Roman Gladiator

Roman Gladiator

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A Roman gladiator was an ancient professional fighter who usually specialised with particular weapons and types of armour. They fought before the public in hugely popular organised games held in large purpose-built arenas throughout the Roman Empire from 105 BCE to 404 CE (official contests).

As fights were usually to the death, gladiators had a short life expectancy and so, although it was in some respects a glamorous profession, the majority of fighters were slaves, former slaves or condemned prisoners. Without doubt, gladiator spectacles were one of the most-watched forms of popular entertainment in the Roman world.

Etruscan Origins

The Romans were influenced by their predecessors in Italy, the Etruscans, in many ways. For example, in the use of animal sacrifice for divining the future, the use of the symbolic fasces and organising gladiatorial games. The Etruscans associated these contests with the rites of death and so they had a certain religious significance. Although the first privately organised Roman gladiator contests in 264 BCE were to commemorate the death of a father, the later official contests discarded this element. Vestiges of the religious origins did, however, remain in the act of finishing off fallen gladiators. In this case, an attendant would strike a blow to the forehead of the injured. The attendant would wear a costume representing Hermes the messenger god who escorted souls to the underworld or Charun (the Etruscan equivalent). The presence of the divine Emperor himself, accompanied by priests and the Vestal Virgins also lent a certain pseudo-religious air to the contests.

Gladiator games were a bloody entertainment & the gladiator contests were literally a matter of life & death.

Kings of Entertainment

Roman gladiator games were an opportunity for emperors and rich aristocrats to display their wealth to the populace, to commemorate military victories, mark visits from important officials, celebrate birthdays or simply to distract the populace from the political and economic problems of the day. The appeal to the public of the games was as bloody entertainment and the fascination which came from contests which were literally a matter of life and death. Hugely popular events were held in massive arenas throughout the Roman Empire, with the Colosseum (or Flavian Amphitheatre) the biggest of them all. Thirty, forty or even fifty thousand spectators from all sections of Roman society flocked to be entertained by gory spectacles where wild and exotic animals were hunted, prisoners were executed, religious martyrs were thrown to the lions and the stars of the show, symbols of the Roman virtues of honour and courage, the gladiators, employed all their martial skills in a kill or be killed contest. It is a popular misconception that gladiators saluted their emperor at the beginning of each show with the line: Ave imperator, morituri te salutant! (Hail emperor, we who are about to die salute you!), whereas, in reality, this line was said by prisoners about to be killed in the mock naval battles (naumachia), also held in the arenas on special occasions.

Gladiators most often came from a slave or criminal background but also many prisoners of war were forced to perform in the arenas. There were also cases of bankrupt aristocrats forced to earn a living by the sword, for example, Sempronius, a descendant of the powerful Gracchi clan. It is also of note that until their outlaw by Septimius Severus in 200 CE, women were permitted to fight as gladiators. There were special gladiator schools set up throughout the Empire; Rome itself had three such barracks and Capua was particularly famous for the gladiators produced there. Agents scouted the empire for potential gladiators to meet the ever-increasing demand and fill the training schools which must have had a phenomenal turnover of fighters. Conditions in the schools were similar to any other prison, small cells and shackles for all, however, the food was better (e.g. fortifying barley), and trainees received the best possible medical attention; they were, after all, an expensive investment.

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The Thracian gladiator had a curved short sword (sica) & a very small square or round shield (parma).

Armour & Weapons

The term gladiator derives from the Latin gladiatores in reference to their principal weapon the gladius or short sword. However, there was a wide range of other weapons employed in gladiator contests. The gladiators also wore armour and their helmets, in particular, were objects of great workmanship, richly embossed with decorative motifs and set with ostrich or peacock plumed crests. Weapons and armour though depended on which class a gladiator belonged to. There were four principal classes:

  • The Samnite
  • The Thracian
  • The Myrmillo
  • The Retiarius

The Samnite class was named after the great Samnite warriors that Rome had fought and beaten in the early years of the Republic. Interestingly, the Romans, at least in the early days, used gladiator and Samnite as synonyms, suggesting an alternative origin to Etruscan for these contests. The most heavily armed, the Samnite had a sword or lance, a large square shield (scutum) and protective armour on his right (sword) arm and left leg. The Thracian gladiator had a curved short sword (sica) and a very small square or round shield (parma) held in the fist to deflect blows. The Myrmillo gladiator was sometimes known as the fishman as he had a fish-shaped crest on his helmet. Like the Samnite, he carried a short sword and scutum but had armour only of padding on arm and leg. The Retiarius had no helmet or armour other than a padded shoulder piece and he carried a weighted net. He would try to entangle his opponent by throwing the net and then stab with his trident.

