Spectacles in the Roman World: A Sourcebook
“There is no meaner condition among the people than that of gladiator”
Calpurnius Flaccus, 2nd century CE
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Table of Contents
Section I: Gladiators
Origins of Gladiatorial Munera
Development of the Munera
Development and Design of Arenas
Seating in the Arena and Society
Costs of Munera and other Spectacles
Getting and Training Gladiators
Types of Gladiators
Female Gladiators and Venatores
Marketing and Advertising
Spread of the Munera outside Rome
Section II: Chariot Racing
Locations: Circuses, Circuses, Circuses
A Day at the Races
The Charioteers, the Teams, and the Horses
Riots at munera and the Circus
Section III: Animals in the Arena
Section IV: Emperors and the Games
Imperial Sponsorship of the Games
Case Study I: Nero
Case Study II: Commodus
Section V: Executions
Damnatio ad Bestias
Executions as Mythical Re-enactments
Execution of Christians
Section VI: Theatre and Dance
Development of Roman Theatre and Mime
Case Study: The Great Mime Riots
Section VII: Staging War
Naumachiae and Land Battles
The Roman Triumph
Section VIII: Strange Bodies: the display of people
Biographies of Ancient Authors
Annual Roman Festivals
A bit about this book
This is a collection of primary sources on Roman games and spectacles in some of their various forms, created for a second year undergraduate class on spectacles in Greece and Rome (CLST 260; this book covers the Roman section of that course) at the University of British Columbia. It works best when read in conjunction with the website Seeing Spectacles, which provides more information, background, images, and links to other resources. The sources are grouped thematically, although there is overlap between the sections. The sources come from a wide range of periods, genres, and individuals and not all are equally reliable; at the end of this book you can find a short biography for each author. Each section is preceded by a few, short introductory comments for context and some passages have short introductions (however, as this book is meant to accompany a class
, those introductory comments are very minimal). I use Latin terms where no good English equivalent can be found; a glossary can be found at the end of this book. Most translations are either adapted versions of out of copyright translations or my own. Comments and reporting for typos or lack of clarity are welcome.
A very basic history of Rome
(It’s really, really basic: I advise you read a short history of Rome to fill out the background, otherwise some of this material won’t make much sense.)
The Monarchy (753-510).
According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BCE, on April 21st
(Rome’s birthday was celebrated at the Parilia each year). It took its name from its founder, Romulus, who was also its first king – and also, again according to legend, the first person to hold a triumph (a type of military parade; see here for more details). It remained a monarchy until 509 BCE, with Etruscan kings ruling from the fifth monarch, L. Tarquinius Priscus, on. The last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was driven out of Rome after his son raped Lucretia, the wife of a Roman nobleman; the story of Etruscan kings and the expulsion of those kings reflects Rome’s early dominance by the Etruscans to the north. In its early days Rome was a small city-state, surrounded by other far more powerful and developed civilizations and powers, especially the Etruscans to the north and the Greeks of Magna Graecia to the South. It had ties and alliances with other Latin speaking city-states. However, gradually Rome became the dominant power in central Italy, scoring major victories over its neighbours and acquiring more and more manpower along the way. Rome’s history after the fall of the kings is usually divided into four periods: the Early Republic; the Mid-Republic; the Late Republic; and the Imperial Period.
The Early Republic (509-275).
After expelling the kings, Rome was governed by elected officials, the consuls, two of whom were elected each year; there was also a Senate of varying numbers. This was a period marked by patrician control of the Roman government, although that control was challenged during the conflict of the orders
, which resulted in plebeians gaining more rights to hold various offices and authority. The praetorship was created, as was the office of the Tribune of the Plebs in 494 BCE; the job of the latter was to protect the interests of the plebeians, and although it did not hold imperium,
its holders had a powerful right to veto any legislation that they believed not to be in the interest of the people. Rome joined the Latin League, a league of Latin speaking states in central Italy, in 493 BCE after defeating the forces of the League at the Battle of Lake Regillus; the league was dissolved in 338 after the Latin War between Rome and the League. In 281 Rome faced off against King Pyrrhus of Epirus who had come to support Greek cities in the south of Italy worried about Roman expansion; from the war with Pyrrhus came the first elephants to be brought to Rome.
