Gladiatorial Games Essay Definition

Adopted from the earlier Etruscans, perhaps by way of Campania, gladiatorial games (munera) originated in the rites of sacrifice due the spirits of the dead and the need to propitiate them with offerings of blood. They were introduced to Rome in 264 BC, when the sons of Junius Brutus honored their father by matching three pairs of gladiators. Traditionally, munera were the obligatory funerary offerings owed aristocratic men at their death, although the games did not have to be presented then. Elected aedile in 65 BC, Julius Caesar commemorated his father, who had died twenty years before, with a display of 320 pairs of gladiators in silvered armor (Pliny, XXXIII.53: Plutarch, V.9). Still mindful of Spartacus' rebellion, a nervous Senate limited the number of gladiators allowed in Rome (Suetonius, X.2). In 46 BC, after recent victories in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar again hosted elaborate games at the tomb of his daughter Julia, who had died in childbirth eight years earlier (together with stage plays and beast fights, they included the first appearance of a giraffe). The display was criticized, however, for its extravagance and the number slain, including several of Caesar's own soldiers, who protested that none of the money was being allotted to them (Dio, XLIII.24).

During the Republic, munera had been privately financed by the family, whose duty it was to present them. Increasingly a display of aristocratic wealth and prestige, the ritual lost much of its religious significance and became more overtly political. To limit this power, Augustus assigned the games to the praetors and restricted the number of shows to two per year and sixty pairs (Dio, LIV.2.4). Eventually, the games were assumed by the emperors, themselves, as enactments of their own power. Indeed, by the end of the second century AD, Tertullian could criticize in De Spectaculis (XII) that "this class of public entertainment has passed from being a compliment to the dead to being a compliment to the living."

After the slave revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC, the State assumed greater control of public games (ludi), and large numbers of gladiators were trained in imperial schools. (Interestingly, ludus means "game" and "school," because both required imitation and repetition.) Under the tutelage of a manager (lanista), a troupe (familia) of gladiators could be sold or hired out, and many were retained privately by politicians and wealthy citizens as bodyguards, especially in times of civil unrest.

Most gladiators were prisoners of war, slaves bought for the purpose, or criminals condemned to serve in the schools (damnati ad ludos). At a time when three of every five persons did not survive until their twentieth birthday, the odds of a professional gladiator being killed in any particular bout, at least during the first century AD, were perhaps one in ten. For a full year in Nero's wooden amphitheater in the Campus Martius, no-one died at all, not even criminals (Suetonius, Life of Nero, XII.1). But for those who were to be publicly executed (damnati ad mortem) or for Christian martyrs who refused to renounce their faith and worship the gods, there was no hope of survival.

Seneca, who once arrived at the amphitheater in the middle of the day, between the wild beast shows that occurred in the morning and the gladiatorial shows presented in the afternoon, protested this lunch-time slaughter of common criminals.

"The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain....There is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death....The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty" (Epistle VII).

Free men also volunteered to be gladiators (auctorati) and, by the end of the Republic, comprised half the number who fought. Often, they were social outcasts, freed slaves, discharged soldiers, or former gladiators who had been liberated on retirement but chose to return for a period of service. They signed on for a fee and swore a fearful oath of absolute submission to the lanista to be burned, flogged, beaten, or killed if so ordered (Petronius, Satyricon, CXVII; Seneca, Moral Epistles, XXXVII.1). In spite of the opprobrium, Roman citizens, even nobility, sometimes assumed the career of a gladiator�as didwomen (Amazones). Often, they were compelled but sometimes prompted , as "a number of Italian towns vied with one another in holding out financial inducements to undesirables among the younger generation" (Tacitus, Histories, II.62). To celebrate his triumphal return to Rome in AD 46, Caesar sponsored gladiatorial games in which a former senator fought to the death (Suetonius, XXXIX.1). Another senator had wanted to fight in full armor but was denied permission (Dio, XLIII.23.5). When a member of the Gracchi fought as a retiarius, the scandal was all the greater because his face could be seen. Indeed, writes Tacitus, the year AD 63 of Nero's reign "witnessed gladiatorial displays on a no less magnificent scale than before, but exceeding all precedent in the number of distinguished women and senators disgracing themselves in the arena" (Annals, XV.32).