Gladiators fought in particular combinations, usually to provide a contrast between slower, more heavily armoured classes such as the Myrmillo against quicker, less protected gladiators such as the Retiarius. There were many other lesser types of gladiators with various combinations of weapons and armour and names changed over time, for example, 'Samnite' and 'Gaul' became politically incorrect when these nations became allies. Other types of combatants also included archers, boxers, and the bestiarii who fought animals in the wild beast hunts.

Winners & Losers

Those who lacked the enthusiasm to fight were cajoled by their manager (lanista) and his team of slaves who brandished leather whips or red-hot metal bars. No doubt the indignant roars from 40,000 spectators and the unrelenting attacks of one's opponent also convinced many to fight till the end. There were cases of refusal to fight: Perhaps one of the more famous was in the gladiator games organised by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus c. 401 CE when the Germanic prisoners who were scheduled to fight decided instead to strangle each other in their cells rather than provide a spectacle for the Roman populace.

The losing gladiator, if not killed outright, often appealed for mercy by dropping his weapon and shield and raising a finger. His adversary could then decide to be lenient, although, as there was a significant risk of meeting again in the arena, it was considered good professional practice to kill your opponent. If the emperor were present then he would decide, although the crowd would certainly try to influence his judgement by waving cloths or gesturing with their hands - raised thumbs and shouts of Mitte! meant 'let him go', thumbs down (pollice verso) and Iugula! meant 'execute him'.

Victors in the contests, particularly those with many fights behind them, became darlings of the crowd and as surviving graffiti on Roman buildings indicates, they were particularly popular with women - cases of affairs with aristocratic ladies and even elopement were not unknown. Graffiti from Pompeii gives a fascinating insight into how the gladiators were seen by the general public: Oceanus 'the barmaid's choice' or another was described as decus puellarum, suspirium puellarum (the delight and sighed-for joy of girls) and also written were how many victories some attained: Petronius Octavius 35 (his last), Severus 55, Nascia 60. However, it should be noted that the average was much lower and there were even some games in which victors fought other winners until only one gladiator was left standing. More material rewards for winning one's contest included the prestigious palm branch of victory, often a crown, a silver dish heaped with prize money and perhaps, after years of victories, even freedom.

Emperor Commodus (180-192 CE) was keen & mad enough to compete himself in the gladiator arena.

Famous Gladiators

Perhaps the most famous gladiator of all was Spartacus, who led an uprising of gladiators and slaves from Capua, the leading producer of gladiators, in 73 BCE. From Thrace, the former Roman soldier had become a bandit until his capture and forced training as a gladiator. He and seventy comrades escaped from their training school and set up a defensive camp on the slopes of Vesuvius. Besieged, they then fled their position and rampaged through the countryside of Campania, collecting followers as they went and moulding them into an efficient fighting force. Battling his way north to the Alps, Spartacus displayed great military leadership in defeating four Roman armies on no less than nine occasions. Far from being a saint though, when a friend died in battle, Spartacus, in the old custom, arranged for three hundred Roman prisoners to fight gladiator contests in honour of his fallen comrade. After two years of revolt, the armies of Marcus Licinius Crassus finally cornered and quashed the rebels in Apulia in the south of Italy. As a warning to others, 6,000 of the prisoners were crucified along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome. Another consequence of this disturbing episode was that from then on, the number of gladiators owned by private citizens was strictly controlled.

Another famous gladiator was, in fact, a non-professional. Emperor Commodus (r. 180-192 CE) was keen and mad enough to compete himself in the arena, indeed, there were even rumours that he was the illegitimate son of a gladiator. One might argue that Commodus was a professional as he made sure to draw a fantastic salary for his appearances in the Colosseum. However, it is unlikely that Commodus, usually dressed as Mercury, was ever in any real danger during the hundreds of contests he fought in the arena, and his most frequent participation was as a slaughterer of wild animals, usually from a protected platform using a bow.

