1902 Encyclopedia > Gladiators


GLADIATORS, professional combatants with men or beasts in the Roman arena. That this form of spectacle, which is almost peculiar to Rome and the Roman provinces, was originally borrowed from Etruria is shown by various indications. On an Etruscan tomb discovered at Tarquinii there is a representation of gladiatorial games; the slaves employed to carry off the dead bodies from the arena wore masks representing the Etruscan Charon; and we learn from Isidore of Seville that the name for a trainer of gladiators, lanista, is an Etruscan word meaning butcher or executioner. These games are evidently a survival of the practice of immolating slaves and prisoners on the tomb of illustrious chieftains, a practice recorded in Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian legends, and traceable even as late as this century in the Indian suttee. Even at Rome they were for a long time confined to funerals, and hence the older name for gladiators was bustuarii; but in the later days of the republic their original significance was forgotten, and they formed as indispensable a part of the public amusements as the theatre or the circus.

The first gladiators are said, on the authority of Valerius Maximus, to have been exhibited at Rome in the Forum Boarium 264 B.C., by Marcus and Decimus Brutus at the funeral of their father. On this occasion only three pairs fought, but the taste for these games spread rapidly, and the number of combatants grew apace. In 174 B.C. Titus Flamininus celebrated his father's obsequies by a three days' fight, in which 74 gladiators took part. Julius Caesar engaged such extravagant numbers for his aedileship, that his political opponents took fright, and carried a decree of the senate imposing a certain limit of numbers; but notwithstanding this restriction he was able to exhibit no less than 300 couples. During the later days of the republic the gladiators were a constant element of danger to the public peace. The more turbulent spirits among the nobility had each his band of gladiators to act as a body guard, and the armed troops of Clodius, Milo, and Catiline played the same part in Roman history as the armed retainers of the feudal barons or the condottieri of the Italian republics.

Under the empire, notwithstanding sumptuary enactments, the passion for the arena steadily increased. Augustus, indeed, limited the shows to two a year, and forbade a praetor to exhibit more than 120 gladiators, yet allusions in Horace and Fersius show that 100 pairs was the fashionable number for private entertainments; and in the Marmor Ancyranum the emperor states that more than 10,000 men had fought during his reign. The imbecile Claudius was devoted to this pastime, and would sit from morning till night in his chair of state, descending now and then to the arena to coax or force the reluctant gladiators to resume their bloody work. Under Nero senators and even well-born women appeared as combatants; and Juvenal has handed down to eternal infamy the descendant of the Gracchi that appeared without disguise as a retiarius, and begged his life from the secutor, who blushed to conquer one so noble and so vile. Titus, whom his countrymen surnamed the Clement, ordered a show which lasted 100 days; and Trajan, in celebration of his triumph over Decebalus, exhibited 5000 pairs of gladiators. Domitian instituted venationes by torchlight, and at the Saturnalia of 90 A.D. arranged a battle between dwarfs and women. Even as late as 200 A.D. an edict was passed forbidding women to fight. How widely the taste for these sanguinary spectacles extended through-out the Boman provinces is attested by monuments, inscrip-tions, and the remains of vast amphitheatres. From Britain to Syria there was not a town of any size that could not boast its arena and annual games. The following inscrip-tion copied from the pedestal of a statue shows the important part they played in provincial life :—" In four days, at Min-turnse, he showed eleven pairs of gladiators, who did not cease fighting till one half, all the most valiant men in Cam-pania, had fallen. You remember it well, noble fellow citizens." After Italy, Gaul, North Africa, and Spain were most famous for their amphitheatres; and Greece was the only Roman province where the institution never took root.

Gladiators were commonly drawn either from prisoners of war, or slaves, or criminals condemned to death. Thus iu the first class we read of tatooed Britons in their war chariots, Thracians with their peculiar bucklers and scimi-tars, Moors from the villages round Atlas, and negroes from central Africa, exhibited in the Colosseum. Down to the time of the empire only greater malefactors, such as brigands and incendiaries, were condemned to the arena; but by Caligula, Claudius, and Nero this punishment was extended to minor offences, such as fraud and peculation, in order to supply the growing demand for victims. For the first century of the empire it was lawful for masters to sell their slaves as gladiators, but this was forbidden by Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Besides these three regular classes, the ranks were recruited by a considerable number of freedmen and Roman citizens who had squandered their estates, and voluntarily took the auctoramentum gladia-torium, by which for a stated time they bound themselves to the lanista. Even men of birth and fortune not seldom entered the lists, either for the pure love of fighting, or to gratify the whim of some dissolute emperor; and oneemperor, Commodus, actually appeared in person in the arena.

Gladiators were trained in schools (hidi) owned either by the state or by private citizens; and though the trade of a lanista was considered disgraceful, to own gladiators and let them out for hire was reckoned a legitimate branch of commerce. Thus Cicero, in his letters to Atticus, congratu-lates his friend on the good bargain he had made in pur-chasing a band, and urges that he might easily recoup him-self by consenting to let them out twice. Men recruited mainly from slaves and criminals, whose lives hung on a thread, must have been more dangerous characters than modern galley slaves or convicts; and, though highly fed and carefully tended, they were of necessity subject to an iron discipline. In the school of gladiators discovered at Pompeii, of the sixty-three skeletons buried in the cells many were in irons. But hard as was the gladiator's lot, —so hard that special precautions had to be taken to prevent suicide,—it had its consolations. A successful gladiator en-joyed far greater fame than any modern prize-fighter or athlete. He was presented with broad pieces, chains, and jewelled helmets, such as may be seen in the museum at Naples ; poets like Martial sang his prowess ; his portrait was multiplied on vases, lamps, and gems; and high-born ladies contended for his favours. Mixed, too, with the lowest dregs of the city, there must have been many noble bar-barians condemned to the vile trade by the hard fate of war. There are few finer characters in Roman history than the Thracian Spartacus, who, escaping with seventy of his com-rades from the school of Lentulus at Capua, for three years defied the legions of Rome; and after Antony's defeat at Actium, the only part of his army that remained faithful to his cause were the gladiators whom he had enrolled at Cyzicus to grace his anticipated victory.