Commodus (AD 180-192) enthusiastically participated as a gladiator. Boasting of victory in a thousand matches, sparring with his hapless opponents (slicing off in the process, say Cassius Dio, "the noses of some, the ears of others, and sundry features of still others, LXXIII.17.2"), and slaughtering exotic animals brought from as far away as India and Africa, he had rooms at one of the schools and intended to march from there, dressed as a gladiator, to assume the consulship. This prospect was considered so outrageous by those closest to him that, fearing for their own lives, they had him assassinated the day before he was to take office.

Originally, captured soldiers had been made to fight with their own weapons and in their particular style of combat. It was from these conscripted prisoners of war that the gladiators acquired their exotic appearance, a distinction being made between the weapons imagined to be used by defeated enemies and those of their Roman conquerors. The Samnites (a tribe from Campania which the Romans had fought in the fourth and third centuries BC) were the prototype for Rome's professional gladiators, and it was their equipment that first was used and later adopted for the arena. The Samnite wore an elaborate helmet (galea), a wide leather belt (balteus) reinforced with bands of metal, a large oblong shield (scutum), a sword (gladius, so called, says Isidore of Seville, XVIII.6, because it "divides the throat," gulam dividere), and probably a greave (ocrea) on the left leg. Two other gladiatorial categories also took their name from defeated tribes, the Galli (Gauls) and Thraeces (Thracians).

By the time of Augustus, the Samnites were allies of Rome and the name disappeared, to be replaced by the secutor (pursuer), the class in which Commodus competed. The secutor usually was matched against the more nimble retiarius, who was armed with a trident and a net to ensnare the opponent, and protected only by a shoulder piece (galerus) on the left side. Fittingly, they sometimes fought against the heavily armed murmillo, whose helmet had a fish-like crest. They, in turn, usually competed against the thraex, who carried a scimitar (sica) and a small square shield, or hoplomachus, who fought with a small round shield, and carried a lance and short straight sword. Because of the smaller shields, both wore long greaves. Often, protective leather straps (fasciae) were wrapped around the arms and legs, as well.

There were even more exotic types: the essedarius, who fought from war chariots in the fashion of the British Celts and probably were introduced by Julius Caesar after his invasion of that island; the equites, who entered the arena on horseback; the laquearii, who, says Isidore of Seville (Etymologies, XVIII.56), used a noose or lasso to bring down their opponents; the velites or skirmishers who hurled missiles this side and that, a indiscriminate form of combat that was "more pleasing to the spectators than the others"; the sagittarius, who fought with bow and arrow; the dimachaerus, who held sword in each hand; the ominously named scissor (carver) and provocator (challenger), and others still about which little is known. One of the most bizarre were the andabata, whose helmet effectively acted as blindfolds as he groped in the dark.

It was important that these different types of gladiators be appropriately paired, the advantage of one being compensated for by the strength of the other. There could be no virtue in defeating a weaker opponent. Gladiators were to be evenly matched but not identically so. The retiarii were lightly armed but mobile, the secutores and murmillones protected but weighted down by their armor. It was this asymmetry that was considered so intriguing. Each type had its own particular weapons, strategies, and skills, and only by comparison could they be demonstrated. Gladiators who were similarly armed, therefore, rarely competed against one another. Most contests, in fact, seem to have been between the thraex or retiarius and their more heavily armed adversaries, between what the public favored as parmularii or scutarii (small-shield and big-shield men). Gladiators also participated in simulated naval battles (naumachiae) on large artificial lakes or even in the arena of the Colosseum, which originally could have been flooded for such shows.

The bestiarii were not gladiators, as such, but fought for their lives in the arena against wild beasts. The venatores were specialists of wild animal hunts (venationes). The popularity of these cruel spectacles was such that, by the time they were abolished in AD 523 during the consulship of Flavius Anicius Maximus, tens of thousands of animals had died, and entire species were no longer to be found in their native habitat, all having been captured or driven away. There were no more hippopotamuses in Nubia or elephants in northern Africa; the lions which once had been represented in Assyrian reliefs were gone. Either five thousand or ten thousand animals were reported to have died in the dedication of the Colosseum; eleven thousand died in the celebration of Trajan's conquest of Dacia; and Augustus boasted that, in the twenty-six venationes presented in his reign, thirty-five hundred animals had been killed. When Pompey presented elephants (and the first rhinoceros) at the Circus Maximus, he did so in part to demonstrate his power over even the strongest of beasts.

