Gladiator matches, like chariot racing, probably originated as funeral games. Livy recorded the first Roman gladiatorial combat in 264 B.C. when 3-pairs of gladiators fought to the death in honor of D. Junius Brutus’ father.
The duties received, or munus, were owed to the deity of the deceased by the descendants. As such, these early gladiator games became known as Munera Games, with the associated meaning of benefit to the public.
In 65 B.C. Julius Caesar commemorated his father with 320 pairs of battling gladiators, all of whom were clad in silver armor. The senate, still mindful of the Spartacus rebellion, had restricted him to this maximum number. Nineteen years later, he hosted elaborate games at the tomb of his daughter, Julia. Included was the first appearance of a giraffe.
As noted by Tertullian, the connection to funerals diminished over time: “This class of public entertainment has passed from being a compliment to the dead, to being a compliment to the living.” Eventually the games became known as Gladiator; from the Latin word Gladius, meaning sword or swordsman.
Originally held in large open spaces with temporary seating, there is some evidence that early Munera Games were held in the Roman Forum. As they rose in popularity, wood amphitheatres were built to accommodate the huge crowds.
The second oldest stone amphitheatre was built in 70 B.C. Pompeii, and seated approximately 20,000. It was freestanding with temporary vendor shops located across the front. Public latrines were positioned outside to the right.
The building of the Roman Colosseum was financed by the sacking of Jerusalem’s temple in A.D. 70. Ten years later the Colosseum’s inaugural games took place. Initially named the Flavian Amphitheatre, it could seat a crowd of 50,000. In due course the stones were pilfered for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica and various palaces.
Although produced on a sporadic basis, public games became tools of influence by emperors and politicians. The mandate of some public offices required them.
A gladiator was automatically infamis, disrespected and beneath the law. Unlike the typical captives who fought repeatedly, the elite and specially trained gladiators did not fight more than 2 or 3 times a year.
During the first century A.D., odds of a professional gladiator being killed were about one in ten, and few lived past age 30. The most successful became heroes, as evidenced by early graffiti: “Celadus the Thrax is the heart-throb of the girls.”
All gladiators were required to take the oath “I will endure to be burned, bound, beaten, and to be killed by the swords.” Though prohibited by law, a small number of upper class men did compete. Rarely, women gladiators were inducted as a novelty.
The various categories of gladiators were distinguished by their armor, weapons, and fighting style. Typically, group designation was based on the individual’s physique. A thin agile man was well suited as a Retiarius. The lumbering heavy man would make an ideal Provocator. Six out of approximately 25 types are listed below.
EQUES, or Horseman, usually only fought against a gladiator in the same category. The matches began on horseback but ended in hand to hand combat. Instead of wearing body armor, they wore tunics and padded shin-protectors (greaves). Their bronze helmets were adorned with two feathers, and they fought using long swords and round shields.
PROVACATOR, or Attacker, wore the heaviest armor of all. He was the only gladiator to wear a chest-covering pectoral armor, and the extra weight caused him to be much slower and less nimble than the other combatants. He also wore arm padding and a greave on his left leg. His visored helmet had no crest and extended down over his shoulders. He held a stabbing sword and rectangular shield.
MURMILLO, or Fish, was named for a Greek saltwater fish. This gladiator wore a highly decorated helmet, and was protected by a large and slightly curved rectangular shield.
RETIARIUS, or Netman, was the fastest and most mobile of them all. Because he wore no helmet, his range of vision was superior to his opponents. His only defensive armor was a padded left arm protector known as a manica, and a high metal shoulder protector known as a galerus. His weapons were a net used to entangle his adversary, a long trident, and a small dagger.
SECUTOR, or Pursuer, was usually paired with a Retarius. He wore a crestless, egg-shaped helmet with round eye holes. Its smooth design prevented him from being snagged by the Retarius’ net. He wore a shin guard and a padded arm protector. His weapons were a large rectangular shield and stabbing sword.
BESTIARIUS, or Animal Fighter, was specially trained to handle and battle a variety of different animals. These were considered the lowest ranking of all the gladiators, and were never as famous or fashionable as their counterparts. Most Bestiarius wore no protective covering, merely leggings and garments of cloth and leather. Their weaponry was spears and whips.
Freed gladiators could continue to fight for money, but usually became employed as trainers for gladiator schools or as personal body guards.
The last known Roman gladiator fight occurred on January 1, A.D. 404.
All Rights Reserved
Excerpt from Ancient Minutus