Who Were The Roman Gladiators?

The gladiators

It’s a hot day. Two men are waiting at the gates of the arena dressed in battle gear, ready for their fight to start. Sweat is flowing down their cheeks and their breathing is becoming heavy. This might be their last day alive.

Yet these men are professionals. Training has prepared them for this day and they know what needs to be done. They stand proud and determined, wiping all doubts from their mind and instead refocusing their thoughts on the task ahead.

Each one has the same thought flowing through his mind. No, this will not be his last day. He will go on to score a huge victory and be celebrated by the crowds, going on to become a real sports superstar. Each one of them knows that they are the best, yet there can be only one winner. One of these will leave the arena a victor, while the other one will be the defeated…

Each one of them will do everything in his power in order to remain the one standing up, to be the victor. There is no other way. They are Roman gladiators and that is their way of life.

Gladiatorial fights were all the rage in Ancient Rome. They were the equivalent of today’s Super Bowl in magnitude and popularity, with one huge exception: some of the contestants would probably not make it through the day alive.

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Ancient Rome was a martial culture and any type of sport where the contestants aren’t risking their lives was a pussy sport. That’s why athletics, which were very popular in the Ancient Greek city states, never became very popular in Rome. The Ancient Romans thought athletics were not something real men should compete in, because there was no risk in them. They might use similar methods of training originally developed for athletics to train, but athletics were for the pussies, real men wanted to see sweat and blood and feel death knocking at the door.

Many gladiators started off as lowly slaves, purchased on the market or captured in war, but went on to rise to become veritable superstars with fans cheering their name and women throwing themselves at them. They went on to enjoy lavish lifestyles just like the sports superstars of today.

However for the majority of gladiators this was not the case. Many of them died during their fight in the arena or suffered crippling injuries and lived out the rest of their lives as cripples. Gladiatorial fights were high risk, high reward contests.

Reflections on the role and popularity of gladiatorial fights in Roman society

Gladiatorial fights were the epitomy of Ancient Roman society. They demonstrated the ideal values that were held dear: valor, strength, bravery, cunning, discipline and above all risk. These were the individual traits valued in what was a very martial society. Rome was built by war and martial values were what was supposed to define Roman society.

The gladiatorial games exploded in popularity, when Rome had grown very far beyond its original borders. The very dominance of Rome in the ancient world at that time was the instigator for the growth in popularity of gladiators. Originally Rome was a small city-state and all male citizens were required to protect it. So in times of need basically all males had to go on military duty. During these times, most male Roman citizens experienced combat first hand.

However as Rome grew and conquered lands far and wide, less and less of its inhabitants directly participated in war. The empire of Rome also brought in more and more new subjects and these needed to be exposed to Roman culture and in that way “romanized”.

It is at exactly this time, when we see the importance and popularity of gladiatorial games grow and expand into all parts of the lands that Rome brought under its control. The games were sports, spectator sports, but they served not only as entertainment, very bloody entertainment, but as a way to remind the masses of their martial spirit and the original values of Rome.

Most Romans were no longer directly affected by war and most males no longer had to go through long stints in the army, so this served as a substitute for that. Instead of participating in war, they would watch it. The act of watching satisfied their lust for action and violence and also kept their minds occupied and their hormones busy with other things, away from thoughts of rebellion.

Many people led miserable lives and a gladiatorial spectacle afforded them a reprieve from their daily misery. They could for one see the ultimate values of their society on display and for once feel powerful. They could scream, shout, cheer on their favorites or call for their deaths. They could let themselves go and feel that they too were part of the power of Rome.

The Romans won their empire by the sword and their most popular sport came to reflect that. The very name of the games comes from their word for sword, gladius. Their legionnaires had to wield the sword in order to create the Roman world, first to protect Rome from its enemies and then to go on the offensive and conquer an empire. The Roman world was a world created by violence and its main virtues were martial ones. That is what gave its society strength.

Death was ever-present in gladiatorial games. For the Romans this was natural. Their world was a world of war. Their empire was built on the courage and sacrifice of men, many of whom ended up dying. For them a sport where death is not a potential outcome and a danger, did not reflect reality. In their world, risk was ingrained in the very fabric of society and it led to either glory or death.