Gladiatorial games originally had taken place in the Forum, where temporary stands were erected. According to Cassius Dio, Julius Caesar, "built a kind of hunting-theatre of wood, which was called an amphitheatre from the fact that it had seats all around without any stage" (XLIII.22.3). Occasionally, they collapsed, tragically killing hundreds, even thousands, of those who had come to witness the death of others. During the reign of Tiberius, a wooden amphitheater gave way and buried either twenty thousand (Suetonius) or fifty thousand (Tacitus) spectators. The first permanent amphitheater in Rome dates to the consulship of Augustus in 30 BC. Holding as many as fifty thousand spectators, the largest and most magnificent of the amphitheaters was the Amphitheatrum Flavium, or Colosseum, which was begun by Vespasian and inaugurated by Titus in AD 80 with games that lasted one-hundred days. Domitian (AD 81-96) completed the elaborate substructure of ramps and pulley-drawn cages which allowed animals to be introduced through trapdoors into the arena (from harena, the sand used to absorb the spilled blood). He established, as well, four nearby schools, including one for training the bestiarii. The largest of these, the Ludus Magnus, was connected to the amphitheater by an underground passage. Each had its own oval arena and seating so one could watch the gladiators train.

The sponsorship of the games was prestigious and an expected part of what Juvenal calls bread and circuses (panem et circenses). A million people inhabited Rome under the Antonine emperors, a sizable portion of them, because of slavery, unemployed. For their amusement, there were baths, theaters, and circuses, including the Circus Maximus. After Domitian, sponsorship of the munera was jealously retained by the emperor, who alone could present such spectacles (if individuals or local magistrates wanted to offer games outside Rome, they required official sanction). Fighters usually confronted one another in single combat (perhaps even as meal time entertainment), but there also were massed duels, sometimes between hundreds of pairs. Five thousand pairs fought in games given by Augustus, and in AD 107, in celebration of his conquest of Dacia, the same number of men fought for Trajan during a single four-month period.

Gladiatorial games were presented perhaps ten or twelve days each year and often coincided with the celebration of the Saturnalia. (Because they almost were never part of the games that honored the gods, they occurred much less frequently than theater or circus performances.) In Rome, no more than one hundred twenty pairs usually fought in any one munus, which were advertised in red letters by professional sign painters (scriptores) and proclaimed by heralds. Programs were made available; there was betting, and partisanship was strong, Caligula and Titus, for instance, favoring the Thracians, and Domitian the murmillones. The day before the event, a public banquet (coena libera) was given for the gladiators, some of whom gorged themselves at what might be their last meal, others eating in hopeful anticipation of the next day, and some with no appetite at all, terrified at the prospect of what was to come. With a diet that included the consumption of so much barley that Pliny refers to gladiators as hordearii ("barley eaters"), it must have been a welcome meal (Natural History, XVIII.72).

The day of the games, the gladiators were ceremoniously led in and paraded around the arena (pompa) before presenting themselves at the emperor's podium, exclaiming Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant! (already condemned to die by the sword, this declaration was made by the criminal rather than the professional gladiator). Preliminary events included bloodless, sometimes farcical, duels between paegniarii, who likely fought with wooden weapons. Those to be used by the gladiators were demonstrated to be sharp and lethal, lots were drawn, and the war trumpet sounded. Then the games began. Together with the sound of flutes and horns and a water organ, there were shouts of encouragement from the lanista, often enforced by whips or hot iron rods.

When a man went down, cries of Habet, Hoc habet! (He's had it!), and shouts of Mitte! (Let him go!) or Iugula! (Kill him!) could be heard. If able, the wounded gladiator would lay down his shield and raise his index finger, usually of the left hand, to plea for mercy, either from his opponent or from the judge, who, wielding a long staff, then had to ensure there were no further blows. Thecrowd signified their approval by turning their thumbs (pollice verso). As patron of the games and the most conspicuous member there, it was the emperor who made the final decision, although it often was politic to heed the crowd. Indeed, he was expected to attend the amphitheater, where, in collective anonymity, the crowd could demonstrate its wishes. Martial writes in De Spectaculis (XXIX), that, when spectators pleaded for the lives of both men who had fought well, "Caesar himself obeyed his own law: that law was, when the prize was set up, to fight until the finger was raised (ad digitum)," i.e., until one had acknowledged defeat. It was this enactment of power and munificence before the citizens of Rome that served to legitimate and dramatize his imperial position.

