Ancient History and

Exploring the Ancient Past

Gladiators- The Rockstars of the Ancient World

By Natasha Sheldon
The rocks stars of the ancient world, gladiators attracted male and female fans from all walks of life. Paradoxically, they were also social anathema, slaves and social outcasts irrevocably stained by blood and death.

The History of Gladiators


The exact origins of gladiatorial combat have been debated. Linguistic and pictorial evidence suggest that its roots to lie in Etruscan culture. The word for a gladiator manager 'lanista' supposedly has its root in the Etruscan for executioner. Several Etruscan tomb frescoes also show a mysterious figure unleashing a hound on another man, similar to certain fights in the Roman arena.


Murals dating from the fourth century BC found in Campania show combatants fighting at funeral games- in very much the same way gladiators that later fought in Rome. Campania was an area heavily populated by Greeks, which suggests a possible Greek origin or else the continuation of a tradition native amongst southern Italic tribes.


 Death was polluting to the Romans and those who dealt in death were tainted by it. Because of their association with death, gladiators were beyond the pale socially speaking. They never quite lost this reputation.

 However, as the games became a way for politicians and emperors to gain the favour of the populace, the image of the gladiator began to change. They became heroes as well as outcasts. Their fights in the arena came to epitomizing skill, bravery and the will to live. The gladiator as an icon was born.


Whatever its origins, gladiatorial combat was associated with funerals. Many motifs of death surrounded the games, with dead gladiators being removed from the arena by officials dressed as mythological figures from the underworld, associated with the task of escorting the souls of the dead. The earliest recorded games in Rome in 264BC were funeral games, when three pairs of gladiators fought at the funeral of D Iunius Pera.

From then on, honouring the dead with games became an increasingly fashionable, although private custom. But in the early imperial period, the games became public events, designed to appease not dead ancestors but the living mob.


Who Became a Gladiator?


Initially, gladiators were composed of enslaved prisoners of war. Often they were criminals. Spartacus, contrary to popular belief, was an ex auxiliary condemned to slavery for desertion and banditry.


Later, it became common for free volunteers to fight in the arena. Even members of the equestrian and senatorial order were known to try their luck, lured into the arena by the hope of adulation. Such displays prompted the Emperor Tiberius to legislate against the upper classes debasing themselves in such a fashion.


However, gladiators were not just men. By the time of Nero, women are known to have fought in the arena. They were later banned by the Emperor Septimus Severus in 200AD.


Whether slave or free, the gladiator bound himself to his lanista by an oath, the 'auctoramentum gladiatorium' which permitted the lanista to kill or maim him. It was rare to dispose of a gladiator so casually. They were valuable commodities.


Types of Gladiators.


Traditionally there were four types of gladiator: 


·         The murmillo-A heavily armed fighter with a fish crested helmet, short sword and oblong shield.

·         The Samnite- Named after the Italic tribe defeated by Rome during the Social Wars.

·         The Retiarius- Fought with the net and trident and very little body armour.

  •  The Thracian again named for one of Rome's enemy tribes, fought with a round shield and a currved sword.


It was rare for gladiators to fight more than a few bouts a year. However, survival rates were not good with only a few surviving into their thirties. Many would be killed outright during their first bouts. Even veterans who had survived a few fights and could hold their own in the ring, risked losing their lives at the whim of the crowd.


 A few gladiators could to survive to become lanistas or trainers themselves. But it was unlikely that many could hope for a life completely severed from the arena.


 The End of the Gladiators.


Despite the popularity of the games with the general public, many members of the Roman intelligentsia such as Cicero and Seneca were against the games.


Nor did all emperors approved of them. The games were first prohibited in 325AD by the Emperor Constantine who deemed them too bloodthirsty.  However, they continued intermittently in the Christian era, declining gradually because of Christian sensibilities.


As the killing of men was banned, programmes became dull. Spectators accordingly dwindled. It is probable that the last bouts had been fought in the arena by 440AD.





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