The Gladiator Mosaic at the Galleria Borghese, showing the latter stages of various combats, late Roman period
Gladiators (Latin gladiatōrēs, "swordsmen" or "one who uses a sword", from gladius "sword") were professional fighters in ancient Rome who fought against each other, wild animals, and condemned criminals, sometimes to the death, for the entertainment of spectators. These fights took place in arenas in many cities during the Roman republic and the Roman Empire.
The word comes from gladius, the Latin word for a short sword used by legionaries and some gladiators.
The origin of the gladiatorial games is not known for certain. There are two theories: the Romans adopted gladiatorial fights from the Etruscans and that the games came from Campania and Lucania. The evidence for the theory of Etruscan origin is a passage by the Greek writer Nicolas of Damascus in the second half of the first century BCE describing the origins as Etruscan, an account by Isiodorus of Seville during the 600s CE relating the Latin word for gladiator manager, lanista, to the Etruscan word for 'executioner', and also likeness of the Roman god of hell, Charon, who accompanied the executed bodies as they exited the arena, to the Etruscan god of death, also named Charon. The theory that the games developed from a Campanian and Lucanian trCEition is supported by frescoes dating to the fourth century BCE depicting funeral games in which pair of gladiators fought to the death to commemorate the death of an important individual. However, the Campanians could also have Adapted this trCEition from the Greeks who could have introduced funeral games with human sacrifices to the area in the eight century BCE. Regardless of the origin, the Romans CEopted the trCEition of funeral games to display important people's status and power.
The first recorded gladiatorial combats took place in Rome in 264 BCE, at the start of the First Punic War against Carthage. Decimus Iunius Brutus Scaeva staged it in honour of his deCE father Brutus Pera. It was held between three pairs of slaves, and held in the Forum Boarium. The ceremony was called a munus or ?duty paid to a deCE ancestor by his descendants, with the intention of keeping alive his memory? (Baker, Gladiator 10). These were held for notable people and were repeated every one to five years after the person?s death.
GrCEually, the funeral games transformed into public performances as the connection to funerals fCEed in the late second century BCE. The moment when a true split from the funeral backdrop occurred was after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 42 BCE. BCEE omens plagued the city and the games were seen as a method to please the gods and save Rome. A clear distinction between games organized by public officials (ludi) and those held by private citizens (munera) was set. The popularity of the games resulted in the construction of proper venues and transformation of others (such as the Roman Forum) into spaces for the spectacles. The amphitheaters built for the games were mCEe of wood and were neither structurally sound not did they survive the fires of Rome. Not until CE 70 and Vespasian's reign did plans for a stone venue for the games develop. The Colosseum (Amphitheatrum Flavium) was unveiled in CE 80.
A Day at the Colosseum: the Pinnacle of Popularity of the Games
Gladiator fights took place in amphitheatres (like the Colosseum) during the afternoon of a full day event. These events were carefully and precisely planned by an organizer on behalf of the emperor (editor). The combinations of animals and gladiator types were meticulously premeditated such that the show would be most appealing to the audience. Gladiators would be publicly displayed in the Roman forum to large crowds one to two days prior to the actual event and programmes containing the glCEitorial and personal history of the fighters were passed out. Banquets for the gladiators were also held the evening before the games and many attended these as well. When the day of the event came, gladiator fights were preceeded by animal-on-animal fights, animal hunts (venationes), and public executions of criminals (noxii) during lunchtime. Before the afternoon fights, a procession (pompa) was led into the arena containing the organizer, his servants, blacksmiths to show that the weapons were in order, servants carrying weaponry and armour, and the gladiators themselves. After a period of inspecting the weapons and the gladiators warming up the fights began. There were five possible outcomes for a gladiator: victorious, killed fighting, killed after capitulating by order of the people or the emperor, shown mercy and allowed to leave alive after a defeat, or allowed to leave along with his opponent after a draw. After hours of fights, the bodies of the gladiators were disposed of either in humane or humiliating ways depending of the status of the fighter. Animal carcasses were either disposed of or welcomed by the poor for sustinance.
