Gladiatorial Games

Overview of Gladiatorial Games in Ancient Rome

Following Carthage’s destruction in 201 BCE, Rome began two centuries of virtually uninterrupted imperial expansion. By the conclusion of this time, Rome ruled the whole Mediterranean basin and most of northern and western Europe. Her empire’s population, estimated to be between 50 and 60 million people, was around one-fifth or one-sixth of the world’s population. Tens of thousands of conquered peoples paid taxes to the Roman state. Moreover, enslaved people were seized in battle and carried to Italy. Mostly, Roman soldiers who served long years battling elsewhere bore the costs. Gladiatorial exhibitions converted war into a game, maintained a sense of violence in times of peace, and served as a political stage for clashes between rulers and governed. The gladiatorial games lasted over a thousand years, peaking between the first and second centuries BCE.

The Origin of Gladiatorial Games

Gladiatorial games’ adoption happened from the older Etruscans, maybe via Campania. They began ceremonies of sacrifice owing to the spirits of the dead and the necessity to appease them with blood sacrifices. They first appeared in Rome in 264 BCE, when Junius Brutus’ sons honoured their father by pairing three pairs of gladiators. Munera were traditionally the required burial sacrifices owing to aristocratic men upon their death.

Julius Caesar, elected aedile in 65 BCE, honoured his father, who had died twenty years previously, with an exhibition of 320 pairs of gladiators in silvered armour. An anxious Senate, still remembering Spartacus’ insurrection, reduced the number of gladiators permitted in Rome. In 46 BCE, following recent triumphs in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar threw grandiose events at the tomb of his daughter Julia, who had died in childbirth eight years before, which included the first sighting of a giraffe.

During the Republic, funding of the munera happened privately by the family, whose responsibility was to present them. As the rite became more of a display of aristocratic riches and pride, it lost much of its religious value and became more explicitly political. Augustus delegated the games to the praetors and limited the number of gladiatorial games to two per year and sixty pairs to limit this power. The emperors eventually adopted the games as enactments of their sovereignty.

Following Spartacus’ slave insurrection in 73 BCE, the state took increasing control over public games, and many gladiators got education in imperial colleges. Interestingly, the Latin word ludus implies both “game” and “school,” as both needed imitation and repetition. They would sell or rent out a troupe (familia) of gladiators under the supervision of a manager (lanista). Many were privately maintained as bodyguards by politicians and rich people, particularly during periods of public disturbance.

The Gladiator

Credit: Ancient Origins

Gladiators, named after the Roman sword known as the gladius, were usually imprisoned criminals, prisoners of war, and enslaved people. Some gladiators were volunteers, usually freedmen or extremely low levels of freeborn men who opted to live as enslaved people for monetary prizes or renown and excitement. Anyone who became a gladiator was inherently infamis, below the law, and hence unfit to be a citizen. Though it was technically forbidden by law, a limiting number of upper-classmen participated in the gladiatorial games. Still, they did not live with the other gladiators and represented a distinct, esoteric type of entertainment, as did the exceedingly rare women who competed in the arena.

All gladiators made a formal oath (Sacramentum Gladiatorium), similar to but far more dreadful than the legionary’s: “I will bear to be burnt, tied, beaten, and murdered by the sword”. Paradoxically, this awful oath offered the gladiator a degree of volition and even honour. Trained gladiators had a chance of surviving, if not prospering. Some gladiators only fought twice or three times a year, and the finest of them became well-known heroes. Skilled warriors may win a large sum of money, and the wooden sword (rudis) symbolizes their independence. Freed gladiators may fight for money again, although they were more likely to become gladiatorial games school trainers or free-lance bodyguards for the affluent.

Gladiators were classified into many groups based on the type of armour they wore, their weapons, and their combat style. However, most gladiators stayed in one category, and bouts often featured two separate gladiator categories. The following examples demonstrate some of the several sorts of gladiators identified by current scholars:

The Eques (Horseman)

The Eques battled against another gladiator of the same sort. Their matches most likely start on horseback, but they finish in hand-to-hand fighting. They were the only gladiators that fought in normal tunics rather than body armour, albeit they wore bronze helmets with two feathers and cushioned shin guards; they wielded round shields and frequently battled with long swords.