The Mid-Republic (274-133).
On the whole, spectacles of the type this book covers date from the Mid-Republic on, and it is those periods where our sources begin to place gladiatorial shows and other forms of spectacle (except chariot racing, which dated back to the time of the monarchy). During this period Rome conquered the entire peninsula of Italy, scoring victories over the Greek cities to the south. This was also a period of intense Hellenization: an influx of Greek slaves and culture led to the creation of Latin literature1
and to an elite which embraced Greek culture and art and used those as a major building block in aristocratic identity. Rome’s expansion led it into conflict with Carthage, a large mercantile empire based in Carthage (modern Tunis). Its first overseas province was the island of Sicily, which it gained as a result of victory over the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. It took advantage of internal weaknesses in Carthage after that war to seize Corsica and Sardinia (in an action of great legal dubiousness). Further conflict with Carthage ensued: the great Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca brought war to Italy during the Second Punic War (216-202 BCE), and inflicted a number of great defeats on Rome, many of which Rome dealt with by holding games or spectacles aimed at appeasing the gods. Carthage was finally defeated in 146 BCE, when the city was sacked and razed to the ground; the same year was to see the destruction of Corinth, a Greek city which was later refounded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar.
The Late Republic (133-43 or 31 BCE).
In 133 a Tribune of the Plebs by the name of Tiberius Gracchus, a man of an ancient and well-respected family, was lynched by a senatorial mob for trying to enact a series of agrarian reforms which would have affected many of the elite who rented large land holdings from the Republic. A new and violent phase of Roman politics had started and murder became an increasingly popular political tool. In 122 Tiberius’ brother, Gaius, who also held the position of Tribune of the Plebs, was murdered by a senatorial faction. The next hundred years was to see Rome expand her power, gobbling up Hellenistic kingdoms in the east and conquering Gaul, much of Spain, and (briefly) part of Britain. It was also to see her beset by a series of internal crises and civil wars as various warlords fought over the rewards of empire. Marius (156-86 BCE), a novus homo
who went from relative obscurity to hold the consulship seven times, fought it out with Lucius Cornelius Sulla, one of his ex-quaestors,2
in a Civil War which saw Sulla march on Rome with his army (88 BCE). Elite competition was fierce and often bloody
, but to gain offices one needed to appeal to the people by providing increasingly elaborate spectacles, which exploded in size and expense. Further civil wars were fought between Julius Caesar and his erstwhile son-in-law Pompey the Great, who led the senatorial faction (49-45 BCE), and between Octavian and Mark Antony (32-30 BCE), finally resulting in Octavian being the sole ruler of the Roman world.
The Empire (31 BCE-476 CE).
Octavian’s victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE resulted in one man rule; because the Romans found the name of king reprehensible, Octavian styled himself as princeps
, rather than king. He took the title of Augustus in 27 BCE; the Julio-Claudian dynasty retained control of the empire until the suicide of Nero in 68 CE, whereupon they were replaced after a period of civil war and short-lived emperors by Vespasian and the Flavian dynasty; it was the Flavians who built the Colosseum from proceeds from the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73 CE). After this a succession of families ruled the empire and for each emperor (with the exception of Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, who hated to spend money) spectacle formed a vital way to communicate with and appease the people. Spectacles increased in size and lavishness, involving thousands of animals and people; some emperors such as Nero and Commodus took spectacle one step further by appearing on stage and in the arena. Many others were dedicated fans, supporting chariot factions, actors, gladiators, and gladly pouring money into spectacles of all sorts.
Roman society: essential facts you need to know
a. it was incredibly
competitive, hierarchical, and, by modern standards, extremely violent.
b. In the Late Republic in particular elite competition was fierce; families and individuals would bankrupt themselves to gain the consulship, the most significant magistracy; competition was also fierce for lower positions. Spectacle became a vital way for elites to compete with each other. In addition to running for aedile and then being responsible for presenting public ludi, elites vowed private munera, meant to fulfill a vow given in battle, to honour a fallen father, or to mark a victory, which were entirely presented using their private means. Spectacles might have started off small, but they rapidly escalated due to elite competition.
c. Romans were far more used to seeing death and the threat of death than most of us in Western society are: not only was physical abuse common from those of higher status towards those of inferior rank, but disease was rife, injuries were easily fatal, and many, many children died young.
d. Rome was a slave-owning society and slaves had no legal status. Under law they were considered property.
e. All people who sold their bodies for a living – a category that included prostitutes, actors, gladiators, and pimps - were infamis, a legal category that meant they lost their legal status as Roman citizens, though not their civic status.
