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The Ancient Roman Gladiators: History, Types & Facts

Instructor: Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

In this lesson learn how gladiator games evolved from funeral obligations to displays of wealth and political power. Discover how the gladiators trained, the different types of fighter, and the rules of the game.

Introduction and Origins

The gladiator games were called munus ('obligation'), or the plural form munera, by the Romans. Originally this referred to the obligation of family members to honor the dead. The first form of gladiator combat was more of a religious duty than a form of entertainment. The first recorded gladiator bout in Rome took place in 264 B.C.E. This munus was in honor of Decimus Junius Brutus. The reasons for the munus were twofold. First, the relatives of the deceased ensured the terms of the person's will were met. Second, the spectacle served to impress society with the importance of the deceased. The quest to impress other wealthy individuals eventually led to the transformation of the games from private religious events to extreme public spectacles.

In 174 B.C.E. the games changed forever. When the popular general Titus Quinctius Flaminius died, his munera lasted for three days and was held during the Saturnalia festival. During this event, seventy-four gladiators fought. For the first time in history, the gladiators took center stage and overshadowed other funeral events. After 150 B.C.E., the games became more and more about pleasing the masses and gaining political prestige. The growing attendance of the games required a large venue, the Roman Forum. Eventually, free standing amphitheatres were constructed for the purpose of gladiator contests.

Training

Part of a gladiator mosaic that dates back to 320 C.E.
Gladiator Mosaic

Although gladiators fought with many different weapons, the overwhelming use of the gladius ('short sword') led to the term gladiator ('swordsman'). The lanista ('manager of gladiators') ran the ludus, or gladiator school. He bought these men in open slave markets. Gladiators could be from any of the following categories: prisoners of war, excess household slaves, criminals, or free men who volunteered for the monetary reward. Regardless of their background, the recruits had the same training. The ludus was the source of shelter, food, training, and healthcare for the gladiators. Since gladiators were not permitted to leave the grounds of the school, it was also a type of prison.

Gladiators began by practicing techniques with blunt weapons. These weapons were heavier than the sharp versions. Since pleasing the crowd was essential, gladiators were taught to twirl their weapons and show off their skills. It would be months before a recruit was put into the arena. A successful gladiator received a palm branch and a monetary reward. A gladiator who won enough money could buy his own freedom, become a trainer, or gain a position as a personal body guard. The rudis was a symbolic wooden sword given to a gladiator who had won his freedom.

Rules

The games were not bloody free-for-alls, but organized events. Since gladiators were expensive to train and keep, death was not a desired outcome for a lanista. A referee and an assistant oversaw the combat. If an opponent was injured, both men would stop and the referee would determine if the contest would continue. Gladiators who lost could attempt to gain mercy from the crowd by raising their index finger. The editor of the game would decide if the gladiator would be spared. Sometimes the editor would ask the crowd. If mercy was not granted, the gladiator would either kneel and be executed by sword or, if they were too injured to kneel, be killed by a single stab to the heart.

Types of Gladiators

The helmet of a Thracian gladiator, displayed at the Louvre Museum.
Thracian Helmet

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