The Hoplomachus (Heavy Weapons Fighter)

The Hoplomachus
Credit: Pinterest

The Hoplomachus, named after the Greek Hoplite warrior, fought with a long spear and a short sword or dagger in the gladiatorial games; he wore a visored helmet with a crest and long greaves over both legs to protect them because he carried only a tiny shield, generally round in shape. A Hoplomachus fights a Thraex attempting to reach above his shield and stab him in this terracotta relief. A late Republican burial monument portrays a Thraex battling a kneeling Hoplomachus, although both gladiators are wearing early styles of crested helmets with no visors.

The Murmillo (Fish)

The Murmillo, named after a Greek saltwater fish, wore a broad visored helmet with a high crest; these helmets grew progressively embellished with relief embellishments, such as Hercules’ head, military trophies, and the Gorgon, Mars Ultor, and ornamental vessels. The Murmillo’s left leg was covered by a broad, slightly curved, rectangular shield; thus, he only needed one short shin-guard (ocrea). He used a short stabbing sword to fight (gladius). The wreaths on an Ephesus gravestone suggest that Murmillo won numerous battles. In another Ephesus relief, the Murmillo Asteropaios attempts to stab the Thraex Drakon on the left.

The Provocator (Attacker)

The Provocator (“attacker”) was the most heavily equipped gladiator, and he was the only gladiator who wore a pectoral protecting the exposed upper chest. He also wore a padded arm guard and a greave on his left leg, and he carried a broad rectangular shield and a stabbing sword. His broad, visored helmet lacked a crest and stretched over his shoulders. The Provocator’s armour made him slower and less nimble than other gladiators, which may explain why he was usually a partner with another gladiator of the same sort in a fight.

The Retiarius (Netman)

The Retiarius was the fastest and most mobile gladiator; being the only gladiator who did not wear a helmet, he had a significantly wider field of vision than his opponents. However, because he wore almost little protective armour, he was also more vulnerable to major wounds. His only body protection was a padded arm-protector (manica) on his left arm, frequently topped with a high metal shoulder protector (galerus). His weapons included a big net to entangle his opponent, a long trident, and a little knife. In this relief, a Retiarius advances on a Secutor who has lost his shield.

The Secutor (Pursuer)

The Secutor (“pursuer”) was usually a partner with a Retiarius. His egg-shaped helmet with spherical eye holes had no crest or reliefs to snag on the Retiarius’ net, limiting his field of view. He wore short shin protection (ocrea) and an arm protector on one leg, and he wielded a broad rectangular shield and a stabbing sword. The wreaths on this Secutor’s monument represent his numerous triumphs, while in this relief, an exultant Secutor called Improbus prepares to execute a fallen Retiarius.

Thraex (Thracian)

Thraex Gladiatorial Games
Credit: Pinterest

The Thraex gladiator was modelled on the Thracians, Rome’s erstwhile adversaries. His most distinguishing characteristic was his weapon, a short sword (sica) with a bent or kinked blade. His visored helmet with a broad brim resembled a Murmillo, but on top of it was a griffin’s head. The Thraex wore arm protection and lengthy shin guards (ocreae) on both legs since he carried a small rectangular shield. These have theatrical masks and an eagle vs serpent theme.

The Bestiarius (Animal-fighter)

The Bestiarius was a gladiator who got training to handle and combat various animals. The bestiarii were the lowest-ranking gladiators; they were not as well-known or popular as other gladiators.

Gladiator Training for Gladiatorial Games

A lanista was the manager of a gladiatorial company; he gave extensive and hard training at schools (ludi) specifically constructed for this purpose and generally located near the major amphitheatres. Pompeii, for example, featured a modest training space near the theatre surrounded by gladiatorial barracks and a vast exercise ground (palaestra) immediately close to the theatre. The emperor had direct supervision over all gladiatorial schools in Rome during the imperial period. The largest of these institutions, the Ludus Magnus was built near the Colosseum. It has a practice amphitheatre, the remnants of which can be seen today.

Arenas for Gladiatorial Games

Gladiatorial games, like chariot races, were initially staged in wide-open places with temporary seating. Conducting of some munera happened in the Roman Forum. However, as the games became more regular and popular, the requirement was a larger and more permanent structure. Although the use of the Circus Maximus was frequent due to its large seating capacity, the Romans eventually designed a building specifically for this spectacle known as an amphitheatrum. In the harena, the seating stretched around the oval or elliptical performance area.