If the emperor was not in attendance, the producer (editor) of the games decided the fate of the victim. Even if defeated, a gladiator might be granted a reprieve (missus) if he fought well or, if neither fighter prevailed, both could be reprieved stans missus. But a gladiator also could be forced to fight again the same day, although that was considered bad form, and there were contests in which no reprieve was granted the loser (sine missione). Victors were awarded crowns or a palm branch and the prize money stipulated in their contracts, as well as any money awarded by the crowd, which was collected on a silver tray. The fallen were taken away through the Porta Libitinensis to the spoliarium, where they were stripped of their armor and weapons, which were returned to the gladiatorial troupe. Victors exited through another gate, the Porta Triumphalis, and those who had been defeated but spared departed through the Porta Sanavivaria. If a gladiator repeatedly survived the arena and lived long enough to retire, a symbolic wooden sword (rudis) was awarded as a token of discharge from service.

The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They were depicted in mosaics, on lamps and funerary monuments, and were the object of graffiti�in this case, boasts written by the gladiators themselves: "Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls' heart-throb" and "Crescens the Netter of young girls by night." But, even in victory, gladiators were infamis. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions (cf. Tacitus, Annals, I.76, commenting on Drusus, who took pleasure in the shedding of blood "however vile"). And yet, as Tertullian exclaims, "Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection....The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace" (De Spectaculus, XXII).

The blood lust of the spectators, populus and emperors alike, the brutality of the combat, and the callous deaths of men and animals still disturb modern sensibilities. Certainly, Rome was cruel. Defeated enemies and criminals forfeited any right to a place within society, although they still might be saved (servare) from the death they deserved and be made slaves (servi). Because the life of the slave was forfeit, there was no question but that it could be claimed at any time. The paterfamilias of the family had absolute control over the lives of his slaves (and little less over those of his wife and children). In the army, decimation was the consequence of cowardice. The plague was ever present, as was the capricious whim of the emperor, who might seize a spectator from the crowd and have him thrown into the arena (Suetonius, Claudius, XXIV; Caligula, XXXV; Domitian, X; Dio, LIX.10). Beyond the city walls and the pomerium (a religious demarcation of the city's boundary), nature threatened. The gladiatorial shows were part of this culture of war, discipline, and death.

The public execution of those who did not submit to Rome, betrayed their country, or were convicted of heinous crimes vividly demonstrated the consequences of those actions. In a society that was deeply stratified (including seating in the Colosseum), the usurpation of undeserved rights could be rectified only by public degradation and death. Having rejected civilized society, the criminal no longer could claim its protection from the forces of nature and so is given up to them: to the wild beast (ad bestias) or to consuming fire (ad flammas). As Martial writes, "His lacerated limbs lived on, dripping gore, and in all his body, body there was none. Finally he met with the punishment he deserved; the guilty wretch had plunged a sword into his father's throat or his master's, or in his madness had robbed a temple of its secret gold, or laid a cruel torch to Rome" (De Spectaculus, IX).

In publicly witnessing such punishment, citizens were reassured that the proper social order has been restored and they, themselves, deterred from such actions. In this display, the games reaffirmed the moral and political order of things, and the death of criminals and wild animals, the real and symbolic re-establishment of a society under threat. In the arena, civilization triumphed over the wild and untamed, over the outlaw, the barbarian, the enemy.

The gladiator demonstrated the power to overcome death and instilled in those who witnessed it the Roman virtues of courage and discipline. He who did not fight and die bravely dishonored the society that sought to redeem him. There was little sympathy, therefore, for the gladiator who valued his life too highly and flinched at the point of the sword. If not to have triumphed over his opponent, the defeated gladiator was expected, at least, to master the moment of his death. Not to do so reduced the gladiator to victim and the audience to onlookers at a sordid spectacle. If, in the morning venationes, there was the transition from life to death, so in the afternoon munera was the possibility of passing from death to renewed life. Earlier in the day, the threat outside society was overcome; in the afternoon, the threat of those who were no longer part of society. In their mutual defeat, the order of things was reasserted and death, itself, conquered.

In witnessing how men faced the necessity of dying, in viewing the fate they feared, themselves, Romans confronted their own mortality and triumphed. In fighting courageously and skillfully, the gladiator might demonstrate sufficient valor to win salvation; in a death accepted without protest, he could acquire it as well. For the gladiator, the measure of his valor was a measure of the desperation of the circumstances in which it was acquired, and, paradoxically, if he could fight in contempt of life and glory, there was the possibility that he could regain them both. Indeed, Christian unease with the games was due not so much to their cruelty as to the fact that the gladiator could be saved by his own virtus.

