Gladiatorial combat

The climax of a day in a Roman amphitheatre was the gladiatorial combat in the afternoon, which was preceded by wild animal hunts and public executions in the morning.

We first hear about gladiatorial combat in the third century BC. At that time, they formed a part of the funeral rites of important persons. The Romans took this habit from Campania. From the second century BC onwards, gladiatorial combat became very popular.  Because of the origin as funeral rites, gladiator games (munera) were always organized by private persons, whereas other entertainments in Rome, namely the horse races and the theater (ludi), were organized by the state.

Originally the gladiators were war prisoners. The different types of gladiators, e.g. Thracians and Gauls, wore the typical armament of their native region. When the demand for gladiators increased, also slaves were trained as gladiators. Because of their descent, the gladiators had a low status in Roman society, despite their fame. Nevertheless, sometimes also free citizens entered a gladiator school, forced by financial problems or seduced by the promise of fame.

Gladiators were divided into different types, according to their weapons. The thraex (or Tracian) had a short shield, high greaves and a short, slightly curved sword. The murmillo had a longer shield, shorter greaves and a long sword. He had a helmet with a high vertical rim and an wide edge. The secutor was similar to the murmillo. His special helmet protected most of his face, but limited his vision. The retiarius, who was often matched up with murmillones or secutores, was armed with a net and a trident. His body was barely protected.

In the gladiator school, strenuous efforts and strong discipline were expected during the training, for the gladiator boss had invested a lot of money in the gladiators. Sometimes doctors were also attached to a gladiator school, to look after the bodies of the gladiators. The actual contests were very dangerous: when a gladiator lost, only the grace of the public and the emperor could save his life. However, a professional gladiator fought only three or four contests a year; and to receive grace was more common than to be killed.

In the imperial period, gladiatorial combat was popular not only in the West, but also in the East, in the same cities where also the Greek games were held. The fights always took place in the context of the imperial cult. In the second half of the fourth century AD, gladiatorial combat lost its popularity under the influence of Christianity.

© KU Leuven, 2012