Who Were The Roman Gladiators?
Gladiators, perhaps one of the most famous figures in Roman history, were professional fighters who often fought in front of a crowd, usually in large amphitheatres, including the Colosseum. In Latin, the name Gladiator literally translates as ‘swordsman’.
Roman Gladiators were considered entertainment, and fought with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals in front of an audience. Sometimes gladiator fights were used as a way to distract the population from other negative issues in society, while at other times they were used to celebrate winning wars, birthdays or the presence of an important visitor.
Watching gladiatorial combat was very popular during Ancient Rome, with games often lavish and costly. The peak of these games were during the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, and they last for nearly a thousand years.
Many gladiators were slaves, although some were volunteers who risked their lives and their legal and social standing by appearing in the arena. Some gladiators gained fame throughout their fighting, and were almost like celebrities during Roman times, which is why some signed up for the role.
Gladiators were highly trained and lived in a Gladiator school, where they practised their skills. Because many lived together, they may have actually known their opponents. Gladiators were actually quite expensive for those who owned them. Not only was the school expensive, but they also had to be well fed to keep up their strength for fighting, and they also received the best medical attention.
The origin of gladiators is often disputed. There is evidence of gladiatorial combat in funeral rites during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BC, as a way of honoring the dead, then becoming an essential feature of politics and social life in the Roman world.
Types Of Gladiators
There were over two dozen different types of gladiators. They were distinguished from each other by the weapons they used, the armor they wore, the fighting styles they employed, and the events at which they fought. The different gladiator types were as follows:
Andabata: These gladiators wore helmets without any aperture for the eyes, so that they were obliged to fight blindfold. They also wore no armor and fought bare chested.
Arbelas: These gladiators were armed with a curved blade in one hand and a dagger in the other.
Bestiarius: These gladiators were trained to handle and fight all sorts of animals. They were the lowest ranking gladiators and often wore no armor.
Bustuarius: These gladiators fought in combats to the death at the funeral ceremonies of prominent Romans.
Cestus: These gladiators only fought with the cestus, a heavy-duty type of knuckleduster, and otherwise wore no armour.
Crupellarius: These gladiators were the most heavily armored gladiators of all, dressed in almost all metal armour.
Dimachaerus: These gladiators held a sword in each hand. They were famous for their skill at wielding these swords.
Eques: These gladiators were a unique class who would start their battle on horseback. Early forms of the eques gladiator were lightly armed, with a sword or spear, but later forms also had greaves to protect their legs, a manica on their right arm and sleeveless, belted tunics. They generally only fought other equites.
Essedarius: These gladiators fought mounted on chariots.
Gallus: These gladiators were equipped with Gaulish arms and armor, and fought in what the Romans would have recognised as a “Gaulish style”.
Gladiatrix: These gladiators were female. Just like males, they fought each other, or wild animals, to entertain audiences at various games and festivals. Unfortunately, very little is known about them.
Hoplomachus: These gladiators carried a throwing spear, a short sword, a small and a round shield, and wore a plumed helmet.
Laquearius: These gladiators fought with a lasso or noose in one hand and a poniard or sword in the other.
Murmillo: These were heavily armored gladiators that used a large, oblong shield and a sword called a gladius. They wore a full-cover helmet decorated with a fish-shaped crest.
Parmularius: These gladiators used a small shield called a parma. They also wore shin armour on both shins, because of their small shield.
Provocator: These gladiators wore a loincloth, a belt, a long greave on the left leg, a manica on the lower right arm, and a visored helmet without brim or crest, but with a feather on each side. They were the only gladiators protected by a breastplate. They also fought with a tall, rectangular shield and a gladius.
Retiarius: These gladiators wore light armor and had no shield, but they did wield a large net and a trident. They fought by attempting to trap their opponents under their net and stabbing at them with their three-pronged spear.
Rudiarius: These gladiators were gladiators that had been granted their freedom. They received a wooden sword (a rudis) or perhaps a wooden rod. While some continued to fight, not all rudiarii were fighters — some were trainers or managers who had earned their freedom from fighting.
Sagittarius: These gladiators were archers who rode on horseback. They fought with a bow and arrows.
Samnite: These gladiators fought with the national weapons — a large oblong shield, a visor, a plumed helmet, and a short sword.
Scissor: These gladiators used large shields. They also used a weapon known as a scissor, which was a special short sword with two blades that looked like a pair of open scissors without a hinge.
