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The Rise Of Gladiatorial Combat In Rome Essay, Research Paper
The Rise of Gladiatorial Combat in Rome
Gladiatorial contests (munera gladitoria), hold a central place in our
perception of Roman behavior. They were also a big influence on how Romans
themselves ordered their lives. Attending the games was one of the practices
that went with being a Roman. The Etruscans who introduced this type of
contest in the sixth century BC, are credited with its development but its the
Romans who made it famous. A surviving feature of the Roman games was when a
gladiator fell he was hauled out of the arena by a slave dressed as the Etruscan
death-demon Charun. The slave would carry a hammer which was the demon’s
attribute. Moreover, the Latin term for a trainer-manager of gladiators
(lanista), was believed to be an Etruscan word. (4:50) Gladiators of Ancient
Rome lived their lives to the absolute fullest.
Gladiatorial duels had originated from funeral games given in order to
satisfy the dead man’s need for blood, and for centuries their principle
occasions were funerals. The first gladiatorial combats therefore, took place
at the graves of those being honored, but once they became public spectacles
they moved into amphitheaters. (2:83) As for the gladiators themselves, an aura
of religious sacrifice continued to hang about their combats. Obviously most
spectators just enjoyed the massacre without any remorseful reflections. Even
ancient writers felt no pity, they were aware that gladiators had originated
from these holocausts in honor of the dead. What was offered to appease the
dead was counted as a funeral rite. It is called munus (a service) from being a
service due. The ancients thought that by this sort of spectacle they rendered
a service to the dead, after they had made it a more cultured form of cruelty.
The belief was that the souls of the dead are appeased with human blood, they
use to sacrifice captives or slaves of poor quality at funerals. Afterwards it
seemed good to obscure their impiety by making it a pleasure. (6:170) So after
the acquired person had been trained to fight as best they can, their training
was to learn to be killed! For such reasons gladiators were sometimes known as
bustuarii or funeral men. Throughout many centuries of Roman history, these
commemorations of the dead were still among the principle occasions for such
combats. Men writing their wills often made provisions for gladiatorial duels
in connection with their funerals. Early in the first century AD, the people of
Pollentia forcibly prevented the burial of an official, until his heirs had been
compelled to provide money for a gladiators’ show. (1:174)
It was in Campania and Lucania that the gladiatorial games came to their
full development and took on their classical form. In these new surroundings
they took root and flourished, as can be seen in fourth century BC, tomb
paintings. These pictures show helmeted gladiators carrying shields and lances,
covered with wounds and dripping with blood. (2:84) For Rome a decisive moment
in gladiatorial history was reached in 246 BC, the year when the first Punic War
began. At the funeral of Brutus Pera, his two sons for the first time exhibited,
in the cattle market, three simultaneous gladiatorial combats. By 216 BC the
number of fights given on a single occasion had risen to twenty two.(14:16) In
105 BC the two consuls of the year made gladiatorial games official. There
were no doubts of religious tendency, but the purpose of Roman spectacles, were
a public display of power, that power was primarily military, and also to
compensate the soft Greek culture which now was abroad. (8:98)
Those compelled to fight gladiator duels included prisoners of war,
slaves and condemned criminals. Among them were numerous followers of the new
Christian faith. During this time persecution fell heavily on their faith, many
won immortal fame as martyrs. Fighting in the arena was one of the sentences
earned by the sacrilege accused against members of the Christian religion
because of their refusal to sacrifice to the emperor. It was written that these
Christians were forced, as gladiatorial novices to run the gauntlet. At other
times they were thrown to the wild beasts. Criminals that were used had
committed crimes that carried a death sentence or harsh manual labor. The
crimes which led to the arena were murder, treason, robbery and arson.
Criminals sentenced to forced labor were often obliged to serve as gladiators,
and were sentenced to three years of combat and two years in the schools.
