Welcome to “Gladiator of the Week.” The blog expands on the information in my book, The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games (Cambridge, 2011) by exploring some of the known realities of Roman gladiatorial combat and setting the record straight about this form of spectacle, which is widely misunderstood in modern culture. This is in no small measure due to the way gladiatorial spectacles are portrayed in popular culture, such as in films like Gladiator or TV shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Following this and another introductory entry, each week or two I will post a description of particular kind of gladiator, assess his equipment, and consider his fighting style.
First off, what was a Roman gladiatorial spectacle like? Such events were staged not by the state but by affluent individuals at their own expense. Other games, called ludi, included chariot races and theatrical performances, and they were usually associated with festivals honoring particular deities. These games were usually put on at public expense. In contrast, gladiatorial games (called munera, or “duties”) were paid for by an individual. At least initially, they were put on to honor the memory of an ancestor or dead relative. The first such display, we are told by the historian Livy, was staged in 264 BCE outside the tomb of one of the Junii family – a clear funerary association. Indeed, the roots of this type of spectacle have been located in South-Central Italy in the fourth century BCE, among the people called the Lucanians, where funeral games for fallen warriors appear to have included armed duels (though we cannot be sure they were to the death). In addition, the earliest surviving amphitheaters – arenas specifically designed for gladiatorial fights – are found in this very region. There is every reason to think, then, that gladiators came to Rome from Campania and Lucania.
Once introduced, gladiatorial combats quickly grew in elaboration, scale, and popularity. A good part of the reason for this is that they were privately funded. In the competitive aristocratic ethos of the Roman Republic, ambitious politicians found in them a handy avenue to popular prominence. Wealthy Romans sought to outdo their predecessors in the scale and impressiveness of their spectacles, and so the munera became an entrenched part of the Roman entertainment schedule. We read that over the course of the second century BC, with each successive generation, the number of gladiators put on display steadily increased. At some point two other elements came to be associated with the fights of the gladiators: beast hunts and public executions.
By the time of the emperor Augustus (reigned 31 BCE-14 CE) the games appear to have adopted a tripartite daily format: beast hunts in the morning, executions during the lunch break, and gladiatorial fights in the afternoon. We cannot be sure that every spectacle put on followed this precise pattern – we know, for instance, that beast hunts and executions could be staged as stand-alone events – but there is good reason to think that by the early Empire this was the usual format. By the end of the first century CE Rome housed four major training schools associated with the arena: the Ludus Magnus (“The Great Training School”), the Ludus Gallicus (“The Gallic Training School”), the Ludus Dacicus (“The Dacian Training School”), and the Ludus Matutinus (“The Morning Training School”). The name of the latter presumably reflects its being used to turn out beast hunters and other performers associated with the morning phase of the shows. (The significance of the names of the Gallic and Dacian schools remains obscure.)
The beast hunts (venationes) took various forms. In some cases, animals were merely displayed and/or performed tricks. The poet Martial, writing around 80 CE, tells of a remarkable lion that had been trained to allow hares to cavort unhurt in its jaws. It was a crowd favorite. Other formats were less forgiving. Sometimes animals would be pitted against each other, allowing nature to take its course, if you will. A mosaic from Libya, for instance, shows a bull chained to a bear! A third possibility, apparently the most common, was for beasts to be released into the arena and then killed by trained huntsmen. Since everything was funded from the purse of an individual sponsor (called the editor, “producer,” or munerarius, “gamesman”), the quality, number and exoticness of the beasts directly reflected his wealth and influence. The more exotic and unusual the animals, the more favor the producer earned with the audience. That he had the connections to bring, say, hippotamuses or giraffes to Rome spoke to the depth and reach of his social and political influence. That he could afford it all spoke to his wealth and generosity. So far as we can tell, munera were usually open to the public for free, so sponsors put a lot of money on the line for the benefit of the Roman people without expecting a financial return on their investment. What they were buying was social and political prominence, and popularity.
We know that by the High Empire a lot of money could be made supporting the hunting phase of munera. A country villa at Piazza Armerina in central Sicily is so vast and luxurious that it was once thought to belong to an emperor. One of its corridors is decorated with a huge mosaic depicting the capture and transport by ship of African beasts. In one scene, a man of importance is depicted in all his finery, attended by secretaries and assistants. A good case has been made that this is no less than the owner of the villa, and that he had made his millions collecting beasts for the arena.
At the lunch break, it seems that most people would leave the amphitheater to buy snacks from concession stands outside (depicted clearly in a fresco of the amphitheater at Pompeii). For the die-hard fans, however, something had to be going on in the arena. So executions of lowly criminals took place. To be killed in the arena was a particularly degrading form of death, so it was reserved for slaves, foreigners, bandits, pirates, rebels, prisoners of war, and the like – all enemies of the Roman order. The methods of killing varied. Since there were animals on hand, exposure to the beasts was an obvious choice – the so-called process of “throwing people to the lions.” Any feral beast would do – in addition to lions, panthers, leopards, boars, bulls, bears, and elephants were employed – so long as they got the job done. The animals would starved in advance, and whipped and branded by handlers once in the arena, if they proved reluctant to perform. Alternatively, the prisoners could be forced to fight in groups, were crucified and burned to death simultaneously, or were cut down by armed men.
A curious format of execution was the re-enactment, with a twist, of mythological motifs, what one leading scholar has dubbed “fatal charades.” Here a convict dressed as Orpheus – a sort of ancient Dr. Doolittle who charmed animals with his songs – was displayed on a false hill and then plunged into a cage full of bears. There, he failed to charm the bears. In another instance we hear of an “Icarus” having wings attached to his back and shoved off a tower erected in the arena. In this way the sponsor was seen to make myth a reality.
It seems from the evidence that the execution phase was not popular with everyone. Remember that the arena would be largely empty, since many spectators had left for lunch. Seneca, in a famous letter, expresses horror at what he saw going on during the executions, when he happened to stop by a gladiatorial show at lunchtime. He expressly says that the place was practically empty. The biographer Suetonius cites the emperor Claudius’ insistence on staying in his seat during lunch to watch the killings as an example of his cruelty. So this sort of thing was not to everyone’s taste and taking pleasure in it was frowned upon, at least by the elite.
Finally, in the afternoon came the gladiators. Contrary to popular belief, these were not all desperados condemned to die in the arena. That was true of the execution victims forced to fight during the lunchtime break, but not of the gladiators themselves. For the most part they were trained professionals, in whom the owner of the training school had invested a lot of time and money. Some were indeed slaves or convicts and had no choice but to make the most of their bad lot. But others were volunteers (called auctorati, or “contractors”), of freeborn or ex-slave status, who willingly endured the risks of the sand for the great rewards on offer. Think of the gladiator less as a wretch fighting to save his life and more as a prize fighter trained for the occasion.
In the next entry, we will look more closely at the gladiators, their origins, and their training.
Garrett G. Fagan is the author of The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games. He is Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Pennsylvania State University where he teaches courses in Roman and Greek history, Latin, and ancient warfare. He is the author, co-author, or editor of four books including Bathing in Public in the Roman World (1999), Archaeological Fantasies (2006), and New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare (2010), as well as numerous scholarly articles.