Scutarius: These were heavily armored gladiators that used a large, oblong shield and the gladius. Their helmet covered the entire face with the exception of two small eye-holes.
Secutor: These gladiators wore an egg-shaped helmet with round eye-holes, a greave on one leg, an arm protector, and a legionary-style shield and sword.
Thraex: These were heavily armored gladiators that used a smaller, rectangular shield and a curved thracian sword. They wore a full-cover helmet decorated with a griffin.
Veles: These gladiators were thought to fight on foot and were armed with a spear, sword and small round shield.
It was not only men that fought as gladiators, but women too. It is unclear when women gladiators first came about, but by the 1st century AD they had become a common fixture at the games.
Women who chose to become gladiators may have been driven by a desire for independence, a chance at fame, and financial rewards including remission of debt. At the time, women in Rome had little freedom and were defined by their relationship to men.
Scholars had a hard time accepting the concept of female gladiators, which is largely down to the well-established patriarchy of Rome. In 11 CE, the Roman Senate passed a law forbidding freeborn women under the age of 20 from participating in the games of the arena. This indicates that female slaves may have still been able to participate.
Emperor Septemus Severus (193 — 211 CE) outlawed women’s participation in the arena in 200 CE, claiming that it encouraged a lack of respect for women in general. He also thought that female gladiators may want to participate in the Olympic Games, which was not considered acceptable at the time.
Life As A Roman Gladiator
Gladiators in the Roman Empire were almost always from a slave or criminal background, but there were those that chose to fight. There were gladiator owners and trainers who were responsible for getting he gladiator ready to fight. There were special gladiator schools set up throughout the Empire. Rome had three barracks and Capua was also particularly famous for the gladiators produced there.
Roman Gladiators became big business for trainers and owners, for rising politicians and those who had reached the top and wished to stay there. Agents scouted the empire for potential gladiators to meet the ever-increasing demand. Although not every gladiator fight ended in death, gladiators did not generally live long. Most only lived to their mid-20s.
While gladiator fighting was pretty gruesome, gladiators often viewed themselves as a kind of brotherhood, and some even organized themselves into unions. When a gladiator was killed in battle, others would ensure they received a proper funeral. If the deceased had a wife and children, they would also ensure that the family received monetary compensation for their loss.
Roman Gladiators – Training and Weapons
The training schools that gladiators attended were similar to any other prison, with small cells and shackles. However, the food was better and they received medical attention.
Upon entering a Gladiatorial school, the novice took a vow to allow himself to be whipped, burned and killed with steel and gave up all rights to his own life. The gladiator became the property of the master of the school who regulated everything in that gladiator’s life, from diet to daily exercise.
Roman Gladiators would likely train under a master who was an expert in their particular style of combat, and all the different groups were kept separate from each other. This helped to avoid conflicts between gladiators in gladiator training who would meet in the arena.
The weapons that a gladiator used depended on which class a gladiator belonged to. Some had swords or lances and were heavily armored, while others had little to no armor and no weapons. Some gladiator classes would only fight each other, while other classes would fight classes of a different rank. For example, more heavily armoured classes such as the Murmillo may have fought against quicker, less protected gladiators such as the Retiarius.
The gladiatorial games were announced several days before they took place. This was done by bills affixed to the walls of houses and public buildings, and copies were also sold in the streets. These bills gave the names of the pairs of competitors, the date of the show, the name of the giver, and the different kinds of combats.
The Roman games began with a procession of the gladiators through the arena, and they then opened with a fake fight with wooden swords and javelins. The signal for real fighting was given by the sound of the trumpet. Those who lacked the enthusiasm to fight were cajoled by their manager and his team of slaves who brandished leather whips or red-hot metal bars.
When a gladiator was wounded, the spectators shouted “Habet” (“He is wounded”). When a gladiator was losing, he often appealed for mercy by dropping his weapon and shield and raising a finger. His opponent could then decide to be lenient, although, as there was a significant risk of meeting again in the arena, it was considered professional practice to kill your opponent. If the emperor were present then he would decide, although the crowd would certainly try to influence his judgement by waving cloths or gesturing with their hands.
Not all gladiator games ended in death. Some often ended in neither of the gladiators dying. This was because training gladiators was expensive, so their owners wanted them to live for as long as possible. Gladiator fights also occasionally ended without death if the crowd became bored by a long and drawn out battle, and the match was called off.