Timeline of Roman History: any date that specifically relates to the games is in bold.
753 Legendary foundation of Rome by Romulus, the first king of Rome.
629 Reign of L. Tarquinius Priscus, fifth king of Rome and the first Etruscan king; Circus Maximus supposedly laid out during his reign
509 Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome, expelled; Rome becomes a Republic. Creation of the office of consul
500-450 Creation of the office of Tribune of the Plebs
c. 496 Rome defeats Latin League forces and Tarquinius Superbus and sons at the Battle of Lake Regillus
396 Rome sacks and destroys the Etruscan city of Veii
390 Rome sacked by the Gauls
343-341 First Samnite War ends with Rome capturing Capua and northern Campania
338 Dissolution of the Latin League
326-304 Second Samnite War ends with Rome conquering most of central and southern Italy
298-290 Third Samnite War ends with Rome in control of most of the Pennisula of Italy, with only Greek cities in the extreme south and the Po Valley in the North outside that control
280-275 Pyrrhic War. War against the Greek city of Tarentum and King Pyrrhus of Epirus. First time elephants are seen Italy.
275 M. Curius Dentatus displays 4 elephants in Rome
264-241 First Punic War (against Carthage) fought in Sicily and North Africa
264 Decimus Junius Brutus has 3 pairs of Thracian type gladiators at munera for his father
252 Lucius Metellus displays and slaughters 100 elephants captured from Carthaginian forces in the First Punic War
229-228 First Illyrian War; ends with the surrender of Queen Teuta of Illyria
220-219 Second Illyrian War ends with the defeat of Demetrius of Pharos and Roman victory
220 Circus Flaminius built by Gaius Flaminius3
218-202 Second Punic War fought in Italy, Spain, and North Africa
216 Battle of Cannae. Roman defeat at the hands of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general results in c.50,000 Roman deaths
216 Lucius, Marcus, and Quintus Lepidus have 22 pairs of gladiators fight over 3 days for their father, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.
206 Scipio Africanus gives a gladiatorial type show for his father and uncle in New Carthage, Spain. (The participants were his soldiers, rather than gladiators, and they were volunteers.)
202 Battle of Zama results in the victory of Scipio Africanus the Younger over the Carthaginian general Hannibal
201 25 pairs of gladiators appear at the munus for M. Valerius Laevinus
200-197 Second Macedonian war against Philip V of Macedon
197 Philip V defeated at Battle of Cynoscephalae by Rome and her allies, including the Aetolian League, led by Titus Flamininus
192-188 War with Antiochus the Great of Syria
189 M. Fulvius Nobilior defeats the Aetolians at Ambracia
186 M. Fulvius Noblilior holds 10 days of ludi, including a hunt with lions and leopards at a cost of 80,000 sesterces, to celebrate his victory in the Aetolian War
183 60 pairs of gladiators fight over 3 days in the munus for Publius Licinius
174 Titus Flamininus has 74 pairs of gladiators fight over 4 days at his father’s munus.
171-168 Third Macedonian War ends with the defeat of the Perseus, King of Macedon, and the Aetolian League
169 First venatio held as part of annual ludi circenses4
168 Third Illyrian War
149-146 Third Punic War
107 Gaius Marius elected consul for the first time
91-88 Social War between Rome’s Italian Allies (the Socii) and Rome
88 Sulla’s march on Rome
74-66 Third Mithridatic War ends with Pompey the Great’s victory over Mithridates VI of Pontus
73-71 Spartacus revolt (Third Servile War)
67 Pompey the Great clears the Mediterranean of pirates
70 Stone amphitheatre built in Pompeii
67 Lex Acilia Calpurnia permanently excludes candidates convicted of electoral bribery from office. Lex Roscia sets aside 14 rows of seats in the theatre for members of the Equestrian order.