The Decline of the Games
Gladiator games were not loved by all emperors and peoples throughout Roman history. The enthusiasm for the spectacle by Augustus, Caligula, and Nero contrasted the apathy of Tiberius and the discontent of Cicero, Seneca, and Tertullian. As well, barbarian attack on the provinces during the thrid century CE led to an economic recession and decreased funds for such shows. Some emperors, such as Gordianus I, Gordianus III, and Probus did continue to organize costly performances, but privately funded shows, especially those in the provinces, declined. In the Eastern Empire invasion hCE much less of an effect on the economy and gladiator shows prevailed. The grCEual decline in the east has been attributed to the effect of Christians on the gore-filled games. They saw the arena as a place of martyrdom and both refused to participate as spectators and sought for an end to the shows. Constantine issued an edict in CE 325 which briefly ended the games. Speculation that the edict was a permanent ban is rebuked by the presence of uncontested games only three years later. In CE 367 Valentinianus I placed a ban on sentencing Christians to the arena, but the sentencing of non-Christians remained unchanged. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in CE 393 under the reign of Theodosius. The emperor himself sought to ban heathen festivals, but gladiator shows continued. Their programmes, however, were very limited due to financial reasons and the audience dwindled as many converted to Christianity. It is speculated that gladiator fights were no longer practiced by CE 440, as they were not mentioned by Bishop Salvianus in a pamphlet attacking public shows. It would seem only appropriate for the inclusion of gladiator games hCE they still occurred.
Life as a gladiator
Who They Were
Gladiators could have been either prisoners of war or criminal slaves condemned to gladiator schools (CE ludum gladiatorium). There were also a number of volunteer gladiators (auctoratus). These were either sons of prominent men perhaps looking for a rCEical change, poor men attracted by the potential for fame or relinquishing themselves from poverty, or even men with a monetary purpose, such as Sisinnes who sought to earn money to buy a friend's freedom. These men came from all different backgrounds but were soon united as they entered the training schools.
Prospective gladiators (novicius) upon entering a gladiator school swore an oath (sacramentum) giving their lives to the gods of the underworld and vowing to accept without protest humiliation by any means. Volunteers also signed a contract (auctoramentum) with a gladiator manager (lanista) stating how often they were to perform, which weapons they would use, and how much they would earn. Prospectives also went under a physical examination by a doctor to determine if they were both physically capable of the rigorous training and aesthetically pleasing. Attractiveness was one part of the package that was crucial to performing before an audience. Dislike of one's appearance could be costly in the arena. Overall, gladiators were united as members of a familia gladiatoria and became second to the prestige of the school. They also joined unions (collegia) formed to ensure proper burials for fallen members.
There were four schools in Rome: ludus magnus (the most important), ludus dacus, ludus gallicus, and ludus matutinus (school for gladiators dealing with animals). The schools hCE barracks for the gladiators with small cells and a large training ground. The most impressive hCE seating for spectators to watch the men train and some even hCE boxes for the emperor. From the beginning, novicii were given special trainers (doctores) who were often ex-gladiators themselves. They trained using two meter poles buried in the ground (palus). Competition arose quickly on the training grounds and a hierarchy of skill was developed. The levels were named for the training pole and were primus palus, secundus palus, and so on.
Gladiators usually fought in pairs (Ordinarii), that is, one gladiator against another. They were usually of differing types. However, sponsor or audience could request other combinations like several gladiators fighting together (Catervarii) or specific gladiators against each other even from outside the established troupe (Postulaticii). Sometimes a lanista had to rely on substitutes (supposititii) if the requested gladiator was already dead or incapacitated. The Emperor could have his own gladiators (Fiscales).
A flask depicting the final phase of the fight between a murmillo (winning) and a thraex.
A flask depicting the final phase of the fight between a murmillo (winning) and a thraex.
Fights were generally not to the death during the Republic, but gladiators were still killed or maimed accidentally. At the end of a fight, one gladiator acknowledged defeat by raising a finger, and the audience could decide whether he should live or die.
It is known that the audience (or sponsor or emperor) pointed their thumbs a certain way if they wanted the loser to be killed (pollice verso, literally "with turned thumb"), but it is not clear which way they pointed. The clear "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" image is not a product of historical sources, but of Hollywood and epic films such as Quo Vadis. They may have pointed their thumbs up if they wanted the loser to live, and down to die; or, the opposite. Or, they may have raised their fist with thumb inside it (pollice compresso, literally "compressed thumbs") if they wanted the loser to live, and pointed down to signify death. One popular belief is that the "thumbs down" meant lower your weapon, and let the loser live. The thumbs up sign pointed towards the throat, signalling the gladiator to stab him there. An imitation of the downward thrust of a sword, without the sword in the hand, naturally has the thumb in a downward position and also compressed into the first finger. One of the few sources to allude to the use of the "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" gestures in the Roman arena comes from Satire III of Juvenal (3.34-37) and seems to indicate that, contrary to modern meaning, the thumbs down signified that the losing gladiator was to be spared and that the thumbs up meant he was to be killed.
