|A gladiator depicted fighting|
Successful gladiators were the movie stars of the first century so famous that free men queued to take their chances in the arena. Bloody, brutal but popular, gladiatorial contests are often seen as the dark side of Roman civilization.
Given they belonged to such a civilized and sophisticated society, the Romans deep attraction to extreme violence remains surprising and strange. Historians have struggled to explain how a country that civilized so much of the world could be so keen on watching men and women fight to the death.
Ritualized, public violence had been a favorite entertainment of the Romans for centuries. The practice began as an ancient Etruscan funeral ritual: when a tribal chief died, his warriors would make a blood sacrifice to his spirit by fighting to the death by his tomb.
This ritual was adapted over time. The nobility began to put on gladiatorial exhibitions in memory of the dead and by the time Julius Caesar was in charge, these exhibitions had become public spectacles.
The games took place in amphitheaters. Gladiators would be sent to the arena named after the sand which covered the ground and soaked up the blood to fight to the death before cheering crowds of thousands. As the contests became more organized, gladiators became more specialized. There were five types of gladiator, each with their own unique weapons.
The Mirmillones were heavily armed and wore helmets decorated with fish, while the Thracians carried just a shield and scimitar, making them much quicker on their feet. The Retiarii were armed with just a net, a long trident and a dagger, and the Samnites had a sword, an oblong shield and a helmet with a visor. Finally, the Bestiarii fought wild animals.
The games were so popular that successful gladiators could become extremely rich and very famous. As a result, while most gladiators were condemned criminals, slaves or prisoners of war, some were freedmen who chose to fight, either as a way to achieve fame and fortune, or simply because they enjoyed it.
Naturally, it was a dangerous career with a high turnover. The few lucky ones would survive years in the arena and retire. Some would then become instructors at gladiator training schools, controlled by the state so that they couldnt be used to train private armies.
Gladiatorial contests were definitely mass entertainment and, over time, some of the upper classes began to get fed up with their brutality. In a letter to a friend, the philosopher Seneca criticized popular enthusiasm for gladiators and advised his friends and acquaintances not to attend.
Despite Senecas disapproval, the popularity of the games continued and, along with chariot races, would form the backbone of public entertainment for centuries to come.
Where to next:
Writers – Seneca