The modern-day take on the gladiator places him as a slave fighting alongside brothers to escape. The reality is entirely different.
The word “gladiator” invokes the picture of valiant Romans fighting to the death while in the arena, thousands of bloodthirsty fans let rip with ear-splitting cries of encouragement or abuse. We think Kirk Douglas and Russell Crowe, but the truth about gladiators is far more engrossing.
Historians agree that gladiatorial events began with funerals. When an aristocrat died, a fight was staged between slaves, because a blood offering was considered an appropriate tribute to the deceased, ensuring a safe entrance to the hereafter. Funeral attendees enjoyed these little “diversions” and by the end of the first century BCE, gladiatorial games were quite the spectator sport.
Over the years, the sport – and I use that word intentionally – evolved into a highly disciplined, highly regarded, state-funded event. The original gladiators were slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war owned by wealthy Romans, but eventually, other people opted into the occupation, with the lure of fame and wealth always a big recruiting factor.
Gladiators were all about “me.” It’s a common misconception that they were part of a “team.” While they no doubt had friends in gladiatorial circles, each man was decidedly on his own, hoping to win rewards by defeating other gladiators. The notion of brotherhood among them has been overstated, largely because of Hollywood storylines.
The sport evolved into a highly disciplined, highly regarded, state-funded event. The original gladiators were slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war owned by wealthy Romans, but eventually, other people opted into the occupation, with the lure of fame and wealth always a big recruiting factor.
For owners, gladiators were an investment. The equivalent of today’s elite athletes, these fighters weren’t thrown willy-nilly into the ring to be killed. Rather, they were given tailored diets consisting of power foods like barley, lean meats, beans, eggs, cheese, and olive oil. They received intensive training, fine-tuning their offensive and defensive skills. They were under the care of Rome’s best medical practitioners, so wounds were tended and they were given regular medical attention. Their lodgings were comfortable and, although they were still strictly slaves, the treatment they received was clearly far superior than that meted out to the average garden-variety slave.
Like today’s sports stars, gladiators had their adoring fans (there were even fan clubs for the finest fighters), certain men attracting enormous crowds, so it wasn’t in the owners’ interests to have them die after just one fight.
It surprised me to discover that gladiatorial combat was highly disciplined and subject to strict game rules. An umpire oversaw each fight and could call time out in the event of a serious injury. The umpire could also call a stalemate – the show was about bravery and fighting expertise, but gladiators also had to put on a good show for the audience. Of course, the norm was a fight to the death, so although it was possible for a gladiator to gain freedom if he clocked up enough wins, this was rare – most gladiators died before turning thirty.
But back to those rules. There were detailed laws about combat and gladiators were placed into various categories depending on their physique, skill, experience, style of fighting, and fighting accoutrements. One category of gladiator was the “secutor” (the pursuer), whose arm and leg were covered in armor and whose head was protected by a rather large and heavy helmet.
A great cumbersome thing allowing limited vision, it must have been incredibly uncomfortable to wear. He also carried a substantial shield. The secutor fought against the “retiarius,” a net fighter. It looks like the retiarius was at a distinct disadvantage considering he fought armed only with a dagger, trident, and a net, but that would be underestimating him. His weapons were easier to manage, he wasn’t weighed down with all that heavy armor, and he had a good chance of being able to get the secutor’s weapons tangled up in the net thus allowing him the opportunity to thrust that trident deep into his opponent.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples
Depending on how they were classified, other gladiators fought with short swords, daggers, spears. Some wore breastplates, some greaves. There were large and small shields. Much of the armor was forged by the finest Roman craftsmen, the helmets and shields in particular being objects of strikingly beautiful handiwork.
All this reinforced the star power of the gladiators. I mentioned fan clubs earlier. Well, gladiators also attracted the ancient Roman equivalent of groupies. Women were known to throw themselves at gladiators and they certainly took advantage of that. Graffiti that pretty much equates gladiators with sex symbols has been found at various sites across the ancient Roman Empire. Some gladiators were so popular they even scored themselves monuments.
Oh, and by the way, there were also female gladiators. It was a small group but they did the sisterhood proud you can be sure. The image below is a floor mosaic from c. 158 CE showing a tiger chased by a female gladiator dressed as an Amazon. We know she killed the tiger because the Greek symbol for death is seen just above the animal.
Over the centuries, archaeologists have found further information about gladiators from mosaics, paintings, reliefs, gravesites, and written sources. With every new discovery, we learn more about these men and women, and we now know that they were of noble mind and possessed remarkable courage. According to Dr. Rossella Rea, Curator of The Colosseum Rome and also Curator of Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum, “The Colosseum in Rome was a fundamental value of which the gladiators were the full expression: a vile fighter did not deserve to live.”
With the spread of Christianity, gladiatorial combat eventually came to be seen as an excuse for carnage, and games were banned by the emperor Constantine in 325 CE. Over the next seventy-five years or so, gladiator schools gradually closed down. This particular combination of blood sport and theatre was finally at an end.