The End of the Show

Gladiator contests, at odds with the new Christian-minded Empire, finally came to an end in 404 CE. Emperor Honorius had closed down the gladiator schools five years before and the final straw for the games came when a monk from Asia Minor, one Telemachus, leapt between two gladiators to stop the bloodshed and the indignant crowd stoned the monk to death. Honorius in consequence formally prohibited gladiatorial contests, although, condemned criminals continued the wild animal hunts for another century or so. Many Romans no doubt lamented the loss of a pastime that was such a part of the fabric of Roman life, but the end of all things Roman was near, for, just six years later, the Visigoths led by Alaric would sack the Eternal City itself.

How Did Gladiatorial Games Evolve in Ancient Rome?

The gladiatorial games of ancient Rome are well-known today due to the numerous films produced over the last few decades where they play a role. The gladiators' fictional accounts show many truthful elements of the games but often mix different events from various periods of Roman history.

The reality is that the gladiatorial games played a major role in Roman culture from the early days of the Republic and the days of decline in the Empire. Archaeological, art historical, and textual evidence have allowed modern scholars to trace the evolution of the gladiatorial games from small private occasions that were associated with religion and rituals to the major events most people think of, which were for the most part designed to keep the people content and to eliminate enemies of the state.

Gladiatorial Games Defined

When one thinks of gladiatorial events today, images of men fighting each other with nets and tridents often first come to mind. Still, for many, images of men fighting ferocious big cats and other animals are also evoked. Actually, gladiatorial games and beast hunts were two different events, but they were both known as munera, which translated from Latin means “blood sports.”

Bloodsports became a hallmark of Roman culture from an early point, but another trademark of Roman culture was the tendency to categorize things, which the Romans did with their blood sports. The blood sport of hunting and killing animals for crowds, known as venation, is known from the Roman Republic era (509-first century BC), often playing a prominent role in military triumphs and public shows.

Although the Romans made beast hunting into a public event, its origins can be traced back to the Near East, where the kings of Egypt, Assyria, and other kingdoms killed lions to demonstrate their power and virility. [1] The first public beast hunt to be held in Rome took place in 186 BC, and from that point on, they became a regular occurrence in the amphitheaters around the city. The men hunting and killing the animals were usually free and professionals, but part of the entertainer class, so they were low on the Roman social scale. [2] The gladiatorial games' development is a bit harder to trace, although they also became a part of the Roman culture at an early point.

The earliest depictions of gladiatorial combat in Italy are the so-called Campanian gladiator frescoes, dated to the fourth century BC. Although no text accompanies the frescoes, it is believed that they show part of a funeral game probably fought by volunteers to the first bloodshed. Many other early gladiators were probably prisoners of war forced to fight in funeral games, which then evolved into skilled, professional fighters. The name “gladiator” is derived from the name of the sword many of the early gladiators used in the names, the gladius, indicating the martial background of the activity. [3]

The Hoplomachus — The Gladiators You Are Most Familiar With

Contrary to popular belief, many different types of Gladiators fought within the coliseums in Rome. Some were pitted against animals, some fought with little to no armor, and some were fully shielded and wielded lethal weapons. The ones commonly depicted in Hollywood as the fully armored Gladiator with a shield and a spear were known as the Hoplomachus. This class of Gladiators used to wear armor similar to a Roman soldier and would fight against similarly skilled fighters called the murmillo. They were best known for the entertainment they put on for the crowd using unique combat skills in a one-on-one duel as well as staged fights.

Gladiators had their Own Training Schools

Rome had three notable training schools , including Capua, which was known for the caliber of gladiators it produced. Agents would scout for potential gladiators to try and persuade them to come and fight for their honor. These gladiator schools offered both safety and incarceration.

Comparable to a prison regime, they offered the comfort and security of three hearty meals a day and the best possible medical attention. However, the recruits, who were free men, had to live in shackles and were not allowed to speak at mealtimes.

They were allowed to keep any rewards and money if they won a fight. Their diet consisted of protein and carbohydrates, like barley porridge and cereals – with no option of wine, only water. Although the gladiators were fighting fit, most of them were a little on the round side. Extra ‘padding’ around the midsection was desirable, as it offered some protection against superficial sword wounds.