65 Julius Caesar proposes to have 320 pairs of gladiators fight at his munus in honour of his father; number scaled back due to senatorial fears
63 Lex Tullia is passed prohibiting candidates holding munera during their campaigns for office (some exceptions were allowed).
58 M. Aemilius Scaurus builds a magnificent temporary theatre in Rome
55 Pompey the Great finishes his stone theatre, the first permanent theatre in Rome, and holds games for its opening
52 Gaius Curio builds a revolving wooden theatre for his games in Rome
49-45 Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great
48 Julius Caesar defeats the senatorial forces under Pompey the Great at the Battle of Pharsalus
46-5 Tunnels are created under the Forum Romanum at the orders of Julius Caesar
45 Julius Caesar holds games in honour of his daughter Julia (d. 54)
44 Julius Caesar assassinated
42 The aediles for the Ludi Ceriales hold gladiatorial shows instead of the normal chariot races, marking the first appearance of munera in regular shows.
Battle of Philippi ends with the defeat of senatorial forces under Brutus and Cassius by the army of Mark Antony and Octavian
31 Battle of Actium and Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra makes Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman world
29 Statilius Taurus builds the first permanent, stone amphitheatre in the Campus Martius
27 Octavian is voted the title of Augustus and becomes the first emperor of Rome
22 A decree of Augustus bans the appearance of elites in the arena (this law may cover women as well as men)
9 BCE fires and repaving of the Forum Romanum result in the destruction of Caesar’s tunnel system
11 A law forbidding freeborn girls under 20 from appearing in the arena is passed (the law is not extant, but is mentioned in the senatorial decree from Larinum; see below)
14 Death of Augustus. Tiberius becomes emperor.
19 A senatorial decree found in Larinum, a town in Southern Italy, repeats Augustus’ ban on equestrians and the sons and grandsons of senators appearing on the arena floor or on stage and specifically says that the daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters of senators cannot appear on stage or in the arena and that law applies to the wives, daughters, and grand-daughters of equestrians
27 Collapse of a temporary amphitheatre at Fidenae kills 50,000 people
40 Circus Vaticanus (also known as the Circus of Caligula and Nero) built (roughly) where the Vatican now stands. At this stage this was probably only a race track surrounded by statues, rather than a built up Circus.
41 Caligula assassinated; Claudius becomes emperor
54 Claudius dies; Nero becomes emperor
57 Nero’s wooden amphitheatre built in the Campus Martius (later burns down during the great fire of Rome); Nero forbids provincial governors and procurators from giving munera, venationes and theatrical shows in their provinces
59 A riot in the amphitheatre in Pompeii between the residents of Pompeii and those of Nuceria, a local town, results in Nero banning games from Pompeii for ten years.
64 Great Fire of Rome
66-73 First Jewish War
68 Nero’s suicide means the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty
69 Year of the four emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and, finally, Vespasian). Vespasian becomes the first Flavian emperor
79 Death of Vespasian; Titus becomes emperor
80 Titus holds inaugural games at the Colosseum (the construction was completed later under Domitian); 5,000 animals are killed and an unknown number of gladiators fight
81 Titus dies; Domitian becomes emperor
86 Founding of the Capitoline Games by Domitian; these features both athletic and literary competitions and chariot racing
96 Domitian assassinated; end of the Flavian dynasty. A sixty-five year old senator called Nerva becomes emperor.
97 Nerva adopts Trajan as his heir
98 Nerva dies; Trajan becomes emperor
100-150 An inscription by Hostilianus from Ostia, Rome’s port, mentions that he was the first to exhibit female gladiators there.
107 Trajan’s triumph celebrating his victory over Dacia; 10,000 gladiators fight and 11, 000 animals are killed
109 Games are held for the opening of the Baths of Trajan which last 117 days; 8,000 gladiators fight, and more than 10,000 animals are killed
117 Trajan dies; Hadrian becomes emperor after Trajan appoints him on his death bed.
138 In his dying days Hadrian adopts Antonius Pius; Antonius Pius becomes emperor
177 Legislation sponsored by the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus tries to limit the cost of gladiatorial shows
192 Assassination of Commodus
193 Septimius Severus becomes emperor, beginning of the Severan Dynasty
200 A decree of Septimius Severus bans female gladiators
202 Martyrdom of Perpetua
211 Caracalla becomes emperor with his brother Geta; Caracalla kills Geta
213 Caracalla extends citizenship to all freeborn residents of the Roman Empire
218 Elagabalus becomes emperor
c.220 Sessorian Circus built beside Severan palace in Rome.
