Gladiators: Ancient Romans Loved Their Deadly Games
The ancient Romans were known for many things – their engineering marvels, road networks, and the establishment of Roman law. They were, however, also renowned for their war-like nature. After all, this allowed the Romans to build an empire in the first place. This appetite for violence not only manifested itself in Rome’s imperialist policy, but also in its fascination with gladiators and the empire’s most well-known sport – gladiatorial combats.
The Origins of Gladiatorial Games
The concept of gladiatorial games has its roots in the Etruscans, the predecessors of the Romans. In Etruscan society, gladiatorial games were supposed to be part of the funerary rituals honoring the dead. Thus, gladiatorial combats originally possessed a sacred significance. Over the centuries, however, these funerary games came to be a form of entertainment, and the earliest Roman gladiatorial combat is said to have taken place in 264 BC.
Two Venatores (those who made a career out of fighting in arena animal hunts) fighting a tiger. Floor mosaic in Great Palace of Constantinople (Istanbul), 5th century. (Public Domain)
Why Did Gladiators Fight?
Many gladiators fought because they were forced into the arena as prisoners of war, slaves, or criminals with a death sentence. The use of Rome’s defeated enemies in these games is reflected in some of the gladiator types, including the Thraex (or Thracian), the Hoplomachus, and the Samnite. Thus, gladiatorial combats may be seen as a way for the Romans to re-enact the wars that they had with their conquered subjects. But not all gladiators were forced into the trade.
Despite the hard and precarious life, gladiators were the superstars of their day. The benefits to be found in fighting in the arena – fame, glory, and fortune - were strong enough to entice some people to become gladiators voluntarily. However, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim .
It is also recorded that some Roman emperors even participated in gladiatorial games themselves; the most famous of whom was probably the emperor Commodus. The participation of emperors in these games, however, was scorned by some, as gladiators belonged to the lowest of social classes.
Studies analyzing the teeth of supposed gladiators which have been found in Driffield Terrace, York, UK, have also suggested that gladiators generally came from harsh backgrounds. The research shows most of the men were extremely malnourished as children and likely came from disadvantaged homes. Their remains show the poor men were, however, well fed and adapted to battle later in life – possibly so they would be stronger and more impressive looking combatants in the gladiatorial games.
Despite the low social status of gladiators, they had the potential to gain the patronage of the upper classes; sometimes even benefits from the emperor himself. According to Suetonius, the emperor Nero awarded a gladiator, Spiculus, with houses and estates worthy of generals returning triumphantly from a war. Regardless of the authenticity of his claim, Suetonius made it to highlight the extravagant nature of the emperor by demonstrating that Nero was willing to shower a presumably lower classed individual with such expensive gifts.
Carving showing a Roman Emperor presiding over gladiatorial games. ( Sailko/CC BY SA 3.0 )
Types of Gladiators
There are various types of gladiators, each distinguished by the weapons and armor that were used. In fact, there were so many different types of gladiators, that not all of them can be named here. Some of the more popular gladiator types are:
The retiarius (which may be literally translated to mean ‘net-man’ or ‘net-fighter’) is a type of gladiator armed with a net, a trident, and a dagger. With little armor, the retiarius relied on speed and agility in the arena.
The secutor (meaning ‘follower’ or ‘chaser’) was regularly pitted against the retiarius, and had a smooth helmet shaped like the head of a fish. This gladiator was armed with a sword and carried a shield.
The murmillo is sometimes referred to as the ‘fishman’ because of the fish motifs on the heavy helmet of this gladiator. He fought with a sword and carried a shield too.
The provocator (‘challenger’) wore a full breastplate and a helmet with a visor. A provocator usually only fought a fighter of this same type and he also had a sword and a shield.
The hoplomachus (Greek for “armed fighter”) started the battle with a lance and had a dagger as a back up weapon. This gladiator had a small circular shield, a brimmed, sometimes plumed helmet, an arm guard, and shin guards for protection.
The Thraex (also known as Thracian) type of gladiator had similar armor to the hoplomachus, but the helmet had a silver-plated head of Medusa on the front and a griffin’s head at the top. The gladiator had a small round or square shield and fought using a curved Thracian sword.
The rudiarius was a rare type of gladiator who had won his freedom but chose to return to battle in the arena. These gladiators were generally very popular with the public.
Gladiators fighting in the arena. ( Fotokvadrat /Adobe Stock)
Life of the Gladiators Revealed in Graffiti
While the story of the aforementioned Spiculus may be an extreme case, assuming that it was true, gladiators were indeed valuable assets to their “owners”. The more victories a gladiator won the more valuable he was. The popularity of victorious gladiators is evident in the surviving graffiti on walls in Rome and other cities where such games were held.
Some of the graffiti reveal the number of victories a gladiator had, such as: ‘Petronius Octavius 35, Severus 55, Nascia 60.’ Other graffiti was written to suggest that gladiators were quite popular with women: ‘Crescens, the net fighter, holds the hearts of all the girls’, and ‘Caladus, the Thraecian, makes all the girls sigh.’
- Gladiator Helmets: Fit for Purpose, Not Just Protection
- The Real Lives of the Gladiators of Rome – The Unfathomable Sport of Life and Death
- The Gladiators Priscus and Verus: Equal they Fought, Equal they Yielded
Stele for the gladiator Urbicus, from Florence, killed after 13 fights aged 22, in the mid-3rd century. In the inscription the man is mourned by his wife of 7 years, Lauricia, and by his two daughters, Olympia and Fortunensis. The inscriptions warns obscurely "the one who kills the winner", adding that Urbicus' fans (amatores) would keep his memory alive. ( No Copyright Restrictions )
When Gladiators Finally Exited the Arena
By the 4th century AD, the popularity of gladiatorial games was in a decline, as the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion. It was, however, only in 404 AD that gladiatorial games were altogether banned by the emperor Honorius due to the martyrdom of St. Telemachus.
According to the historian Theodoret, Telemachus was a monk who came to Rome from Asia Minor. During one of the gladiatorial games in the city, Telemachus leapt into the arena to stop two gladiators from fighting. The spectators, who were obviously unhappy with Telemachus’ action, proceeded to stone the monk to death.
Telemachus stops two gladiators from fighting. ( Candle in a Cave )
However, that dramatic event did not mark the end of ancient Roman blood sport. One form gladiatorial games, the venationes (wild animal hunts), continued for another century. And despite the fact that their days are long gone, the gladiator is still the first image one calls to mind when thinking about entertainment in ancient Rome.
Top Image: Gladiators fighting. Source: Fotokvadrat /Adobe Stock
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