to prayer drifts across the crowd.
Lind sweats in his seat high above the action, surveying the scene like Emporer Titus. He’s the unlikely founder of the largest Roman historical reenactment in the world, the Roman Army and Chariot Experience, or RACE, and de facto general to the 45 actor-legionnaires who battle bloodlessly below (shows are twice daily, Saturday through Thursday).
“I’m the crazy guy who moved to Jordan to make his boyhood dream come true,” he says, mopping sweat from his brow with the fringe of his toga. As boyhood dreams go, this is a pretty eccentric one, but the result is a meticulously researched blend of history lesson and Hollywood spectacle.
The soldiers amass in formation and prepare to launch their javelins as the onlookers flinch. Soon chariots appear, harnessed to Iberian-bred steeds, and begin racing around the ring—seven times. Eventually, the RACE reaches its climax: Two gladiators emerge, dressed in rags and animal skins. One wields a trident and a net, the other a ball and chain. After a heated match, the crowd signals its disapproval for the vanquished soldier.
Lind pauses and thrusts out his hand: thumb down. With that, the defeated gladiator kneels, and the winner stands above him and finishes him off with a splash of red dye.