This mosaic depicts some of the entertainments that would have been offered at the games. Tripoli, Libya, first century. ( Public Domain )

Origins of Roman Gladiators

The first gladiatorial games were held in 246 BC by Marcus and Decimus Brutus as a funeral gift for their dead father, where the slaves fought each other to death. The earliest gladiators were either slaves or prisoners of war, who fought other men or animals for the entertainment of spectators. With time even convicts were sentenced to death by fighting in the arena. With the increasing popularity of this blood sport, free men volunteered to fight in such matches, as the rewards for winners were very rich. Let us now look at the names of famous Roman gladiators, who were considered the best of their time.

Narcissus (wrestler)

Narcissus was a Roman athlete, [1] [2] likely a wrestler, [3] from the 2nd century AD. He is best known to history as the assassin of the Roman Emperor Commodus, by whom he was employed as a wrestling partner [2] [3] and personal trainer in order to train Commodus for his self-indulgent appearances in the Colosseum as a gladiator. In AD 192 he was recruited by several senators, led by Praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus, to assassinate the emperor.

During the series of civil wars after Commodus's death, Narcissus was executed.

On 31 December 192 AD, Commodus's concubine [2] and conspirator Marcia poisoned Commodus's wine. The poison failed, so Narcissus entered Commodus's bedchamber. [4] Commodus was supposedly in a drunken stupor after Marcia had poisoned him [1] and Narcissus proceeded to strangle his master in his bathtub [1] or, according to Herodian, in his bed. [3]

  1. ^ abc Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LXXII, pg. 117.
  2. ^ abc Lampridius, Historia Augusta. "Life of Commodus," pg. 306.
  3. ^ abc Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire from the Death of Marcus Aurelius to the Accession of Gordian III, I.i. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1.4.
  4. ^ Wasson, David L. "Commodus". World History Encyclopedia . Retrieved 22 November 2020 .

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Gladiators in ancient Rome: how did they live and die?

In 1993 Austrian archaeologists working at the Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey made a spectacular discovery – a cemetery marked by the tombstones of gladiators. The stones gave the names of the men and showed their equipment – helmets, shields, the palm fronds of victory.

With the tombstones were the skeletal remains of the fighters themselves, many of which bore the marks of healed wounds as well as the injuries that caused their deaths. Perhaps the most spectacular find was a skull pierced with three neat, evenly spaced holes. This man had been slain with the barbed trident wielded by a type of gladiator called a retiarius, who also fought with a weighted net.

The gladiator has long been an iconic symbol of ancient Rome, and a popular element in any Roman epic movie, but what do we really know about the lives and deaths of these men?

Until the discovery of the cities of Vesuvius in the 18th century, virtually everything we knew about gladiators came from references in ancient texts, from random finds of stone sculptures and inscriptions, and the impressive structures of the amphitheatres dotted about all over the Roman empire.

It is difficult now to quite comprehend the impact that the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum (both in the 18th century) had on the classically educated of Europe, who suddenly saw the reality of Roman lives in a bewildering array of objects, graffiti and paintings.

The reality could be spectacular, and in some cases seemed to confirm the more lurid stories in the sources. In 1764 the temple of Isis at Pompeii confirmed the practise of mysterious and esoteric eastern religions. Two years later, in rooms around the courtyard of the theatre, a number of skeletons were found together with a large quantity of gladiatorial armour, identifying the rooms as a gladiator barracks. Among the dead was a woman adorned with bracelets, rings and an emerald necklace.

Ever since, this discovery has become part of the mythology not only of Pompeii, but of the arena. At the time, it seemed to confirm scandalous stories in ancient sources of wealthy and aristocratic women having sexual adventures with brawny gladiators – though we now see the 18 skeletons in this room as a group of frightened fugitives sheltering from the disaster of the volcanic eruption.

From the point of view of reconstructing the gladiator, the most important discovery was the bronze gladiatorial armour and weaponry. This included 15 helmets richly ornamented with mythological scenes, and six of the curious shoulder guards known as galerus.