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History of gladiators

There is debate on where the gladiatorial fights started. Some people say that they are of Etruscan origin, while others point to an origin in Campania. Most people agree that they started as a part of funerary blood rites and were part of a celebration of the dead.

The first recorded gladiatorial game in Rome took place in 264BC. This date coincides with the start of the first Punic Wars, where Rome fought a deadly war against Carthage. The games were organized by Decimus Iunius Brutus Scaeva in order to honor his dead father.

It is during the Punic Wars, that the most frequent type of gladiator used during the Republican times developed. This type is the Samnite type. The Samnites were a tribe in Italy that supported Hannibal during his attack on Rome. When Hannibal and his allies were defeated, many prisoners of war were converted into gladiators and made to fight in gladiatorial games. In order to punish them for their support of Rome’s enemy, the Samnites and their battle armor became a protype for gladiators.

The games exploded in popularity and developed from being part of funerary rites into a public spectacle on their own. People who wanted to hold political office started using them as a way to gain favor with the citizens and so started organizing these games in public.

From then on, different schools to train gladiators developed. One of the earliest ones was the school for gladiators in Capua. This is where one of the most famous gladiators of all time, Spartacus, did his training.

Spartacus was a Thracian slave turned gladiator who became famous by breaking out of the gladiator school and leading a slave revolt against Rome. His slave army was led by gladiators and was quite successful at keeping the Romans at bay for years. They were finally defeated, but their revolt has left a lasting mark on history.

When Augustus turned the Republic into an Empire, he also assumed a state patronship over the games. It now became a duty of the state to provide for gladiatorial games. It was part of the “bread and games” policy of the state, probably designed to try to have the populace satisfied by drawing their attention away from their misery and instead towards entertainment.

During Imperial times, the games were very popular and captured the public’s imagination. Gladiators became superstars, adored by the public and lusted after by women. Grafitti from Pompeii attests to this. In Pompeii there is even a grafitti by Jesus! This Jesus insulted a gladiator by comparing him to a small fish instead of a victor.

So you see Jesus rose from the dead in Judea in order to become a gladiatorial fan in Pompeii. 🙂 Just kidding. This was another Jesus and most likely a member of Pompeii’s small Jewish community.

The gladiatorial games continued on during the entire course of the Empire until they were officially banned in the 5th century AD, when Christianity had a strong grip on Rome. Gladiatorial fights probably ceased at that time, but “venationes” or fights against animals continued on until at least the 6th century (and might have been ancestor of bull fights in the Iberian peninsula).

Social status of gladiators

There were several main sources of gladiators: some came as slaves, either captured in war or bought on the market, some were people who were condemned to the arena for some offenses, however there was a very large number of free people who chose to fight as gladiators. These free men who chose to fight as gladiators were called the “auctorati”.

In Imperial times, the free men who chose to fight as gladiators, comprised around half of all gladiators. The social standing of gladiators was a bit complicated, some were slaves and some were free, however in Roman society anyone who fought in the arena was considered an “infame”, a lower class of individuals who could not exercise all their rights.

The class of “infames” included dancers, actors, gladiators and other similar professions. However even though legally they were considered a lower class with less rights, many of them rose to be quite wealthy and fraternized with the highest classes of Roman society.

Even though some gladiators attained fame and fortune, most gladiators did not and lived their lives in misery, often dying young due to the wounds they suffered in the arena.

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Types of gladiators

The first types of gladiators were the so-called “ethnic” types based on the battle gear worn and used by the nations that were enemies of Rome, the Samnites (samnis type gladiator), the Gauls (gallus type), and the Thracians (thraex type). The samnis was the most typical type of gladiator during the era of the Roman Republic, but together with the gallus disappeared during the Imperial era. These were replaced by other types of gladiator, for example the murmillo.