At the time, only Seneca protested the carnage of the arena; most other Roman authors were silent or approving. Ostensibly, gladiatorial games were prohibited by Constantine in AD 325 (Theodosian Code, XV.12) and the remaining schools closed by Honorius in AD 399. But they continued, in one form or another, until AD 404, when Honorius finally abolished munera altogether, prompted, says Theodoret (Ecclesiastical History, V.26), by the death of a monk, Telemachus, who had entered the arena, endeavoring to stop the fight, and was stoned to death by the indignant crowd�a monk, observes Gibbon (Decline and Fall, XXX), "whose death was more useful to mankind than his life."


"If any man has a right to feel proud of himself, and satisfied, surely it is I. For I have written about the Coliseum, and the gladiators, the martyrs, and the lions, and yet have never once used the phrase 'butchered to make a Roman holiday.' I am the only free white man of mature age, who has accomplished this since Byron originated the expression."

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (XXVII)

The offending line is from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (IV.141).


References: Seneca: Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales (1918) translated by Richard M. Gummere (Loeb Classical Library); Tertullian Apology and De Spectaculis (1931) translated by T. R. Glover (Loeb Classical Library); Appian: The Civil Wars (1996) translated by John Carter (Penguin Classics); Plutarch's Parallel Lives (1916) translated by B. Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Cicero: Letters to His Friends (1929) translated by W. Glynn Williams (Loeb Classical Library); Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome (1959) translated by Michael Grant (Penguin Classics); Dio's Roman History (1927) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library); Pliny: Natural History (1945) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); Polybius: The Histories (1923) translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library); Martial: Epigrams (1993) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library); Prudentius (1949) translated by H. J. Thomson (Loeb Classical Library); Appian's Roman History (Vol I: The Wars in Spain) (1912) translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library); The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (1952) translated by Clyde Pharr; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol III: Theodoret) (1892) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; Petronius: The Satyricon and the Fragments (1965) translated by John Sullivan (Penguin Classics); The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (2006) by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof.

Gladiators and Caesars (2000) edited by Eckart K�hne and Cornelia Ewigleben; Gladiators (1967) by Michael Grant; Emperors and Gladiators (1992) by Thomas Wiedemann; Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History (1983) by Keith Hopkins; Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games (1972) by Roland Auguet; "The Roman Games" by John H. Humphrey, in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean (1988) edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger; The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans (1993) by Carlin Barton; The Colosseum (1990) by Roberto Luciani; Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (1969) by J. P. V. D. Balsdon; The Roman Empire (1992) by Colin Wells; Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995) edited by David Womersley (Penguin Classics).


Visually, no one can do better than to see the first hour of Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus (1960). As spectacular as is Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), Commodus, of course, did not allow himself to be killed in the arena but just as melodramatically was strangled in his bath on New Year's Eve. The historians Cassius Dio and Herodian both were contemporaries of Commodus, Dio actually witnessing the antics of Commodus in the arena. Their accounts of those days are more chilling than anything to be seen on the screen.

Like chariot racing, contests of gladiators probably originated as funeral games; these contests were much less ancient than races, however. The first recorded gladiatorial combat in Rome occurred when three pairs of gladiators fought to the death during the funeral of Junius Brutus in 264 BCE, though others may have been held earlier. Gladiatorial games (called munera since they were originally “duties” paid to dead ancestors) gradually lost their exclusive connection with the funerals of individuals and became an important part of the public spectacles staged by politicians and emperors (click here for some modern assessments of the cultural meaning of the arena). The popularity of gladiatorial games is indicated by the large number of wall paintings and mosaics depicting gladiators; for example, this very large mosaic illustrating many different aspects of the games covered an entire floor of a Roman villa in Nennig, Germany. Many household items were decorated with gladiatorial motifs, such as this lamp and this flask.