222 Elagabalus assassinated. Alexander Severus becomes emperor
306-312 Circus of Maxentius built just outside Rome on the Via Appia
330 Constantinople becomes the imperial capital.
397 Last reference to the imperial gladiatorial ludi
417-423 Valentinian III restores the Colosseum, which had been damaged in an earthquake
523 Maximus, a Roman aristocrat, holds the last recorded venatio in Rome
532 Nika riot in Constantinople involving faction supporters causes major havoc and destruction
Section I: Gladiators
I.a. Origins of Gladiatorial Munera
There were a range of spectacles in ancient Rome: gladiatorial shows; chariot racing; theatre; and so on. Of these spectacles gladiatorial
munera are often seen as uniquely Roman; while, for example, the Greeks engaged enthusiastically in chariot racing (it was an Olympic event as well as being celebrated at a number of other games), they could not supply an origin for the
munera. While we are uncertain of their true beginnings, we do know that our first records of gladiators in Rome show that gladiatorial fights were given as part of
munera, games vowed by private individuals, usually to mark the death of a close male relative. As private games, the expense was borne entirely by the person holding them: unlike chariot racing or theatre you could not access public funds (you also did not need to have a current position as an elected magistrate). Various origins were proposed for the
munera; sometimes they were said to be an importation from Etruria; others said they came from the Samnites (an Italian tribe, once great enemies of the Romans). Modern scholars debate precisely where the games came from with very few agreeing on their initial source. However, it must be said that it was convenient for the Romans to represent shows of all sorts – including theatre – as coming from outside Rome, especially when passing moral judgment on the expense and lavishness of these events. In the passage below Tertullian (c.160-c 240), a Christian author, fumes about the origins of the gladiatorial games in an extract from his work
On Spectacles. Tertullian came from Carthage and was vehement in his disgust at what he called idolatry; how reliable he is, given his agenda, is a moot point.
We still have to examine the most famed and popular spectacle: it is called munus from being an officium, for munus and officium are synonyms.5 People in the past thought they were performing a duty to the dead with this form of spectacle after they moderated its nature with a more refined form of cruelty. Long ago, since they believed that the souls of the dead are appeased by human blood, they purchased captives or slaves of poor quality and sacrificed them at funerals. Afterwards, they preferred to disguise this unholy practice by making it something to enjoy. Thus, after they trained the people they had obtained these ways to wield the weapons they had as best they could (training them to learn how to die!), they then exposed them to death at the tombs on the day appointed for sacrifices in honor of the dead. And so it was that they consoled themselves with murder. That is the origin of the gladiatorial munus. But gradually their refinement developed along with their cruelty; these inhuman people could not rest satisfied or gain pleasure unless wild animals tore humans to pieces. What was then a sacrifice offered for the appeasement of the dead was no doubt considered a rite in honor of the dead. This sort of thing is, therefore, idolatry, because idolatry, too, is a kind of rite in honor of the dead: both are services rendered to the dead.
Additionally, demons live in the images of the dead. And now consider the titles also: although this type of exhibition has moved from being an act to honor the dead to one which honours the living (for example, those who hold quaestorships, magistracies, flaminates,6 and priesthoods) still, since the guilt of idolatry taints the dignity of the title, whatever is carried out in the name of this dignity shares necessarily in the taint of its origin. We must also consider the paraphernalia which are considered as belonging to the ceremonies of the actual offices as also being idolatrous. For the purple robes, the fasces,7 the fillets,8 and crowns--finally, also, the announcements made in meetings and on advertisements9 and the final dinners10 given the evening before games—have the Devil’s pageantry and the invocation of demons. In conclusion, what shall I say about that horrible place which not even perjurers can bear? For the amphitheatre is consecrated to more numerous and more terrible names than the Capitol, although the Capitol is the temple of all demons.11 There as many unclean spirits live as there are seats. And to say a final word about the arts concerned, we know that Mars and Diana are the patrons of both types of ludi.
