gladiators -- 4/23/24

Today's selection -- from Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World by Donald G. Kyle. The history of gladiators:

“Historically; the symbolic dynamics of the gladiatorial combat—what its actions and participants meant to the Romans—cannot be separated from the military and political contexts of the Middle (264-133) and Late Republic (133-31 BCB), which included recurring, brutal warfare, anxiety persisting from the disastrous defeat at Cannae, the use of military captives as performers, and the growing popularity of their impressive and entertaining militaristic performances. Combats were introduced at Rome in 264, perhaps as a novelty; but gladiators were culturally constructed in Roman terms after 216. They became more appreciated, however ambivalently; under the Late Republic until they were fully institutionalized by Augustus. 

“Rome's earliest gladiators probably included violent criminals and rebellious slaves. Tertullian says early gladiators were ‘captives or slaves of criminal status (mali status).’ Cicero seems to suggest that in an earlier age criminals fought with swords to the death and taught discipline against pain and death. In the Late Republic, however, most gladiators were prisoners of war. The main early types of gladiators (e.g., Samnites, Thracians, and Gauls) were named after enemies of Rome, and early prisoners of war apparently were forced to fight with their own equipment in their own ethnic style. Complete social outsiders without rights or privileges but with some training and experience, prisoners were routed through slavery; a dehumanization as the ‘other,’ undergoing further training and conditioning to become combative but controlled performers for Rome. 

“In the last third of the second century Lucilius mentions a famous victor and a despised loser, the first gladiators known by name: ‘In the public show given by the Flacci was a certain Aeserninus, a Samnite, a nasty fellow, worthy of that life and station. He was matched with Pacideianus, who was by far the best of all the gladiators since the creation of man.’ 

A duel, using whip, cudgel and shields, mosaic from a Roman villa at Nennig, Germany

“Gladiators were owned privately, organized in groups (familiae), and prepared by trainers (lanistae). Sometimes former gladiators themselves, trainers were socially on the same disreputable level as procurers and undertakers. As well as the first known amphitheater (at Pompeii c. 70 BCB), gladiatorial training facilities or schools (ludi) arose from at least the late second century; notably at Capua and sites around the Bay of Naples. As remains of the gladiatorial barracks at Pompeii and the Ludus Magnus (the imperial school) at Rome show; gladiators lived in small cells, but they were not routinely chained or locked up. To prepare them for the arena, and to protect their investment, owners provided them with modest but healthy food, medical attention, and extensive training. 

“Upon entering a gladiatorial school, recruits swore an oath (sacramentum) to be ‘burned by fire, bound in chains, to be beaten, to die by the sword’. All these, except the last, were severe affronts to the dignity of a citizen and the integrity of his body. Whatever their social origins, all gladiators in service were all equal as slaves, bound by their nominally voluntary oath, which mitigated Rome's responsibility and guilt. Knowing that they could save and redeem themselves only by skill and courage, gladiators embraced a militaristic esprit de corps and took professional pride in fighting— and if necessary dying— with courage and discipline. In time they became motivated both by the desire to perform well, to win rewards, fame, and freedom, and also by the fear of failure—of defeat and dishonor as well as of death. 

“In the Late Republic ambitious leaders used gladiators in shows with increasing numbers and frequency because the combats were spectacularly appealing and politically effective. In 122 BCE Gaius Gracchus, seeking popular support as tribune ( a magistrate elected to protect the interests of the lower class citizens), took down the barriers built around an arena in the Forum for a gladiatorial show and opened spectatorship freely to all. Romans increasingly expected and appreciated violent shows, and the performances developed a hierarchy of craft or entertainment value, with gladiators as star attractions. Florus claims politics changed what had been a punishment for enemies into an art (supplicia quondam hostium artem faceret). Gladiatorial combats became carefully arranged duels between well-matched opponents, providing the entertaining element of suspense and unpredictability essential to a sport. Romans became sports fans who recognized skilled performances. Rome gave increased privileges to gladiators as models of martial virtue and as specialized providers of mass entertainment. Death and victory were probably the only options for the first gladiators, but later gladiators merited improved chances of survival. Sparing losers probably arose as a way for spectators to express appreciation or as an economic measure by owners reluctant to waste resources. The first reference to awarding the rudis, the wooden sword symbolizing release from the arena, is from Cicero. By his time gladiators were essential stars in Rome's entertainment industry; performers to be elevated and not just eliminated. 

“The images and worlds of gladiators and soldiers increasingly overlapped in the Late Republic. Formerly misinterpreted as the introduction of official munera, Rutilius Rufus as consul in 105 BCE began the practice of using gladiatorial trainers to instruct landless army recruits. The Roman defeat at Arausio by the Cimbri and Teutones in 105 was the worst since Cannae, and Rome in crisis turned to the famous general Gaius Marius and to gladiatorial instructors. From the school of Aurelius Scaurus at Capua, the earliest recorded private gladiatorial school, the instructors taught skills and also probably the virtue of facing death without surrendering. Gladiators and soldiers wore essentially the same equipment (i.e., late-Hellenistic hybrid helmet, large tall shield), and they underwent similar training ( e.g., sword practice against a wooden post). In the Late Republic various types of gladiators fought against opponents of the same type. The most popular type apparently was the Samnite, a heavily armed figure with a helmet and sword, a guard on his right arm, and probably a greave on his left leg. Another type, Provocators also fought with a greave and arm guard, but they had a partial breastplate, a medium size oval shield, a short straight sword, and the ‘Imperial Gallic’ type helmet. The latest army model in the Augustan period, this helmet had large neck and cheek guards, and feathers at its sides. 

“While admiring gladiators' military prowess, Romans still saw them as threatening, uncivilized outsiders, not as the ideal, patriotic, landholding citizen-soldiers of early Rome. There was no Roman type of gladiator because producers would not have risked—and crowds would not have tolerated— the possible defeat of a fighter representing Rome. Romans identified not with the actual individual gladiator— a lowly, despicable foreigner, but rather with the skills and virtues that Rome gave him through training, and that Rome demanded he display— or else.


“When the gladiator revolt of Spartacus turned into the slave war of 73-71 BCE, it traumatized Rome. Whatever his origins, Spartacus was a trained gladiator, and he and other skilled fighters became rebel soldiers against Rome— the complete opposite of 216 when Rome trained slaves to be soldiers for Rome. Inverting Roman customs, Spartacus supposedly honored his dead officers at their funerals with forced fights of Roman captives; he went from being a gladiator to being a provider of combats. Although initially disdaining the war as merely a matter of slaves, Romans grudgingly had to respect the virtues of Spartacus' army. Florus says Spartacus' men fought to the death as befit men ‘led by a gladiator.’”



Donald G. Kyle


Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World




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