Gladiators were divided into categories – each armed and attired in a characteristic manner – and were then pitched against one another in pairings designed to show a variety of forms of combat. Each different type of equipment provided varying levels of protection to the body, deliberately giving the opponent the opportunity to aim for specific points of vulnerability.

All gladiator categories wore a basic subligaculm and balteus (a loincloth and broad belt). Among the most heavily armed gladiators were the thraex (Thracian) and the hoplomachus (inspired by Greek hoplite soldiers). Both wore padded leg-guards with bronze greaves (a form of armour) strapped over them on their legs (14 of such greaves were found in Pompeii).

Each carried a small shield: rectangular for the thraex, who was armed with a short, curved sword round for the hoplomachus, who carried a spear and short sword. Both wore a padded arm-guard or manica, but only on the sword/spear arm. The shield arm was unprotected, as was the torso.

The thraex and hoplomachus wore heavy bronze helmets of the type found in Pompeii. These had broad brims, high crests and face guards. Visibility was limited to what he could see through a pair of bronze grilles.

As gladiatorial re-enactors have discovered, breathing in these helmets isn’t easy, as the wearer is forced to inhale the air trapped in the face guard. Factor in fear and exertion – which would inevitably shorten the breath anyway – and you’ve got the makings of a lung-busting experience.

Another type of gladiator to wear a large helmet and carry a short sword was the murmillo. He was also armed with a large rectangular shield, which he used to defend his legs. He only wore armour on one leg – though the leg on the shield side was protected with padding and greave.

Two other gladiators – the provocator and secutor – also fought with one vulnerable leg, and only carried a manica on the weapon arm. While they also carried a short sword and large shield, they wore lighter helmets than the thraex, hoplomachus and murmillo.

The secutor’s helmet fitted close to his head. Visibility was restricted to two small eye-holes, and there was no decoration. The helmet was shaped like the head of a fish – for the simple reason that the secutor’s opponent, the retiarius, was equipped as a fisherman.

Gladiators in Britain

Compared with most other provinces of the Roman empire, Roman Britain has surprisingly little evidence for gladiators. The differences between Britain’s amphitheatres may help to explain this. Those sited at the legionary fortresses of Chester and Caerleon were built in the AD 70s to serve legionaries – the citizen-soldiers of Rome. Drawn from all over the empire, they would have expected to be provided with an amphitheatre – both for entertainment and to enact games on festivals associated with the imperial cult.

The legionary amphitheatres were stone-built like many across the empire. However, at the British tribal capitals the Romans built earthwork amphitheatres. There is evidence to show that these were infrequently used, and it appears that the native population didn’t wholly embrace the Mediterranean concept of the Roman games.

Despite this, there is evidence for the presence of gladiators. In 1738, a stone relief was found near Chester amphitheatre showing a left-handed retiarius – the only such depiction from the empire. And at Caerleon, a graffito on a stone shows the trident and galerus of a retiarius flanked by victory palms. These are the only references to gladiators from any British amphitheatre, and both are from the legionary sites.

In Britain there is but a single gladiator wall painting. Of the three gladiator mosaics left to us, the best is a frieze of cupid-gladiators at the villa of Bignor in Sussex. This features a secutor, a retiarius, and the summa rudis (referee) in a comic strip of an arena event.

Knife handles in bone and bronze are also found in the form of gladiators. An evocative piece is a potsherd discovered in Leicester in 1851, on which was scratched the words “VERECVNDA LVDIA : LVCIVS GLADIATOR”, or “Verecunda the actress, Lucius the gladiator”. This love token may relate to a couple in Britain but there is ambiguity. The pottery is of a type imported from Italy, and the graffito may have been made there as well.

The retiarius is perhaps the most extraordinary of all the gladiator classes, and his equipment shows most clearly the carefully choreographed balance between strength and vulnerability that ensured a degree of fairness and balance in gladiatorial combat.

The retiarius was almost wholly unprotected. If he was right-handed, his left arm would be protected by a padded manica, and on his left shoulder would be strapped a high shoulder-guard, the galerus. An example of a galerus was found in the Pompeii barracks, decorated with a dolphin and a trident, a crab and the anchor and rudder of a ship.