A gladiator did not have to die after every match ? if the audience felt both men fought admirably, they would likely want both to live and fight for their amusement in the future. But equally, a patron of the games who killed too few gladiators would be seen as stingy. A gladiator who won several fights was allowed to retire, often to train other fighters. Gladiators who managed to win their freedom ? often by request of the audience or sponsor ? were given a rudis, a symbolic wooden sword, as a memento.
A rudarius (umpire) with his wand of office. A mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa.
Recent research suggests that gladiators adhered to a code of discipline, and were not as savage as once thought ? they did not resort to violence and mutilation which could occur on the battlefields of the day. And, if ordered to kill the opponent ? which was very rare as gladiators were expensive ? they may have pretended to kill him while in reality he was dragged backstage to be executed "humanely" with a hammer on the forehead.
Gladiators rarely lived past age 30 unless they were particularly outstanding and accommplished victors. Reasonable estimates show that they fought on average two to three times yearly, but there are some exceptions such as some men fighting all nine days during one of Trajan's shows. George Villes, a French historian, estimated the chances of survival for a third century AD gladiator at 3:1 (meaning that the loser had a 50/50 chance of surviving his defeat).
Rome had to fight three Servile Wars, the last being against one of the most famous gladiators ? Spartacus who became the leader of a group of escaped gladiators and slaves. His revolt, which began in 73 BC, was crushed by Marcus Crassus two years later in 71 BC. After this, gladiators were deported from Rome and other cities during times of social disturbances, for fear that they might organize and rebel again. As well, armouries within the schools were closely guarded and gladiators who were potential threats were chained.
fighting a Wild boar
Roman attitudes towards gladiators
The Romans' attitude towards the gladiators was ambiguous: on the one hand they were considered as low as slaves, but on the other hand, some successful gladiators rose to celebrity status and even those of senatorial and equites families seemed to join up as gladiators (the Larinum decree under Tiberius banned those of such status from becoming gladiators, which implies that this must have been happening). There was even a belief that nine eaten gladiator livers were a cure for epilepsy.
Gladiators often developed large followings of women, who apparently saw them as sexual objects. This may be one reason that many types of gladiators fought bare-chested. It was socially unacceptable for citizen women to have sexual contact with a gladiator. Faustina the Younger, the mother of the emperor Commodus, was said to have conceived Commodus with a gladiator, but Commodus likely invented this story himself. Despite or because of the prohibition many rich women sought intimate contact with gladiators. The ancient celebrity and the festivity before the fights gave the women an opportunity to meet them.
Despite the extreme dangers and hardships of the profession, some gladiators were volunteers (called auctorati) who fought for money; effectively this career was a sort of last chance for people who had gotten into financial troubles. Indeed, their combat skills were such that, when he had no alternative, Gaius Marius had gladiators train the legionaries in single combat.
Roman people were extremely supportive on the whole of the horrors that occurred in the arena. Many people saw gladiators as lesser people than free Roman citizens.
Female gladiators also existed ? the Emperor Domitian liked to stage torchlit fights between dwarves and women, according to Suetonius in "The Twelve Caesars". It seems they fought bare-chested, or with one breast exposed.
A female Roman skeleton unearthed in Southwark, London in 2001 was identified as a female gladiator, but this was solely on the basis that she was an important burial but outside the main cemetery, and had pottery lamps of Anumbis (ie Mercury ie the master of ceremonies) and most experts now believe it to be erroneous. She is now on display at the end of the Roman London section of the Museum of London. This gladiator was the subject of a program on the UK's Channel 4.
As mentioned above in Female gladiators, there were dwarf gladiators, which were not always paired with women, rather usually three or more dwarfs working as a team fighting one or more regular gladiators.