Sometimes penalties were differentiated according to social class, thus for
certain crimes which in the case of slaves would involve execution, free men or
freedmen (ex-slaves) were condemned to fight in the arena instead. This did not
of course make them gladiators, unless they were trained first, as those
required to provide this sort of sport not always were. And indeed as
gladiators became more expensive in the second century AD the use of untrained
criminals in the amphitheater increased.(7:537) Most gladiators, at Rome and
elsewhere were slaves, but in addition there were always some free men who
became gladiators because they wanted to. The profession was an alternative to
being a social outcast. They were generally derived from the lowest ranking
category of free persons, namely the freedman who had themselves been slaves or
were the son of slaves. Free fighters were more sought after than slaves,
presumably because they shower greater enthusiasm in the arena. Such a
volunteer was offered a bonus if he survived the term of his contract, yet he
still had to swear the terrible oath of submission to be burnt with fire,
shackled with chains, whipped with rods and killed with steel like the rest of
the gladiators. For the period of his engagement, he had become no more than a
Majestic Exhibitions and Schools
There seemed no end to public entertainment’s of one sort or another at Rome.
First there were the regular functions. The number of days in each year given up
to annual games and spectacles of one sort or another in the city was
startlingly large, and increased continually. Already 66 in the time of
Augustus, it had risen to 135 under Marcus Aurelius, and 175 or more in the
fourth century. Gladiatorial amusement had become an essential feature of the
services a ruler had to provide, in order to maintain his popularity and his job.
Emperors themselves had to attend the shows. Emperors watching the shows were
distinct, vulnerable, and subject to public pressures which could not be
displayed elsewhere. That was why the games were not popular with a few rulers
such as Marcus Aurelius. He directed that if a gladiator was freed as a result
of popular outcry in the amphitheater the liberation was to be annulled.
Aurelius found the sport boring and indeed he was unenthusiastic about Roman
entertainment in general. (10:87)
The teaching of gladiators was highly elaborate affair involving
expertise appreciated by those members of the public who attended the games for
something more than blood and thrills. Gladiators were trained at gladiator
schools established during the late Republic at the time of Sulla 138-78 BC.
(2:86) Novices practiced with wooden swords on a man of straw or a wooden post.
The weapons used in more adept practice were heavier than those used in the
arena. Discipline was severe, with ruthless punishments. The barracks they
lived in were so low inmates could only sit or lie.(3:68) Breaking any rules
was not tolerated and resulted in strict reprimanding: shackles, flogging or
even death. (2:86) The main objective of the schools were to produce the best
possible fighters for the arena, thus scrupulous attention was invested in
gladiator health. Their schools were situated in favorable climates, and
equipped with first class doctors. The schools were also provided with resident
medical consultants to check the men’s diet. Gladiators were called hordearii,
barley men, because of the amount of barley that they ate, a muscle building
The Types of Gladiators
From Republican times onward, foreign prisoners were made to fight with
their own weapons and in their own styles. Many of these men, were merely
prisoners herded into the arena, but various classes of professional gladiators
likewise came from this category. Such, for example was the origin of the
gladiators known as the Samnites. Generally regarded as the prototypes of all
Rome’s gladiators, they are said to have come into existence after its Samnite
enemies introduced a splendid new type of military equipment in 310 BC.
Gladiators were ranked in different categories according to their fighting style
and the type of weapon they used. These Samnites wore the heavy, magnificent
armor of soldiers. It included a large shield (scutum), a leather or partly
metal greave (ocrea) on the left leg, and a visored helmet (galea) with huge
crests and plumes. To these were added sword (gladius) or lance (hasta), and
the sleeve on the right arm which was part of a gladiators general
equipment.(11:121) Sectores were armed with a sword and mace loaded with lead.