Tertullian, On Spectacles 12
The events the Roman historian Livy describes below took place in 308 BCE after the Second Samnite War; Livy places the origin of the games – and of the type of gladiator known as Samnite, which was later to die out – in Campania, to the South of Rome.
The Senate voted a triumph for the Dictator. The armour he had captured was by far the greatest sight in the procession and they thought them so magnificent that the gilded shields were distributed amongst the owners of the silversmiths' shops to adorn the Forum. People say this is the origin of the aediles’ custom of decorating the Forum when the covered chariots of the three Capitoline deities12 are conducted in procession through the Forum. The Romans used this armour to honour the gods, but the Campanians, who despised and hated the Samnites, made the gladiators who performed at their banquets wear it, and they then called these gladiators "Samnites."
Livy, From the Founding of the City 9.40
The Romans sometimes said the games came specifically from Capua, a Campanian city, which was where most of the gladiatorial ludi (training schools) were later located.
It was then their [the people of Capua] ancient custom to make their feasts more exciting with the slaughter of men and they combined with their dining the vicious spectacle of armed men fighting. Often the fighters died right among the wine goblets of the feasters and their tables dripped with gushing blood.
Silius Italicus, Punica 11.51-54
However, others claimed the Etruscans to the north of Rome were the originators of the gladiatorial munera. In the following the Greek writer Athenaus quotes people on the various theories of the origins of single combat and gladiatorial games:
Some of the tribes of the Campanians practise single combat at their drinking parties. But Nicolas of Damascus, one of the philosophers of the Peripatetic school, in the hundred-and-tenth book of his History, relates that the Romans at their feasts practise single combats, writing as follows, "The Romans used to put on spectacles of single combats, not only in their public shows and in their theatres, having taken the custom from the Etruscans, but they did so also at their banquets. Accordingly, peop1e often invited their friends to an entertainment, promising them, in addition to other things that they should see two or three pairs of single combatants. And when they had had enough of meat and drink, they then called in the combatants: and as soon as one of them was killed, the guests clapped, being delighted at the exhibition. And in one instance a man left it in his will that some beautiful women, whom he had purchased as slaves, should engage in single combat: and in another case a man desired that some youthful boys whom he had loved should do so; but the people would not tolerate such notorious proceedings, and declared the will invalid." And Eratosthenes says, in the first book of his Catalogue of the Victors at Olympia, that the Etruscans used to box to the music of the flute.
But Poseidonius, in the twenty-third book of his Histories, says, "The Celts sometimes have single combats at their entertainments. For having assembled in arms, they go through the exercise, and make feints at, and sometimes they even go so far as to wound one another. And being irritated by this, if the bystanders do not stop them, they will proceed even to kill one another. But in ancient times," he continues, "there was a custom that a hind quarter of pork was put on the table, and the bravest man took it; and if any one else laid claim to it, then the two rose up to fight till one of them was killed. And other men in the theatre having received some silver or gold money, and some even for a number of earthen vessels full of wine, having taken pledges that the gifts promised shall really be given, and having distributed them among their nearest connections, have laid themselves down on doors with their faces upwards, and then allowed some bystander to cut their throats with a sword."
And Euphorion the Chalcidian in his Historical Memorials, writes as follows - "But among the Romans it is common for five minae to be offered to any one who chooses to take it, to allow his head to be cut off with an axe, so that his heirs might receive the reward: and very often many have returned their names as willing, so that there has been a regular contest between them as to who had the best right to be beaten to death."13
And Hermippus, in the first book of his treatise on Lawgivers, asserts that the Mantineians14 were the original inventors of men to fight in single combat, and that Demonax, one of their citizens, was the original one to come up with this; and that the Cyrenaeans were the next to follow their example. And Ephorus, in the sixth book of his History, says- "The Mantineians and Arcadians were in the habit of practising warlike exercises; and even to this day they call the military dress and the ancient fashion of arming the Mantineian, as having been invented by that people. And in addition to this, the exercises of single combat were first invented in Mantineia, Demeas being the original author of the invention."
Wherever they came from, the Romans embraced gladiatorial combat. The historian Tacitus blamed passion for the games and spectacles for taking people away from more important matters:
And indeed there are characteristic and specific vices in this city, which I think are formed in the mother’s womb: a love of actors and madness for gladiators and horses. How can someone totally occupied by and obsessed with these have time for the noble arts?