  • Samnis – Samnite type (Republic era)
  • Gallus – Gallic type (Republic era)
  • Thraex – Thracian type
  • Secutor – the secutor was developed to fight specially the retiarius. They wore heavy armor, a short sword, and a large helmet with only two small eye holes.
  • Hoplomachus – the hoplomachus was armed similarly to a Greek warrior, with a helmet adorned with feathers, a short sword, small round shield and also a spear.
  • Murmillo – the murmillo wore a helmet with an ornate grill visor, a rectangular shield and a large sword. The murmillo was suited more to large, muscular men, as the shield and the sword were quite heavy.
  • Crupellarius – the crupellarius was an extremelly heavily armed gladiator.
  • Retiarius – the retiarius carried a trident, a dagger and a net, but without a helmet.
  • Provocator – the provocator was originally dressed similar to a legionnaire, but throughout the ages, their dress changed several times.
  • Dimachaerus – the dimachaerus fought with 2 swords, with one sword in each hand and had minimal armor.
  • Scissor – there are very few descriptions of this type of gladiator, but he could have used a special weapon, which consisted of a steel tube which encompassed his entire arm and had a semi-circular blade attached at the end of it.

There were also other types of gladiators, but these were the most common ones. Also man to man fighting was not the only form of sports combat that was practiced. As mentioned before there were also fights against animals, and even mock battles on land and sea between large groups of fighters, often trying to “recreate” old battles that were fought between different armies.

Combat

Combat occurred in arenas around the entire empire and usually pitted two gladiators of different types against each other. The fact that the gladiators had different weapons and styles of fighting always added an element of unpredictability and excitement for the fans.

The biggest arena and the one where the elite gladiators fought was the Colosseum in Rome.

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Myths about the gladiators

There are several common myths about the gladiators that prevail in the modern world. One of them is that before every combat the gladiators would salute the Emperor and say: “Hail Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.” This is a myth. This was said once by a group of condemned prisoners who were about to take part in a mock naval battle on a lake, but there is no evidence that the gladiators themselves used to say it. The thumbs down and thumbs up gestures meaning “death” and “life” are also largelly a myth.

Lessons from the gladiators

The same values that were epitomized by the gladiators are still applicable today. Valor, courage, strength, fearlessness are all virtues or values that all men want to possess. The inner workings of men have not changed, even if society today is much different from the one of Ancient Rome. We still want to dominate, to be powerful, to be the best. The competitive spirit has not vaned in us.

Risks were ever-present in Roman society, foremost the risk of death. They took a world of dangers as normal and knew that only through taking a risk can you conquer. In today’s world, the risk of death has significantly diminished for us all, however so has risk taking. People have become comfortable in their little bubbles. Bubbles that are safe and comfortable. Many people are content with having a mediocre, but safe life.

That is another thing that we can learn from the gladiators. They risked their lives for glory. Many of them were slaves, but many free men chose to undergo this ordeal as well. They had to learn how to conquer their fears and be able to step into the arena knowing that they were taking the ultimate risk.

We no longer have to risk our lives, yet we are more afraid of taking risks than the men of old. Taking a risk today is way less risky than taking a risk anytime in the past. We should embrace that good fortune and start taking risks (not wild risks, but calculated ones). Only through taking a risk can you become a champion and conquer all.

We can also learn the value of hard work from the ancient gladiators. They had to undergo many hardships in order to be the best, in fact just to survive. They lived under the constant fear that if they weren’t the best, then they would most likely be dead. This pushed them to train hard and to value every second of life that they were living in this world.

Only through hard work would they be able to rise to that level, where they could defeat their opponent, live to see another day and in time maybe rise to become a true champion, a veritable superstar of the ancient world.

You too need to embrace the value of hard work if you want to achieve the things that you want to accomplish. You need to work even harder if you want to become the best that you can be. Embrace the spirit of the ancient gladiators. Let their example lead you to glory.

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Note: In no way is this post meant to glorify the negative aspects of gladiatorial combat. What happened in the arena was often very cruel. However the post was written in a style reflecting the times of Ancient Rome. In fact it is meant to contrast the harsh realities of life in the ancient world, with the luck that we have today. On the other hand, it is also meant to be inspirational and highlight the values of strength, courage and hard work, values that are often missing in the individuals of today’s society.

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