Thraces carried a curved scimitar of varying shape, and a small square or round
shield. Myrmilliones (?Guals’) carried a shield and a short scythe and wore a
distinctive fish ornament on their helmets. The Retiarii were exceptionally
uncovered, except sometimes for a head band. They carried a trident in one hand
and a net in the other. Because the throwing of a net as a method of combat,
was second rate the Retarii were inferior in status to the ranks, and thus had
the worst living quarters. (2:86) The Myrmillo could fight against the Thracian
or against the Retiarius or net fighter. But the principle opponent of the
Retiarius was the Secutor.(12:109)
The Procedure of the Arena
Gladiatorial shows were intensively promoted and advertised to raise
public attention. Descriptions of upcoming contests, appeared on walls and on
the grave stones beside main roads. The opening ceremonies began the day before
the fights. It was then that the supporter of the show donated a splendid feast
to the contestants about to appear on the following day. The proceedings of the
murderous day began with a chariot drive and parade. Led and presented by the
sponsor of the games. The gladiators displayed themselves in uniforms topped by
cloaks dyed purple with gold embroidery. Climbing down their chariots, they
marched around the arena, followed by slaves carrying their arms and armor.
Gladiators, especially those who belonged to the emperor’s own troop, were often
finely equipped. When the combatants arrived opposite the emperor’s platform,
they extended their right hands towards him and cried ?Hail, emperor, greetings
from men about to die!’ (Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!) (7:538)
The games often opened with a convicted criminal being thrown to a lion.
The criminal was given a small sword, and if he could kill the lion his life was
spared. Another way in which they opened the games was to tie the criminal to a
pillar and lower him into a pit of hungry beasts. After these morbid killings
took place, the animal events would take center stage. The most common of these
fights would be a lion against bear. To make the beast ready for fighting they
would starved the animals and poked them with sticks while in the cage.(5:17)
These events were followed by a break, during this break Gladiatores Meridiane
took place. This event consisted of a fully armed gladiator against an unarmed
man. The object was simple, to kill your opponent, the winner went on to fight
the next combatant. The overall winner was the person that was standing in the
end.(2:88) The afternoon brought about the beginning of the gladiatorial events.
Staged with a dramatic sense of climax, the afternoon started with second rate
displays that were bloodless. These mock fighters were called
paegniarii.(1:176) After these mock battles came the real fights, the tamest of
these would be the hand to hand combats with one opponent. However, most of the
contests were worst, ranging from armed fighters against unarmed, two criminals
versus a gladiator, and even a group of gladiators versus another group.
While the fighters were at grips, their trainers (lanista) stood beside
them and hounded them on much like a modern boxers trainer would. Meanwhile the
crowd shouted commands of their own including beat, kill and burn. When a man
fell, the herald raised their trumpets, and spectators yelled ?Got him! He’s had
it!’ (habet, hoc habet). The fallen fighter if he was in a state to move, laid
down his shield, and raised one finger of his left hand for mercy. The decision
whether his life should be spared, rested with the provider of the games, but
he generally let the crowd make the decision. Thumbs up, and a waving of
handkerchiefs, meant his life would be spared, thumbs down and he would be
killed without hesitation. While African boys raked over the bloodstained sand,
fallen gladiators were taken away. A Charon would verify the gladiators death
and finish him off it was necessary. The costumes of the Charon were designed
to look like Mercury, divine guide of dead men’s souls to the infernal
If a fighter’s performance had not given satisfaction, or if he was a
criminal whose survival was not desired, his life was sometimes risked again on
the same day by orders for a repeat performance, against specially introduced
understudies. When neither party won and both were spared, each was described
as stans missus, and such a result was often recorded on inscriptions. The
victorious gladiators were presented with palm branches as a prize, and in Greek
lands of the Empire they were given a wreath or crown in addition or instead.