The retiarius wore no helmet, but he was armed with a long-handled trident, a short knife and a lead-weighted net or rete, after which he was named. The net could be used as a flail, but it is clear that the job of the retiarius was to throw the net over his opponent, catching the fish-like secutor, and then dispatching him with the trident.

Once he’d thrown the net the retiarius could use the trident as a pole arm. This is when the galerus comes into play: when using the trident two-handed, the left shoulder would be forward, and the galerus would prove an effective head-guard.

One tomb relief of a retiarius from Romania shows him holding what seems to be a four-bladed knife. The identity of this weapon remained a mystery until archaeologists discovered a femur at the Ephesus cemetery. This showed a healed wound just above the knee consisting of four punctures in the pattern of a four on dice.

The effectiveness of the retiarius is gruesomely revealed by the punctured skull discovered in Ephesus, but he did not always get his own way. A mosaic from Rome, now in Madrid, shows two scenes from a fight between a secutor named Astanax and the retiarius Kalendio. Kalendio threw his net over Astanax, but when he caught his trident in the folds of the net, Astanax could cut his way out and defeat Kalendio, who was then killed.

The same mosaic features another figure – an unarmed man in a tunic carrying a light wand. He is the summa rudis, the referee, reminding us that this was not a free-for-all, but a fight that must be carried out within a framework of rules and rituals. These rules would clearly be understood by the audience, who would have been at least as appreciative of the fighters’ skills as excited by pure blood-lust.

The audience would also have been fully aware who was putting on such entertainment for them. Gladiatorial shows were almost always staged by leading citizens – often to enhance their political careers by currying favour with the electorate. Thus the walls of Pompeii are daubed with painted election notices, alongside advertisements for gladiatorial spectacles.

One of many examples, found near the forum, reads: “The gladiatorial troupe of Aulus Suettius Certus will fight at Pompeii on 31 May. There will be a hunt and awnings. Good fortune to all Neronian games.”

There is little doubt about the popularity of the combats. Even tombs are covered with scratched graffiti showing the results of particular fights. A cartoon of two gladiators fighting in neighbouring Nola is captioned “Marcus Attius, novice, victor Hilarius, Neronian, fought 14, 12 victories, reprieved.”

This says a lot. Attius unexpectedly beat a veteran, but, like most of the combats recorded at Pompeii, the loser was spared. Being a gladiator was not an automatic sentence of violent death. The person funding the games (the editor) would commission a troupe (familia) of gladiators run by a proprietor/trainer (lanista). One such lanista, recorded in Pompeian graffiti,was Marcus Mesonius. He would acquire gladiators from the slave market. Legally, gladiators were the lowest of the low in Roman society, but a trained gladiator was a valuable commodity to a lanista, representing a considerable investment of time and money, and it would be in his interest to keep his stable well and to minimise the death rate.

Commodus: the emperor who loved to fight

The relationship between the emperor and the arena was complex. Emperors could get a bad reputation for showing too much enthusiasm for spectacles of death. Claudius, for example, was reputed to have keenly watched the faces of gladiators as they died, favouring the killing of the helmetless retiarii. For a member of the elite to fight in the arena was shameful – which was why Caligula, Nero and Commodus forced well-born Romans to do so.

Special contempt was reserved for those emperors who chose to fight as gladiators in the arena. Caligula liked to appear as a thraex. Commodus, however, was the most notorious for his arena appearances. He fought as a secutor, and was a scaeva – a left hander. According to Cassius Dio he substituted the head of the Colossus by the Colosseum with his own, gave it a club and bronze lion to make it look like Hercules (with whom he identified himself). He inscribed his own titles upon it, ending “champion of secutores – the only left-handed gladiator to conquer 12 times one thousand men”.

Interestingly, Aurelius Victor relates a story of Commodus refusing to fight a gladiator in the arena. The gladiator’s name was Scaeva. Perhaps Commodus was afraid to lose his usual natural advantage in fighting a fellow southpaw.

In AD 192, intending to assume the consulship of Rome in gladiatorial guise, he was strangled by an athlete. Thus he died in shame without the opportunity to take the coup de grâce with dignity like a true gladiator.

What were the survival rates of gladiators in ancient Rome?

