Often viewed as the working class heroes of the Roman society, the gladiators have surely seen their fair share of screen time in our modern-day popular media. However, beyond grand spectacles and bloody feats, the very nature of gladiatorial contests alluded to the ‘institutionalization of violence’ ingrained in the Roman society since its tribal days. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at twelve such incredible facts about the Roman gladiators that go beyond the realm of glitzy fiction to account for brutal reality.
1) Munera – the funerary contests that gave way to gladiatorial combats
In what might have been the precursor to latter day gladiatorial combats, a nobleman named Brutus Pera made his death wish in 264 BC that his two sons should pay for combats that were to take place in the marketplace to mark his funeral. In less than hundred years, such contests became pretty commonplace, and the combatants were generally the slaves of the organizer. In fact, in 174 BC, one of these munera (a ritualistic service dedicated to the dead) involved 74 men pitted against each other in a gruesome event that took place over three days. And as time went by, the munera expanded in scopes to include spectacles like the venatio – which entailed the hunting of over hundreds of exotic animals across the Roman lands by the trained venatores. There was a symbolic side to this grisly affair, with the animals like lions, tigers and other predators alluding to the savages and ‘barbarians’ of the world that mighty Rome had subjugated (interestingly enough, the Mongols also had a similar type of hunting ritual that involved the ‘tactical’ killing of innocent beasts).
And, as the Roman Republic grew in pomp and size, her nobles thought out news and grander ways to commemorate their legacy – by even making provisions its their wills for such funeral contests. In essence, the funerary service became more of a political statement (combined with bloody spectacles) that supposedly espoused the greatness of the patrons. As a result, being miserly regarding such ‘expected’ contests often incurred the displeasure of the common townsfolk. One particular incident aptly exemplifies such hedonistic attitudes – during the reign of Tiberius, a centurion’s funeral service was forcibly interrupted by the townspeople as they demanded for funerary games. The situation soon turned into a riot, and the emperor had to send his troops to quell the disturbance.
2) 186 arenas around the Roman realm, and a mishap that supposedly killed 50,000 people!
The popularity of such funeral contests among the Romans increased exponentially – so much so that the patrons had to accommodate a variety of spectacles at specialized purpose-built venues, thus culminating in the final ‘evolution’ of gladiatorial games. These amphitheaters mostly sprung up inside Rome (the city) beside the Forum, and were initially constructed from wood with sand floors. In fact, the very word harena which meant sand, gave way to the term arena. Suffice it to say, overcrowding was a major predicament for the engineers, and as such one of the accidental mishaps resulted in the collapse of the entire superstructure of an amphitheater at Fidenae. According to the Tacitus, the death toll reached over 50,000 people – which might have been an exaggeration on the author’s part, but still hints at the massive surge of popularity of such gladiatorial contests that took hold across Rome.
The nature of the incredible demand for gladiatorial combats could also be measured by the actual number of amphitheaters inside the Roman-held lands. According to architect and archaeologist Jean-Claude Golvin, this figure accounted for 186 venues spread over the Roman-ruled realms, while being additionally complemented by 86 other possible locations that might have had some kind of arenas for gladiators and their bloody spectacles.
3) The Hoplomachi – professional entertainers/fighters of the day
While the gladiatorial combats had their precursors in funerary contests fought among ill-equipped slaves, the spectacles at their gory zenith were ‘fueled’ by the professional warriors called hoplomachi (or armored fighting men) and their prowess inside the bloody arena. To that end, these men were the actual ‘gladiators’ that we are accustomed to seeing being depicted in the popular movies and television programs. Skillful in handling their short swords (gladius), the combatants were trained to ‘entertain’ the crowds whether it be in single combats or staged battles inside the arena. Such forms of crowd-pleasing entertainment alluded to the spectacle of long-drawn conflict as opposed to quick bloody events. In that regard, the hoplomachi were experts in prolonging the suffering of their opponents that entailed the drawing of blood and its spilling onto the sand. Simply put, they were a far-cry from the ill-prepared criminals that went into the arena to die. Instead they were viewed more as dashing dare-devils, who while sharing some of their bad luck as being initially dispossessed, lived to please the rousing and often ruthless Roman spectators.