Construction of early amphitheatres happened with wood, both in Rome and elsewhere.However, stone amphitheatres proved to be far more durable. Erection of the earliest stone amphitheater happened at Pompeii in the first century CE and had a seating of around 20,000 people. Moreover, like Roman theatres, amphitheatres were freestanding structures, enabling construction anywhere since they did not require natural hills, as Greek theatre did.

The Colosseum

Colosseum Gladiatorial Games
Credit: Pixabay

Staging of gladiatorial games happened in Rome in the Colosseum, a massive stadium opened in 80 CE. The Colosseum, located in the city’s heart, was round in design with three tiers of arches around the perimeter. The structure was as tall as a current 12-story skyscraper and could seat 50,000 people.

The Colosseum, like many modern professional sports stadiums, included box seats for the affluent and powerful. The upper floor was for commoners. The Colosseum’s floor was a maze of halls, passageways, and cages storing weapons while animals and gladiators awaited their turn to act.

The Colosseum now shows no indication of the magnificent embellishments that were formerly adorning this amphitheatre. They included colourfully painted sculptures, ornate marble, and painted stucco. Instead, we can see the tangle of underground constructions, hallways, ramps, animal enclosures, and jail chambers.

Before a Gladiatorial Game Day

Promotion of gladiatorial games happened heavily in advance, with signs stating the purpose for the event. The promotions also include its editor, the place, the date, and the number of paired gladiators (ordinarii). Highlighting of details about venationes, executions, music, and any pleasures for spectators, such as an awning against the sun, water sprinklers, food, drink, sweets, and occasionally “door prizes,” also happened. On the day of the munus, a more thorough program (libellus) was provided. They indicate the names, types, and match records of gladiator pairs and their order of appearance. The gladiators happened to get a meal and the opportunity to order their personal and private affairs the previous night.

On a Gladiatorial Game Day

Gladiatorial games begin with an elaborate parade featuring the contestants headed by the editor. The editor was generally the emperor in Rome during the imperial period, and a high-ranking magistrate in the provinces. The playing of music frequently happened throughout the procession and accompanying activities. The morning’s proceedings might start with mock battles like this one. Following these would be animal exhibitions, which include animals doing feats, but most typically hunts (venationes). In the venationes, more exotic creatures were pitted against each other or hunted and slain by bestiarii.

During the lunch break, executions of offenders who commit horrible crimes like murder, arson, and blasphemy happen. The public aspect of the execution made it both demeaning and unpleasant. It was meant to act as a deterrence to others. Damnatio ad bestias was a type of arena execution. The condemned were sent into the arena with vicious beasts or forced to engage in “dramatic” reenactments of epic events in which the “stars” really died. Compelling criminals to fight in the arena without prior preparation also happened. Death was a certain conclusion in such bouts because the “victim” had to face more opponents until he died.

Individual gladiatorial combats were the highlight of the events in the afternoon. These were often fights between gladiators wearing various armour and fighting techniques. Overseeing of the fights happened by a referee with a long stick (summa rudis). Although a broad assumption is that these fights start with the gladiators exclaiming, “Those who are going to die, salute you”, the sole evidence for this statement is seen in Claudius’ description of a naumachia involving convicts.

Victory or Defeat in a Gladiatorial Game

There were several rites in the arena. For example, when a gladiator sustains injury and wants to accept defeat, he will raise his index finger. The crowd would then signal whether they wanted the vanquished gladiator murdered or spared. The prevalent notion is that “thumbs down” indicated kill and “thumbs up” meant spare. However, there is no visual evidence for this, and the textual evidence shows that pollicem vertere (“turning the thumb”) meant to kill and pollicem premere (“pressing the thumb”) meant spare. This action might mean that those who wanted the gladiator murdered waved their thumbs in any direction. Those who wanted him saved placed their thumbs against their hands. In any scenario, the game’s sponsor determined whether or not to grant the vanquished gladiator a respite (missio). At the same time, slaining of the gladiator required him to receive the fatal stroke without screaming out or flinching.


Gladiatorial fighting began as part of the funerals of powerful Romans who had died. Emperors hosted these massive gladiatorial games for the funerals of senior Roman officials. The link between gladiator games and funerals faded with time. Mostly, the upper class staged the games primarily to boost their social prestige and garner favour with the populace. Many politicians used these well-known games to sway power and popularity polls.

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