A graffito now in Naples Museum gives the results of a show put on by Mesonius. Of 18 gladiators who fought, we know of eight victors, five defeated and reprieved, and three killed. This kind of ratio may be typical given the records in graffiti and on tombstones. There were veterans an unnamed retiarius on a tombstone in Rome boasted 14 victories, but few survived more than a dozen fights.

The painstaking forensic work on the Ephesus gladiator skeletons has provided startling and intimate insights into the way these men lived and died. Of the 68 bodies found, 66 were of adult males in their 20s. A rigorous training programme was attested by the enlarged muscle attachments of arms and legs. These were strong, athletic men, whose diet was dominated by grains and pulses, exactly as reported in classical texts. Yet as well as muscle and stamina, gladiators needed a good layer of fat to protect them from cuts.

The Ephesus skeletons also provided evidence for good medical treatment. Many well-healed wounds were found on the bodies, including 11 head wounds, a well-set broken arm and a professional leg amputation. On the other hand, 39 individuals exhibited single wounds sustained at or around the time of death. This suggests that these men did not die from multiple injuries but a lone wound. This provides further evidence for the enforcement of strict rules in the arena, and the delivery of a coup de grâce.

At the end of a bout a defeated gladiator was required to wait for the life or death decision of the editor of the games. If the vote was for death, he was expected to accept it unflinchingly and calmly. It would be delivered as swiftly and effectively as possible. Cicero speaks of this: “What even mediocre gladiator ever groans, ever alters the expression on his face. And which of them, even when he does succumb, ever contracts his neck when ordered to receive the blow?”

As we have seen, gladiators were at the bottom of the heap in Roman society. This remained the case no matter how much they were feted by the people. Above most qualities, the Romans valued ‘virtus’, which meant, first and foremost, acting in a brave and soldierly fashion. In the manner of his fighting, and above all in his quiet and courageous acceptance of death, even a gladiator, a despised slave, could display this.

Tony Wilmott is a senior archaeologist and Roman specialist with English Heritage. He was joint director of the Chester Amphitheatre excavations, and is the author of The Roman Amphitheatre in Britain.

Rogues not heroes

Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.

These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.

These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, the execution of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.

The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, it is an analogy that causes more problems than it solves.

The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly-behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.

Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).

Were they really the heroes they are made out to be? Dramatic painting portraying gladiators in the arena. Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1872. Public Domain.

The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.

At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.

Spiculus: Admired by an emperor

Spiculus is one of the most famous gladiators, who found his popularity in the 1 st century AD. Depictions of his battles have been represented in several ancient Roman artworks. Spiculus wasn’t only popular with regular audience attendees, but he was also admired by the notorious Roman emperor Nero. Spiculus’ fighting ability awarded him many riches and even palaces to live in when he wasn’t fighting.

Nero was so fond of Spiculus that when Nero saw his power was gone and he would soon be overthrown as emperor (by Vitellius), he requested for Spiculus to end his life. However, the emperor’s aides couldn’t reach Spiculus, and Nero ended up taking his own life.

What Did the Roman Gladiators Wear?

Roman gladiators fought bare-chested, but they wore canvas loincloths to preserve their modesty. They were allowed to wear sandals, but many chose not to. Gladiators also wore protective armor over their arms and legs. Outside of the coliseum, gladiators wore simple wool tunics, but on special occasions, they wore more expensive clothes however, they were restricted to tunics and cloaks.

Gladiators wrapped leather and cloth strips over their arms and wrists for padding, known as the manicae. They wore two belts: the balteus, a sword belt, and the cingulum, a wide leather belt reinforced with metal plates that protected the waist from injury. A metal leg guard called the ocra protected their legs from the knees to the shins, and it was worn with the fascia to protect the skin. The fascia was made of leather or cloth. Gladiators also wore the distinctive metal shoulder guard called the galerus. Underneath their armor, gladiators wore protective padded linen that was sometimes supplemented with straw. The subarmalis, as this was called, prevented chafing.

Gladiators were allowed to keep whatever purses and rewards they earned, so they could afford higher quality and more attractive everyday wear. However, the Roman sumptuary laws prevented them from wearing anything forbidden to slaves.

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  1. Shakat

    It is a pity that I can not express myself now - is taken a lot. I will come back - I will absolutely express the opinion on this issue.

  2. Tojakus

    The sad consolation!

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