4) A paradox of low class and high fame –
The question naturally arises – where did such professional gladiators come from? Well, in majority of the cases, the men (and few women) were bought from thriving slave markets. Some among them were simply sold by their masters because of their past crimes or transgressions, while others were prisoners of war. However, beyond the scope of dispossessed slaves and war victims, even free men joined the ranks of gladiators – some who had lost their inheritance and some who were simply addicted to the thrill of fighting and winning accolades from the crowds. According to modern estimations, around 20 percent of gladiators admitted into the ludi gladiatori (gladiatorial schools) were free men of the Roman society.
However, once the person was branded as a gladiator, he was seen as a social equivalent of a prostitute – with the term ‘gladiator’ even used as an abuse in various Roman circles. This directly contrasted with their fanfare and popularity among the citizens, especially during the grand gladiatorial spectacles that were akin to big sporting events of our modern world. In fact, the fame and reputation of some gladiators reached to such dizzying heights that their names appeared on city walls, while discussions about their victories and even sex appeal arose in inns, villas, palaces and private dinner rooms. And if discussions were not enough, the paradoxical adoration of gladiators took bizarre forms – with their oily grease, skin scrapings and even blood (brushed with jewelry) being collected and sold to Roman women as aphrodisiacs and restorative potions.
5) ‘We who are about to die’
Till now, we had talked about the ‘professional’ side of gladiators, and how gladiatorial contests formed an integral part of a thriving business model that was intertwined with the political system of Rome. But beyond such glitz and glory, there were the other fighters who were basically forced into the arena to spill their own blood. These were the noxii, the criminals who were mainly accused of robbery, murder and rape – and thus provided expendable ‘fighters’ whose sole purpose was to die inside the arenas, almost as a form of a grisly public execution that morphed into an sadistic ‘entertaining’ form. After being shackled, shoved and paraded inside such gladiatorial rings (especially during the afternoon shows) with jeering crowds clamoring for their blood, they had to make a grim proclamation before the Roman emperor – Ave Caesair, morituri te salutant! (We who are about to die salute the Emperor).
After this statement, they became a part of the mass spectacle that sometimes involved fighting among themselves till the last man was standing (or everyone was killed). However, at other times, the noxii were simply used as living props who were unarmored (or sometimes dressed in ‘show’ armor), and then declared as opponents against the adept postulati, veteran gladiators armed with maces. Consequently, these experienced gladiators made a gory demonstration of slowly dispatching the straggling criminals by spilling their blood on the sands of the arena.
6) ‘Uri, vinciri,verberari, ferroque necari’ – the oath of the gladiators
Now while the noxii class belonged to the lowest strata of the gladiatorial scope, the actual gladiators also had to endure hardships and adversity, as is exemplified by their sacramentum gladiatorium (oath of gladiators) – ‘Uri, vinciri,verberari, ferroque necari.‘ Roughly translating to – ‘I will endure, to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword’, the phrase had to be repeated by the men before their induction into the gladiatorial ambit. After the uttering of these words, they were solemnly led to their tiny lockable cells that were spread around the perimeter of the training grounds – and thus their brutal lives as ‘dispensable’ showmen of Rome started. Fortunately, the free men who willingly accepted the dangerous career, were still given an ‘opt out’ opportunity where they had to pay a cash fee to the lanista (the trainer or manager of the acquired gladiators).
Suffice it to say, the balefully dangerous nature of frequent arena fighting (and the subsequent harsh lives inside the guarded barracks) took its toll on many a gladiator, not only on the physical level but also on the psychological level. As a result, there were occasional incidences of suicide within their ranks, so much so – that even special guards kept vigilance to prevent such ‘self-destructive’ activities that could potentially hamper the business of the lanista. To that end, there was one incident of a Germanic gladiator self-choking on a sponge material. Another grisly scenario involved the apparent mass-suicide of 29 Frankish prisoners, who had strangled each other while the last man standing smashed his head – before they could make their bloody debut inside the arena.
…continued on next page.