The Gladiators Priscus and Verus: Equal they Fought, Equal they Yielded
“As Priscus and Verus each drew out the contest and the struggle between the pair long stood equal,
shouts loud and often sought discharge for the combatants. But Titus obeyed his own law (the law was that the bout go on without shield until a finger be raised). What he could do, he did, often giving dishes and presents. But an end to the even strife was found: equal they fought, equal they yielded. To both Titus sent wooden swords and to both palms. Thus valor and skill had their reward. This has happened under no prince but you, Titus: two fought and both won.”
-Martial, ‘Liber spectaculorum’
Priscus and Verus were a tough pair of gladiators who lived during the latter part of the 1st century AD. They are famous for their drawn-out battle in the Flavian Amphitheater of Rome (better known as the Colosseum). This was one of the first gladiatorial battles held in the well-known arena and their brutal struggle likely helped draw in the crowds. The battle between Priscus and Verus was immortalized by the Roman poet Martial, who described the unconventional fight in his work ‘ On the Public Shows of Domitian .’
Marcus Valerius Martialis as Martial, was a Latin poet of Spanish origins best known for his twelve books of Epigrams, published in Rome between 86 and 103 AD. ( Public Domain )
Apart from the information provided by Martial, close to nothing is known about either Priscus or Verus. We have neither an idea about the origins of these two fighters, nor a clue about what happened after their battle. We do not know much about their careers as gladiators either. It is probable that they were very famous in their time, as they were chosen to fight each other as part of the celebrations held for the opening of the Colosseum.
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Where and Why the Famous Gladiators Fought
The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, is arguably one of the most recognizable monuments in the city of Rome. The construction of this monumental structure began in 72 AD, during the reign of Vespasian, the fist emperor of the Flavian dynasty, and it was completed in 80 AD, during the reign of Vespasian’s eldest son and successor, Titus.
The Colosseum in Rome. (BigStockPhoto)
Further modifications were made during the reign of the Domitian, Titus’ brother. Thus, the Colosseum may be said to be a grand project of the Flavian dynasty. In 80 AD, when the structure was completed, Titus is recorded to have celebrated its opening by holding inaugural games that lasted for about a hundred days. Apart from gladiatorial battles, the entertainment included fights involving a variety of wild and tame animals, public executions, as well as imitations of famous naval battles.
This mosaic depicts some of the entertainments that would have been offered as ancient Roman entertainment. Tripoli, Libya, 1st century. ( Public Domain )
Detailing the Gladiatorial Fight
One of the highlights of the inaugural games must have been the battle between Priscus and Verus. Whilst other gladiatorial battles were also held during the celebrations, the battle between Priscus and Verus is unique in that it is the only detailed description of a Roman gladiatorial fight that has survived till today. The battle between these two men can be found in Martial’s On the Public Shows of Domitian , and is as follows:
“While Verus and Priscus were prolonging the combat, and the valour of each had been for a long time equal, quarter for the combatants was demanded with great clamour. But Caesar obeyed his own law. The law was to fight with a stated reward in view, till by his thumb one of the pair proclaimed himtelf vanquished: but, as was allowed, he frequently gave them dishes and gifts. An end, however, was found for the well-matched contest: equal they fought, equal they resigned. Caesar sent wands to each, to each the meed of victory. Such was the reward that adroit valour received. Under no other prince save thee, Caesar, has this ever happened, that, when two fought with each other, both were victors.”
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Gladiators fighting. ( Cicero in Rome )
Praising the Gladiators or the Emperor?
Martial uses this poem as an opportunity for flattery. Although the text is about the battle between Priscus and Verus, it seems to be primarily aimed at praising Titus. For example, Titus is portrayed as a just ruler, as he ‘obeyed his own law’, despite the calls from the audience to spare the fighters. Nevertheless, Titus is also capable of generosity, as he ‘frequently gave them dishes and gifts’ when it was allowed. Lastly, the magnanimity of Titus is demonstrated when he awarded the wooden sword to both gladiators, which made them free men. According to Martial, this has never happened under any other emperor, which implies the benevolence of Titus.
The battle between Priscus and Verus has been fictionalized in the docudrama by the BBC entitled Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story .
Top image: Gladiators fighting. Source: My Gladiators
By Wu Mingren
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