There were various classes of gladiators, distinguished by their arms or modes of fighting. The Samnites fought with the national weapons—a large oblong shield, a vizard, a plumed helmet, and a short sword. The Thraces had a small round buckler and a dagger curved like a scythe; they were generally pitted against the Mirmillones, so called from the fish (ftop/AuAos) which served as the crest of their helmet. In like manner the Retiarius was matched with the Secutor : the former had nothing on but a short tunic or apron, and sought to entangle his pursuer, who was fully armed, with the cast-net (jacidum) that he carried in his right hand ; and if successful, he despatched him with the trident (tridens, fuscind) that he carried in his left. We may also mention the Andabata?, who wore helmets with closed vizors ; the Dimachseri of the later empire; the Essedarii, who fought from chariots like the ancient Britons; the Hoplomachi, armed like a Greek hoplite; and the Laqueatores, who tried to lasso their antagonists.

The estimation in which gladiatorial games were held by Soman moralists deserves notice, and the influence that they exercised upon the morals and genius of the nation. The Soman was essentially cruel, not so much from spite or vindictiveness, as from callous-ness and defective sympathies. This element of inhumanity and brutality must have been deeply ingrained in the national char-acter to have allowed the games to become popular, but there can be no doubt that it was fed and fostered by the savage form which their amusements took. That the sight of bloodshed provokes a love of bloodshed and cruelty is a commonplace of morals. To the horrors of the arena we may attribute in part, not only the brutal treatment of their slaves and prisoners, but the frequency of suicide among the Romans. On the other hand, we should be careful not to exaggerate the effects or draw too sweeping infer-ences from the prevalence of this degrading amusement. Human nature is happily illogical; and we know that many of the Roman statesmen who gave these games, and themselves enjoyed these sights of blood, were in every other department of life irre-proachable,—indulgent fathers, humane generals, and mild rulers of provinces. In the present state of society it is difficult to con-ceive how a man of taste can have endured to gaze upon a scene of human butchery. Yet we should remember that it is less than half a century since bear-baiting was prohibited in England, and we are only now attaining that stage of morality in respect of cruelty to animals that was reached in the 5th century, by the help of Christianity, in respect of cruelty to men. "We shall not then be greatly surprised if hardly one of the Roman moralists is found to raise his voice against this amusement, except on the score of extravagance. Cicero, in a well-known passage commends the gladiatorial games as the best discipline against the fear-of death and suffering that can be presented to the eye. The younger Pliny, who perhaps of all Bomans approaches nearest to our ideal of a cultured gentleman, speaks approvingly of them. Marcus Aurelius, though he did much to mitigate their horrors, yet in his writings condemns the monotony rather than the cruelty. Seneca is indeed a splendid exception, and his letter to Lentulus is an eloquent protest .against this inhuman sport. But it is without a parallel till we come to the writings of the Christian fathers, Tertullian, Lactantius, Cyprian, and Augustine. In the Confes-sioixs of the last there occurs a narrative which is worth quoting as a proof of the strange fascination which the games exercised even on a religious man and a Christian. He tells us how his friend Alipius was dragged against his will to the amphitheatre, how he strove to quiet his conscience by closing his eyes, how at some exciting crisis the shouts of the whole assembly aroused his curiosity, how he looked and was lost, grew drunk with the sight of blood, and returned again and again, knowing his guilt yet unable to abstain. The first Christian emperor was persuaded to issue an edict abolishing gladiatorial games (325), yet in 404 we read of an exhibition of gladiators to celebrate the triumph of Honorius over the Goths, and it is said that they were not totally extinct in the West till the time of Theodoric (see GAMES).

Gladiators formed admirable models for the sculptor. One of the finest pieces of ancient sculpture that has come down to us is the Wounded Gladiator of the National Museum at Naples. The so-called Fighting Gladiator of the Borghese collection, now in the Museum of the Louvre, and the Dying Gladiator of the Capitolifte Museum, which inspired the famous stanza of Childe Harold, have been pronounced by modern antiquaries to represent, not gladi-ators, but warriors. In this connexion we may mention the admirable picture of Gérome which bears the title, Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant.

The attention of archaeologists has been recently directed to the tessera! of gladiators. These tessera?, of which about sixty exist in various museums, are small oblong tablets of ivory or hone, with an inscription on each of the four sides. The first line contains a name in the nominative case, presumably that of the gladiator; the second line a name in the genitive, that of the patronus or dominus; the third line begins with the letters SP, for spectatns or approved, which shows that the gladiator had passed his pre-liminary trials; this is followed by a day of a Roman month ; and in the fourth line are the names of the consuls of a particular year.

Lipsius, Saturnalia, Wesel, 1675; Friedlander, Darstellungen aus dev Sittengeschichte Roms, Leipsic, 1869; H. Goell, Kulturbilder aus Hellas und Row, Leipaic, 1863 ; Charles Magnin, Les Origines du theatre moderne, Paris, 1838 ; H. Wallon, Histoire do Veselavage, Paris, 1847; Gnhl and Koner, The Life of the Greeks and Romans; Lecky, History of European Morals. (F. S.)

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