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 ...
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