Tacitus, Dialogue on Oratory 29
I.b. Development of the Munera
It is in the Mid-Republic that gladiatorial
munera appear, and once they had first appeared, they were embraced; along with other events, they were vowed by relatives to commemorate close male kin as part of funeral celebrations; they could be held during the funeral or delayed until they would help the holder in a political campaigned. The first we know of occurred in 264 at games Decimus Junius Brutus held for his father; there three pairs of gladiators fought in the Thracian style.
To honor his father, Decimus Junius Brutus was the first one to organize a gladiatorial munus.
Livy, Periochae Book 1616
The three first gladiator fights were Thracians matched in three pairs as an offering made by the sons of Junius at their father's grave.
The numbers soon increased: in 216 22 pairs of gladiators fought at the funeral of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus:
After the death of M. Aemilius Lepidus, who had been an augur17 and also consul twice, his three sons, Lucius, Marcus, and Quintus, celebrated funeral games in his honour for three days and exhibited twenty-two pairs of gladiators in the Forum.
Livy, From the Founding of the City 23.30.15
During his campaign against the Carthaginians in Spain in 206 BCE, Scipio Africanus the Elder had soldiers volunteer to fight as gladiators
In New Carthage, Scipio organized a gladiatorial contest to commemorate his father and uncle. But no gladiators took part: the fighters were men who descended into the arena to honour their commander or accept a challenge.
Livy, Periochae 28
By 200 BCE the numbers of gladiators fighting had increased to 50
At the death of Marcus Valerius Laevinus his sons, Publius and Marcus, gave funeral games in the Forum for four days; they also gave a gladiatorial munus in which twenty-five pairs fought together.
Livy, From the Founding of the City 31.50.4
By 183 BCE 120 gladiators fought at one event:
2 On the day of the funeral of Publius Licinius a public distribution of meat was made, and a hundred and twenty gladiators fought in the funeral games which lasted for three days and after the games there was a public feast. 3 The couches18 had been spread all over the Forum when a violent storm of wind and rain burst and forced most people to put up tents for shelter there. 4 When the sky cleared, everywhere soon after they were removed, and it was commonly said that the people had fulfilled a prediction, which the seers had given, that it was necessary for tents to be set up in the Forum.
Livy, From the Founding of the City 39.46
In 174 BCE 74 gladiators fought in a munus given by Titus Flamininus
Several gladiatorial munera were given this year, most of them not very large; the one given by Titus Flamininus was far more lavish than the rest. 11 When his father died he gave this spectacle for four days, and it was accompanied by a distribution of meat, a funeral feast, and dramas. But even in this magnificent exhibition only 74 men fought.
Livy, From the Founding of the City 41.28
In the Late Republic the games grew increasingly spectacular. Politicians like Julius Caesar put on larger and larger munera, using all sorts of excuses.
10 1 When he was aedile Julius Caesar decorated not only the Comitium and the Forum with its adjacent basilicas, but the Capitoline Hill as well, and built temporary colonnades to display a part of his material. He provided venationes and stage-plays too, both with his colleague and independently. The result was that Caesar alone took all the credit even for what they spent in common, and his colleague Marcus Bibulus openly said that his was the fate of Pollux: "For," said he, "just as the temple erected in the Forum to the twin brothers bears only Castor’s name, so the joint generosity of Caesar and myself is credited to Caesar alone." Caesar also gave a gladiatorial show in addition to this, but with somewhat fewer pairs of fighters than he had planned; for the huge number he gathered from everywhere possible terrified his opponents so much that they passed a law a limiting the number of gladiators which anyone was allowed to keep in Rome.
Suetonius, Julius Caesar 10
When Cicero’s brother was in Gaul in November 54 BCE, fighting with Julius Caesar in the Gallic Wars, Cicero wrote this letter to him about games and the danger of holding too many of them, as he feared his friend Milo, an ambitious politician, was doing. (According to Cicero in his In Defence of Milo, over the course of his career Milo spent three entire fortunes on spectacles for the people.)