Emperors as gladiators
Caligula, Titus, Hadrian, Lucius Verus, and Didius Julianus were said to have performed in the arena. It is uncertain if these performances were one-time-only or repeated appearances and there is question regarding the risk as the emperors chose their opponents and no one was likely to injure an emperor. Commodus, however, is known for his passion for public performance and is remebered for his participation in gladitorial shows. He often hunted wild animals from the stands and was so impressive that it is said that he rarely needed a second spear to kill his prey. He also chased animals in the arena and donned gladiator apparel and fought under the title of 'Hercules.' He is often depicted this way in art.
Gladiators in modern popular culture
Gladiators of the Empire was released. The first book in the series, Sand of the Arena by James Duffy (McBooks Press, 2005; hardcover, ISBN 1590131118; paperback ISBN 159013124X) presents a detailed, historically-accurate look at life in a training ludus and the visceral struggles of the arena, all through the eyes of a young Roman who volunteers as a gladiator. The training and use of venatores (arena animal hunters, sometimes called bestiarii) is also shown in great detail through an Ethiopian character named Lindani. The book was well received by historical fiction readers and literary critics. Book 2 in the series, Fight For Rome by James Duffy (McBooks Press, 2007; hardcover, ISBN 1590131126) follows the gladiator troupe as they are conscripted into the Roman legions during the civil war of 69 AD, the Year of the Four Emperors. Gladiators fighting as mercenaries alongside the legions, or used by their owners to bolster their political gangs (eg Clodius and Milo), was recorded in a number of historic battles and instances.
Films and television
Naturally, gladiators feature frequently in many epic films and television series set in this period. These include obvious ones such as Spartacus (1960), Gladiator (2000) starring Russell Crowe and Demetrius and the Gladiators in 1954, as well as Quo Vadis, the television series A.D. (1985) (which features a female gladiator), and Rome.
Known video games to explore several aspects of Rome and its gladiatorial games include KOEI's Colosseum: Road to Freedom, CAPCOM's Shadow of Rome, Acclaim's Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance , SEGA's Spartan: Total Warrior and Gladius.
While developers try to portray the settings as realistic as possible, some elements might be intentionally misplaced or interpreted to allow room for gameplay elements. Developers strive to deliver a product as historically accurate as possible so as to increase their appeal.
Science fiction and fantasy
Gladiators are sometimes mentioned in science fiction, being depicted in the film The Running Man; as well as the games Battletech, Quake, and Unreal.
In many fictional universes, gladiatorial games have the same reputation as the ones portrayed by Hollywood; violent exercises of brutality to appease and entertain a crowd, with little to no hope of survival for the gladiators.
For obvious human rights and liability reasons, it has been impossible to revive gladiator fights in the Ancient Roman sense (where the fight concludes with serious bodily injury or death).
In the U.S. during the 1990s, there was a game show called American Gladiators, and around the same time, World Wrestling Entertainment popularized a rather wild style of wrestling which some compared to gladiator combat. However, the competitors on American Gladiators never directly attacked each other but did face the established stadium gladiators, and the WWE fights are openly acknowledged to be staged performances, as opposed to actual competition.
In California, Corcoran State Prison became infamous in 1997 when it was discovered that the guards were staging informal "gladiator" fights with the prisoners (some of which were videotaped). Such fights differ from true gladiator fights in that they were not state-sponsored or approved.
Gladiatorial imagery is also associated with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, whose opening credits in their broadcasts feature a gladiator preparing for battle.
References and further reading
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
* Gladiator: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2004 (hardcover, ISBN 1-4051-1043-0; paperback, ISBN 1-4051-1042-2).
* James Grout: Gladiators, part of the Encyclop?dia Romana
* Violence and the Romans: The Arena Spectacles
* The Revolt of Spartacus A narrative essay.
* Daniel P Mannix: Those About To Die, Ballantine Books, New York 1958
* Michael Grant: Gladiators, Penguin Books, London 1967, reprinted 2000, ISBN 0-14-029934-3
* Roland Auguet: Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games, Paris 1970; English reprint Routledge 1994
* IMDB- movie titles containg 'Gladiator' etc.; click also on keywords
* Thomas Wiedemann: Emperors and Gladiators, Routledge 1992
* Fik Meijer: The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport, Thomas Dunne Books 2003; reprinted by St. Martin's Griffin 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36402-1; ISBN-10: 0-312-36402-4.
2. Bignor Roman Villa Guide Book
3. "Head injuries of Roman gladiators", Forensic Science International, Volume 160, Issue 2?3, Pages 207?216 F. Kanz, K. Grossschmidt