The Gladiator

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The Gladiator


Gladiatorial Training & Combat

As mentioned earlier, gladiators were trained at special schools originally owned by private citizens, but later taken over by the imperial state to prevent the build up of a private army. Gladiators trained like true athletes, much like professional athletes do today. They received medical attention and three meals a day. Their training included learning how to use various weapons, including the war chain, net, trident, dagger, and lasso. Below is a picture of the Gladiatorial Barracks at Pompeii.

Copyright Leo Curran.
For more images from Pompeii, see Maecenas: Images of Ancient Greece and Rome on CTCWeb.

Each gladiator was allowed to fight in the armour and with the weapons that best suited him. They wore armour, though not Roman military armour as this would send the wrong political signal to the populous. Instead gladiators wore the armour and used the weaponry of non-Roman people, playing the role of Rome's enemies. For instance, a gladiator might dress as a Samnite in Samnite garb that included a large oblong shield (scutum), a metal or boiled leather grieve (ocrea) on the left leg, a visored helmet (galea) with a large crest and plume, and a sword (gladius). The gladiatorial garb for other rolls were:

  • A Thracian - wore ocrea on both legs, carried a small square shield, wore either a full visored helmet or an open faced helmet with a wide brim, and carried a curved Thracian sword with an angled bend in the blade;

  • A Secutor - took his name from the term for "pursuer" and fought virtually naked and bald, carrying a large oval or rectangular shield and a sword or dagger, wearing an ocrea on the left leg, leather bands at the elbow and wrists (manicae), and a round or high-visored helmet;

  • A Retiarius - symbolized the fisherman and wore only a loin cloth (subligaculum) and a metal shoulder-piece (galerus) on the left arm, and carried a net (iaculum), a dagger, and a trident or tunny-fish harpoon (fascina). One variation on the Retiarius was the Laquearii who carried a lasso instead of a net.

Gladiators were paid each time they fought. If a gladiator survived three to five years of combat they were freed. Gladiators fought in arenas, the most famous of which was the Colosseum built by the Flavians. When one of the opponents in a contest was wounded, the crowd would typically shout “habet, hoc habet,” he has had it. An opponent who felt he was defeated would raise his left hand with one finger extended as a request for mercy. It is not clear how the vote of life or death for the defeated opponent was decided though it may have involved the thumb.

If the decision was for death, the defeated opponent would ceremoniously grasps the thigh of his conqueror who would slay the loser by stabbing his sword into his neck. The dead body was removed by costumed attendants, one dressed as the ferry man Charon, and the other as Mercury. Charon struck the dead body with a hammer and Mercury poked the body with a hot iron disguised as his wand to assure the loser was dead. The winner would receive a symbol of their victory, such as a golden bowl, crown, or gold coin, along with a palm leaf symbolizing victory.

Public Perception of Gladiators

In ancient Rome, gladiators could earn the idolized status of a hero, like many modern athletes. Even though a gladiator's social status was barely better than a slave, many Roman citizens, knights, and even Roman emperors fought in the gladiatorial arena because of their love of the bellicose sport and their desire for adoration. The emperor Commodus boasted that he himself had fought in over 1,000 gladiatorial duels.

The munerarius of gladiatorial games gained popularity among Roman citizens and generated political momentum in doing so. For instance, Julius Caesar pitted 320 ludi of gladiators against one another in a wooden amphitheatre constructed specifically for the event. Though done under the auspices that the games were a munus for his dead father, Caesar was more than likely seeking political favour to assure his election as praetor.

The Romans seemed ambivalent to the violent nature of the gladiatorial games and, though we may condemn them, the games are not unlike modern professional sports like hockey, rugby, and football. The gladiators were the heroes of their time, especially during the years of peace under the Augustans in the first and second centuries. Without war heroes, Roman needed someone to idolized and this role fell to the gladiators.

There is evidence that Roman women especially idolized gladiators, sometimes to the dismay of their husbands. The mother of Commodus, Faustina, is said to have preferred the gladiator Martianus over her husband, Marcus Aurelius. Juvenal wrote about Eppia, a senator's wife, who is said to have thought so highly of gladiators that she preferred them to her children, country, sister, and husband. There is an inscription on a wall in Pompeii that says the Thracian gladiator Celadus was "suspirum et decus puellarum," literally "the sigh and glory of the girls." In other words, he was a heartthrob.

For a further discussion of the public perception of Roman gladiators, see Prof. Roger Dunkle's "The Cultural Meaning of Gladiatorial Combat."

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