Gladiatorial contests, like chariot races, were originally held in large open spaces with temporary seating; there is evidence that some munera were held in the Roman Forum, for example. As the games became more frequent and popular, there was need for a larger and more permanent structure. Although the Circus Maximus was often pressed into service because of its huge seating capacity, the Romans eventually designed a building specifically for this type of spectacle (called an amphitheatrum because the seating extended all the way around the oval or elliptical performance area, which was covered with sand, harena). Early amphitheaters, both in Rome and elsewhere, were built of wood, but stone amphitheaters proved to be much more durable; the oldest stone amphitheater, built in Pompeii in the first century CE and seating approximately 20,000, is still well preserved (see also this view through an archway on the upper level, a section of stone seats with staircase, and the exterior walls with stairway). Like Roman theaters, amphitheaters were freestanding; because they did not require natural hills, as Greek theaters did, they could be built anywhere. A remarkable painting from a house in Pompeii depicts the amphitheater. In the tree-shaded area in front, vendors have set up temporary shops to sell food and drinks; the exercise-ground to the right was equipped with a large latrine so spectators could relieve themselves. This fresco depicts a specific event that took place in 59 CE, when a fight erupted between the Pompeians and the neighboring Nucerians (much like modern soccer brawls); in punishment for the riot, Nero imposed a ten-year ban on gladiatorial fights in the amphitheater.

The reconstruction drawing at the top of this page depicts the grandest of all Roman amphitheaters, known in antiquity as the Flavian Amphitheater because it was built by the emperors of the gens Flavia, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, and later called the Colosseum, either because of its size of because of the colossal statue of Nero which stood in the vicinity. The inaugural games were held in 80 CE, though construction continued for some time after that. The exterior walls were four stories high, and the first three stories were adorned with half-columns illustrating the three classic architectural styles (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian). Only a small part of the full structure survives (not because it collapsed, though it was damaged by several earthquakes, but because later Italians used the building as a quarry for centuries, stealing the stones to build St. Peter's and many palaces). What remains of the Colosseum today gives no idea of this amphitheater’s lavish decorations, such as colorfully painted statues, decorative marble, and painted stucco. This model demonstrates the intact structure, and this cutaway section shows details of the construction, as does this labeled drawing. Looking down at the interior of the Colosseum from the top story gives some sense of its size; estimates of seating capacity vary from 40-60,000, with 50,000 most likely. Because the floor of the Colosseum has not survived, we can see the maze of underground structures, corridors, ramps, animal pens (this image from the amphitheater in Pozzuoli shows what the pens in the Colosseum were like), and rooms for prisoners. This view of amphitheater at Capua illustrates what the floor of the Colosseum would have looked like without the wooden coverings and layer of sand; we can clearly see the rims which held the wooden trapdoors through which animals and men would “magically” appear and which could be used to produce other special effects. When the trapdoors were closed, this subterranean area must have been very dark and frightening, echoing with the roaring of caged animals and the cries of prisoners awaiting execution in the arena (see, for example, this image from Pozzuoli). The top story of the Colosseum was equipped with posts to which were attached a huge awning that would shield the spectators from the hot sun; this image shows the post holders for this awning. Seating in the amphitheater was arranged by rank, with a special box for the emperor and his family and ring-side seats for senators. Those who had the least political clout, foreigners and women, relegated to the topmost rows. Enjoy a virtual day at the gladiatorial games by visiting the Colosseum in Region III of VRoma, either via the web gateway or the anonymous browser.

Gladiators (named after the Roman sword called the gladius) were mostly unfree individuals (condemned criminals, prisoners of war, slaves). Some gladiators were volunteers (mostly freedmen or very low classes of freeborn men) who chose to take on the status of a slave for the monetary rewards or the fame and excitement. Anyone who became a gladiator was automatically infamis, beneath the law and by definition not a respectable citizen. A small number of upper-class men did compete in the arena (though this was explicitly prohibited by law), but they did not live with the other gladiators and constituted a special, esoteric form of entertainment (as did the extremely rare women who competed in the arena; see some Latin passages referring to female gladiators). All gladiators swore a solemn oath (sacramentum gladiatorium), similar to that sworn by the legionary but much more dire: “I will endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword” (uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari, Petronius Satyricon 117). Paradoxically, this terrible oath gave a measure of volition and even honor to the gladiator. As Carlin Barton states, “The gladiator, by his oath, transforms what had originally been an involuntary act to a voluntary one, and so, at the very moment that he becomes a slave condemned to death, he becomes a free agent and a man with honor to uphold” (The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster [Princeton University Press, 1993] 15). Trained gladiators had the possibility of surviving and even thriving. Some gladiators did not fight more than two or three times a year, and the best of them became popular heroes (appearing often on graffiti, for example: “Celadus the Thraex is the heart-throb of the girls”). Skilled fighters might win a good deal of money and the wooden sword (rudis) that symbolized their freedom. Freed gladiators could continue to fight for money, but they often became trainers in the gladiatorial schools or free-lance bodyguards for the wealthy.