When a gladiator won, their reward consisted of branches of palm and sometimes of money. They were also popular with women, and there were cases of aristocratic women have affairs with winning gladiators. Graffiti of winning gladiators was also painted on building walls in celebration of them.
If a gladiator survived a number of combats, he might be given his freedom from further service. He could, however, reengage again after this discharge.
Rome’s Greatest Gladiators
Spartacus was, without a doubt, the most famous of all Roman gladiators. He was originally a Thracian soldier but had become a bandit, after which he was captured and sold as a slave and became a gladiator. Spartacus is best known for his rebellion against gladiator combat.
Spartacus’ rebellion was an uprising of gladiators and slaves that took place in 70 BC. About 70 slaves were part of the plot to escape, and seized kitchen utensils, fought their way free from the school, and seized several wagons of gladiatorial weapons and armour. They defeated the soldiers who were sent after them and recruited many other slaves to form a small army.
Once they were free, the army chose Spartacus and two Gallic slaves — Crixus and Oenomaus — as their leaders. Spartacus defeated four Roman armies, but the army of slaves was eventually defeated by Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Spiculus was the favorite gladiator of Emperor Nero, who often showered him with gifts. When Nero was overthrown in 68 AD, he called on Spiculus as he wanted to die at his hands. However, Spiculus didn’t respond, and Nero was forced to kill himself.
Priscus and Verus
Priscus and Verus were a pair of Roman gladiators that fought each other in an epic battle in the first century AD in the famous Flavian Amphitheater. After fighting for hours, the two warriors submitted to each other at the same time. Emperor Titus awarded the pair with the “rudis,” a small wooden sword that granted them freedom.
Flamma, not his real name, was one of the biggest names among ancient Roman gladiators. He was originally a Syrian soldier who was then captured and forced to fight. Although he died in the arena, he was victorious for around 13 years, fighting with only a small sword and a shield and armor on only one half of his body. He was awarded the “rudis” and his freedom on four different occasions, but he declined each time and continued fighting.
Roman Emperors As Gladiators
Roman emperors often hosted gladiator games as a way to win the love of people, but occasionally some took it a step further and actually participated in the games themselves. However, this was done under highly controlled circumstances and the emperors fought with dull blades.
Roman emperors that fought in the arena included Caligula, Titus and Hadrian. Perhaps the most famous of all the emperors to fight was Emperor Commodus. Commodus originally had parts of his palace converted into an arena so as to fight as a gladiator in private, but soon started fighting in public battles, although his opponents always had wooden swords. He was also known for fighting against handicapped opponents and injured animals, which earned him great antipathy and eventually led to his assassination in 192 AD.
Roman Gladiator FAQs
Were all gladiators slaves?
While most gladiators were slaves, there were some who weren’t. Because gladiators could earn respect and an almost celebrity status by fighting, some men chose to become gladiators.
Did Roman gladiators fight to the death?
While many gladiator fights ended in death, this wasn’t the case for all of them. Some fights may have been stopped after one of the gladiators was seriously injured, or if the fight had gone on for too long and the audience was bored. Because gladiators were expensive to keep and train, owners didn’t like to see them die early on in their career.
Who was Rome’s greatest gladiator?
There were many famous gladiators in Roman times, but perhaps the best known gladiator was Spartacus. Spartacus was not only a good fighter, but he also led an uprising of gladiators and slaves that took place in 70 BC. They managed to escape from captivity and, led by Spartacus, they were pursued by the Roman armies and defeated them on several occasions before their capture.
Could women be gladiators?
There were female gladiators! At the time of gladiator fighting in Rome, women had little to no independence from men. This may have been the driving force behind why some women chose to become gladiators, to be given a sense of freedom and space from their male partners. They may also have been driven by the chance of a celebrity status and the monetary rewards.
Did gladiators fight animals?
Despite popular belief, gladiators didn’t actually fight animals. Gladiator fighting was very well organized, and gladiators only ever fought against other humans.
That being said, animals did appear in the arena, but this was normally reserved for the “venatores” and “bestiarii,” which were special classes of warrior that fought against lots of different types of animals, including lions, crocodiles, bears, ostriches and deer. Wild beast fighting was typically the opening event at the games
Other occasionas in which animals appeared in the arena was part of the damnatio ad bestias, which means literally condemnation to beasts. This was when criminals and prisoners of war would be publicly executed by animals.
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