Now about Milo. Pompey gives him no support, and has thrown himself behind Gutta, saying also that he will get Caesar on his side.19 Milo is alarmed at this, and no wonder, and almost gives up hope if Pompey is created dictator. If he assists anyone who vetoes the dictatorship with his entourage and bodyguard, he fears he may attract Pompey's hostility: if he doesn't do so, he fears the proposal may be carried by force. He is preparing games on a most magnificent scale, at a cost, I assure you, that no one has ever exceeded. It is foolish for two or even three reasons to give games that were not demanded—he has already given a magnificent show of gladiators: he cannot afford it: he is only an executor, and might have reflected that he is now an executor, not an aedile. That is about all I had to write. Take care of yourself, dearest brother.
Cicero, Letters to Quintus 3.8.6
Julius Caesar had his own gladiatorial school in Capua; in this letter from Cicero to his friend Atticus written in January of 49 BCE, the same year and month in which Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon and began a civil war, Cicero talks about fears that those gladiators would break out and fight for Caesar against Pompey and the senatorial faction.
I write this letter, though suffering from slight inflammation of the eyes, as I am just about to leave Cales for Capua. Lucius Caesar brought Caesar's message to Pompey on the 23rd, while the latter was at Teanum with the consuls. His proposal was accepted, but on condition that he withdrew his garrisons from the towns which he had occupied outside his province. If he did this, they said in their answer that we would return to Rome and conclude the negotiation in the Senate. I hope for the present we have peace: for Caesar is not quite easy about his mad enterprise, nor our general about the amount of his forces. Pompey has told me to come to Capua and assist the levy, to which the Campanian settlers are not making a very eager response. Pompey has very cleverly distributed Caesar's gladiators (about whom I gave you some incorrect information on the authority of a letter from A. Torquatus) at Capua among the heads of families, two to each family. There were 5,000 shields in the ludus: they were said to be contemplating breaking out. Pompey's measure was a very wise precaution for the safety of the Republic.
Cicero, Letters to Atticus 7.14
Here is Caesar’s account of the situation:
At Capua they [the senatorial forces] first began to take courage and to rally, and determined to raise levies in the colonies, which had been established under Julian law: and Lentulus20 brought into the public market place the gladiators which Caesar maintained there for the entertainment of the people, and confirmed them in their liberty, and gave them horses and ordered them to accompany him; but afterward, being warned by his friends that everyone was criticizing his action, he distributed them among the slaves of the district of Campania, to keep guard there.
Julius Caesar, Civil War 1.14
The games that Julius Caesar held for his daughter in 46 BCE were incredibly elaborate and involved creating tunnels under the Forum to channel animals and gladiators to temporary arenas set up there. They were also held years after her death, marking a new stage in the near complete detachment of the games from funeral ritual.
26 1 Within this same period he lost first his mother, then his daughter, and soon afterwards his grandchild.21 Meanwhile, as the community was horrified at the murder of Publius Clodius,22 the Senate had voted that only one consul should be chosen, and expressly named Gnaeus Pompey [the Great]. When the tribunes planned to make him Pompey's colleague, Caesar urged them rather to propose to the people that he be permitted to stand for a second consulship without coming to Rome, when the term of his governorship drew near its end, to prevent his being forced for the sake of the office to leave his province prematurely and without finishing the war.23 2 On the granting of this, aiming still higher and flushed with hope, he neglected nothing in the way of lavish expenditure or of favours to anyone, either in his public capacity or privately. He began a forum with the proceeds of his spoils, the ground for which cost more than a hundred million sesterces. He announced a combat of gladiators and a feast for the people in memory of his daughter, a thing quite without precedent. To raise the expectation of these events to the highest possible pitch, he had the material for the banquet prepared in part by his own household, although he had let contracts to the markets as well. 3 He gave orders that whenever famous gladiators fought without winning the favour of the people, they should be rescued by force and kept for him. He had the novices trained, not in a gladiatorial school by professionals, but in private houses by Roman equestrians and even by senators who were skilled in arms, earnestly begging them, as is shown by his own letters, to give the recruits individual attention and personally direct their exercises. He doubled the pay of the legions for all time. Whenever grain was plentiful, he distributed it to them generously and without limits, and now and then gave each man a slave from among the captives.
Suetonius, Julius Caesar 26.1-3