There were many categories of gladiators, who were distinguished by the kind of armor they wore, the weapons they used, and their style of fighting. Most gladiators stayed in one category, and matches usually involved two different categories of gladiator. The following examples will illustrate some of the different types of gladiators which modern scholars have identified:

  • The Eques (plural, equites) usually fought against another gladiator of the same type. They probably began their matches on horseback, but they ended in hand-to-hand combat. These were the only gladiators who wore regular tunics rather than any type of body armor (see modern mannequin), though they wore bronze helmets with two feathers and padded shin-protectors; they carried round shields and often fought with long swords.
  • The Hoplomachus, named after the Greek Hoplite warrior, fought with a long spear as well as a short sword or dagger; he wore a visored helmet with crest and long greaves over both legs to protect them since he carried only a small shield, usually round (see original and replica). In this terracotta relief, a Hoplomachus battles a Thraex, who is attempting to reach over his shield and stab him. A late Republican funeral monument depicts a Thraex fighting against a kneeling Hoplomachus, though both gladiators wear early types of crested helmets without visors.
  • The Murmillo, named for a Greek saltwater fish, wore a large visored helmet with a high crest; these helmets became increasingly enhanced with relief decorations, as for example the head of Hercules (see also replica), military trophies (see front and side of replica), and the Gorgon, Mars Ultor, and decorative vessels (see replica). The Murmillo was protected by a large, slightly curved, rectangular shield (see replica), so he needed only one short shin-guard (ocrea) to protect his left leg (side view; replica). He fought with a short stabbing sword (gladius). The wreaths on a tombstone from Ephesus indicate that this Murmillo won many combats. In another relief from Ephesus, the Murmillo Asteropaios, on the left, is attempting to stab the Thraex Drakon; both gladiators have lost their shields and are fighting in a “clinch.”
  • The Provocator was the most heavily armed gladiator; he was the only gladiator who wore a pectoral covering the vulnerable upper chest. He also wore a padded arm-protector and one greave on his left leg; he carried a large rectangular shield and stabbing sword. His large, distinctive visored helmet had no crest and extended over his shoulders (see also replica). The extent of his armor made the Provocator slower and less agile than other gladiators, which may explain why he tended to be paired with another gladiator of the same type in combat.
  • The Retiarius was the quickest and most mobile of gladiators; as the only type of gladiator who wore no helmet, he had much more range of vision than his opponents. However, since he wore practically no defensive armor, he was also more vulnerable to serious wounds; his only body protection was a padded arm-protector (manica) on his left arm often topped with a high metal shoulder protector (galerus), also shown in this replica. His weapons were a large net with which he attempted to entangle his opponent, a long trident, and a small dagger (see also replica). The Retiarius in this relief advances on a Secutor who has lost his shield (which is held by the referee). However, looking at the Retiarius in this mosaic, one has to ask, “Why is this man smiling?” because the Secutor appears about to stab him, while the kneeling position of this Retiarius indicates that he has surrendered to the Secutor who stands menacingly above him.
  • The Secutor was typically paired with a Retiarius. His egg-shaped helmet with round eye-holes had no crest or reliefs to snag on the net of the Retiarius but also gave him little range of vision. He wore a short shin protector (ocrea) on one leg and an arm protector; he carried a large rectangular shield and stabbing sword. The wreaths on this tombstone of a Secutor indicate his many victories, while an exultant Secutor named Improbus prepares to dispatch a fallen Retiarius in this relief.
  • The Thraex gladiator was loosely based on the Thracians, former enemies of Rome. His most distinctive feature was his weapon, a short sword (sica) whose blade was either curved or kinked. His visored helmet with wide brim resembled that of a Murmillo except that it was topped with the head of a griffin (see replica). Because the Thraex carried a short rectangular shield, he wore an arm-protector and long shin protectors (ocreae) on both legs (these are decorated with theatrical masks and an eagle vs. snake motif; see also replica). The victorious gladiator in this mosaic is a Thraex, while this Thraex holds up an index finger to signal surrender. A tombstone from Antalya and one from Akhisar in Turkey provide good illustrations of this type of gladiator,

In addition, the was a special type of gladiator trained to handle and fight all sorts of animals. The bestiarii were the lowest ranking gladiators; they did not become as popular or individually well known as other types of gladiators. Although this relief depicts bestiarii wearing armor, most depictions show them without armor, equipped with whips or spears, wearing cloth or leather garments and leggings.