Both palms and crowns are often shown on funeral monuments. The giver of the
games also provided prize money, according to scales stipulated in the
gladiators’ contracts. (10:169)
In early times gladiators’ duels took place in whatever public places a
town might posses. But then , under the emperors, the characteristic place for
such a contest was the amphitheater. This was an oval auditorium surrounded by
rows of seats facing on to the arena, as in modern bull rings, absorbing the
blood of slaughtered men and beasts. The first permanent amphitheater known to
us is not in Rome but in Campania, the country which inherited the gladiatorial
games from Eturia and passed them on to the Romans. (13:225) The largest and
most famous of all such buildings was initiated by the Flavian dynasty. Opened
by Titus in AD 80, this Colosseum is one of the most marvelous buildings in the
world. Its massive overall measurements are 187 by 155 meters, of which the
space for the arena itself comprises 86 by 54 meters. There was accommodation
for perhaps 45,000 sitting spectators and at least 5,000 more willing to stand.
Underneath the arena is a labyrinth of passages for stage effects, pens for wild
beasts, storage rooms and the mechanism by which scenery and other apparatus
were hoisted into the arena. The emperor’s platform was at the center of one of
the long sides, facing across to the portion of the auditorium reserved for
magistrates and the holder of the games. There were also places for priests,
who also attended these bloodthirsty sports. (13:227) The formula of the
collosseum helped to mold renaissance styles. In the eight century they said
As long as it stands,
Rome will stand;
when it falls, Rome will fall;
when Rome falls, the world will fall
The colosseum has often been raided, but has never fallen. It has been made to
serve many purposes, many of which are ironic. These have included sacred
occasions, church services, and plays. Thus through all the depredation the
colosseum has faced over the years inside and outside of the arena, this
indestructible building still towers over the city today. (13:230)
The Gladiator in Society
The reputation of gladiators in the eyes of the public was curiously
mixed. For one thing they were feared. Society was never able to forget for
very long that the gladiators were a potential danger to society. So, of course
were the masses of slaves in general, and that is why their crimes were so
savagely punished, if one slaved murdered his master, the whole household had to
die. But by training the gladiators they spared the rest of the slaves family,
and forced him to fight for his life in front of the community he violated.
Moreover their legal and moral position in the community was one of complete
shame. When a gladiator was killed, his corpse was not permitted honorable to
be buried, unless it was claimed by his family or a friend. (9:91)
However there is ample proof of the admiration and indeed excitement
that the gladiators aroused. Gladiators became so ingrained in the Roman mind
and soul that they believed in superstitions that resulted from munera. It was
believed that the warm blood of a slaughtered gladiator would cure epilepsy.
When newly married women, parted their hair with a gladiators spear, it brought
good luck if this had belonged to a man mortally wounded in the arena. (8:276)
Gladiators were also seen highly upon by women, graffiti at the Pompeii
amphitheater reveal that members of the profession were loved with the
passionate infatuation which teenage females have for pop singers today.
Although gladiators lived relatively short lives it was possible to win
liberation and retire on receipt of the symbolical wooden sword (rudis). It was
also noted that some ex-gladiators moved upwards into respectable smart circles
of local bourgeoisie’s (9:96)
Opposition and Abolition
It was probably assumed that the munera would go on forever, and that
nothing would stop their growth. With the rise of Christianity a religious
presence lingered about such contests once again. The Roman ruling classes
began to view these contest with a favorable eye. The excuse of encouragement
to warlike toughness continued to be put forward until the eve of the Middle
Ages, although it started to become lame and inhumane. Another purpose present
in the minds of Rome’s rulers was the desire that potentially unruly and
dangerous city population should be amused and kept quiet. They should be given
entertainment that they wanted, no matter how disgusting if might be.
The games gradually lost its original intentions and connections to the
earlier funeral games. Once defenseless human beings are thrown to wild
animals, the original purpose is lost, the purpose now is blood-thirsty
spectators viewing inhumane, unjust executions. (2:87) The new religion however
ended them for good. With the rise of emperor Constantine and Christianity came
the fall of the gladiatorial spectacles. In AD 326, Constantine abolished
gladiators’ games altogether. He also stated that all criminals who would have
in the past have been enrolled for the games must in the future be condemned to
forced labor in the mines instead. By the end of the fourth century,
gladiatorial shows had disappeared from the Eastern Empire. (2:87)
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