The manager of a gladiatorial troupe was called a lanista; he provided lengthy and demanding training in schools (ludi) especially designed for this purpose and usually located near the great amphitheaters. Pompeii, for example, had both a small training area surrounded by gladiatorial barracks near the theater, while there was a large exercise-ground (palaestra) right next to the amphitheater. During the imperial period all the gladiatorial schools in Rome were under the direct control of the emperor. The largest of these schools, the Ludus Magnus, was located next to the Colosseum; it included a practice amphitheater whose partially excavated ruins can be seen today.

Gladiatorial games began with an elaborate procession that included the combatants and was led by the sponsor of the games, the editor; in Rome during the imperial period, this usually was the emperor, and in the provinces it was a high-ranking magistrate. The parade and subsequent events were often accompanied by music; the mosaic at right depicts a water organ and the curved horn (cornu). The morning's events might begin with mock fights such as this contest. These would be followed by animal displays, sometimes featuring trained animals that performed tricks, but more often staged as hunts (venationes) in which increasingly exotic animals were pitted against each other or hunted and killed by bestiarii (click here for more information about venationes).

The lunch break was devoted to executions of criminals who had committed particularly heinous crimes—murder, arson, sacrilege (the Christians, for example, were considered to be guilty of sacrilege and treason, because they refused to participate in rites of the state religion or to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor). The public nature of the execution made it degrading as well as painful and was intended to serve as a deterrent to others. One form of execution in the arena was damnatio ad bestias, in which the condemned were cast into the arena with violent animals or were made to participate in “dramatic” reenactments of mythological tales in which the “stars” really died (as for example the myth of Dirce, killed by being tied to a bull). Criminals could also be forced to fight in the arena with no previous training; in such bouts death was a foregone conclusion, since the “victor” had to face further opponents until he died (such combatants were not, of course, professional gladiators). In extraordinary circumstances, criminals might be forced to stage an elaborate naval battle (naumachia). Although these were usually fought on lakes, some scholars think they might also have been staged in the Colosseum, as shown in this modern drawing.

In the afternoon came the high point of the games—individual gladiatorial combats. These were usually matches between gladiators with different types of armor and fighting styles, supervised by a referee carrying a long staff (summa rudis). Although it is popularly believed that these bouts began with the gladiators saying “Those who are about to die salute you,” the only evidence for this phrase is only found in the description of a naumachia staged by Claudius using condemned criminals, where the men supposedly said “Ave, imperator; morituri te salutant” (Suetonius, Claudius 21.6). This was certainly not a typical gladiatorial combat and cannot be used as evidence for customary practice. There were, however, many rituals in the arena. When a gladiator had been wounded and wished to concede defeat, he would hold up an index finger, as clearly depicted on the Colchester vase and on the mosaic below. At this point the crowd would indicate with gestures whether they wished the defeated gladiator to be killed or spared. The popular belief (illustrated in “Pollice Verso,” an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme; see this detail) is that “thumbs down” meant kill and “thumbs up” meant spare, but we have no visual evidence for this, and the written evidence states that pollicem vertere (“to turn the thumb”) meant kill and pollicem premere (“to press the thumb”) meant spare. This may, in fact, indicate that those who wanted the gladiator killed waved their thumbs in any direction, and those who wanted him spared kept their thumbs pressed against their hands (as illustrated in this relief; see especially detail of the hand). In any case, the sponsor of the games decided whether or not to give the defeated gladiator a reprieve (missio). If the gladiator was to be killed, he was expected to accept the final blow in a ritualized fashion, without crying out or flinching. Some scholars believe there was also a ritual for removing the bodies of dead gladiators, with a man impersonating Dis Pater (Hades) hitting the body with a hammer to make sure he was really dead and then a slave dragging the body with a hook through a gate called the Porta Libitinensis (Libitina was a death goddess), as depicted in this modern drawing.

Barbara F. McManus, The College of New Rochelle
bmcmanus@cnr.edu
revised May, 2011

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