1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gladiators

GLADIATORS (from Lat. gladius, sword), professional combatants who fought to the death in Roman public shows. 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 (Origines, x.) that the name for a trainer of gladiators (lanista) is an Etruscan word meaning butcher or executioner. These gladiatorial games are evidently a survival of the practice of immolating slaves and prisoners on the tombs of illustrious chieftains, a practice recorded in Greek, Roman and Scandinavian legends, and traceable even as late as the 19th century as 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 and the circus.

The first gladiators are said, on the authority of Valerius Maximus (ii. 4. 7), to have been exhibited at Rome in the Forum Boarium in 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 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 pairs. 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 bodyguard, 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 (Sat. ii. 3. 85) and Persius (vi. 48) 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 (viii. 199) has handed down to eternal infamy the descendant of the Gracchi who appeared without disguise as a retiarius, and begged his life from the secutor, who blushed to conquer one so noble and so vile.[1] 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 at the Saturnalia of A.D. 90 arranged a battle between dwarfs and women. Even women of high birth fought in the arena, and it was not till A.D. 200 that the practice was forbidden by edict. How widely the taste for these sanguinary spectacles extended throughout the Roman provinces is attested by monuments, inscriptions 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. After Italy, Gaul, North Africa and Spain were most famous for their amphitheatres; and Greece was the only Roman province where the institution never thoroughly took root.

Gladiators were commonly drawn either from prisoners of war, or slaves or criminals condemned to death. Thus in the first class we read of tattooed Britons in their war chariots, Thracians with their peculiar bucklers and scimitars, 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 gladiatorium, 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 one emperor, Commodus, actually appeared in person in the arena.

Gladiators were trained in schools (ludi) 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, congratulates his friend on the good bargain he had made in purchasing a band, and urges that he might easily recoup himself 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 gladiators’ lot,—so hard that special precautions had to be taken to prevent suicide,—it had its consolations. A successful gladiator enjoyed 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 barbarians 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 comrades 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 vizor, 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, who were armed in Gallic fashion with helmet, sword and shield, and were so called from the fish (μορμύλος or μορμύρος) 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 (jaculum) that he carried in his right hand; and if successful, he despatched him with the trident (tridens, fuscina) that he carried in his left. We may also mention the Andabatae who are generally believed to have fought on horseback and wore helmets with closed vizors; the Dimachaeri of the later empire, who carried a short sword in each hand; the Essedarii, who fought from chariots like the ancient Britons; the Hoplomachi, who wore a complete suit of armour; and the Laquearii, who tried to lasso their antagonists.

Gladiators also received special names according to the time or circumstances in which they exercised their calling. The Bustuarii have already been mentioned; the Catervarii fought, not in pairs, but in bands; the Meridiani came forward in the middle of the day for the entertainment of those spectators who had not left their seats; the Ordinarii fought only in pairs, in the regular way; the Fiscales were trained and supported at the expense of the imperial treasury; the Paegniarii used harmless weapons, and their exhibition was a sham one; the Postulaticii were those whose appearance was asked as a favour from the giver of the show, in addition to those already exhibited.

The shows were announced some days before they took place by bills affixed to the walls of houses and public buildings, copies of which were also sold in the streets. These bills gave the names of the chief pairs of competitors, the date of the show, the name of the giver and the different kinds of combats. The spectacle began with a procession of the gladiators through the arena, after which their swords were examined by the giver of the show. The proceedings opened with a sham fight (praelusio, prolusio) with wooden swords and javelins. The signal for real fighting was given by the sound of the trumpet, those who showed fear being driven on to the arena with whips and red-hot irons. When a gladiator was wounded, the spectators shouted Habet (he is wounded); if he was at the mercy of his adversary, he lifted up his forefinger to implore the clemency of the people, with whom (in the later times of the republic) the giver left the decision as to his life or death. If the spectators were in favour of mercy, they waved their handkerchiefs; if they desired the death of the conquered gladiator, they turned their thumbs downwards.[2] The reward of victory consisted of branches of palm, sometimes of money. Gladiators who had exercised their calling for a long time, or such as displayed special skill and bravery, were presented with a wooden sword (rudis), and discharged from further service.

Both the estimation in which gladiatorial games were held by Roman moralists, and the influence that they exercised upon the morals and genius of the nation, deserve notice. The Roman was essentially cruel, not so much from spite or vindictiveness as from callousness and defective sympathies. This element of inhumanity and brutality must have been deeply ingrained in the national character 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 inferences 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 irreproachable—indulgent fathers, humane generals and mild rulers of provinces. In the present state of society it is difficult to conceive how a man of taste can have endured to gaze upon a scene of human butchery. Yet we should remember that it is not so long 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 Romans 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 Confessions 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.

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 Capitoline Museum, which inspired the famous stanza of Childe Harold, have been pronounced by modern antiquaries to represent, not gladiators, 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 tesserae of gladiators. These tesserae, of which about sixty exist in various museums, are small oblong tablets of ivory or bone, 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 spectatus = approved), which shows that the gladiator had passed his preliminary 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.

Authorities.—All needful information on the subject will be found in L. Friedländer’s Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms, (part ii, 6th ed., 1889), and in the section by him on “The Games” in Marquardt’s Römische Staatsverwaltung, iii. (1885) p. 554; see also article by G. Lafaye in Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités. See also F. W. Ritschl, Tesserae gladiatoriae (1864) and P. J. Meier, De gladiatura Romana quaestiones selectae (1881). The articles by Lipsius on the Saturnalia and amphitheatrum in Graevius, Thesaurus antiquitatum Romanarum, ix., may still be consulted with advantage.

  1. See A. E. Housman on the passage in Classical Review (November 1904).
  2. A different account is given by Mayor on Juvenal iii. 36, who says: “Those who wished the death of the conquered gladiator turned their thumbs towards their breasts, as a signal to his opponents to stab him; those who wished him to be spared, turned their thumbs downwards, as a signal for dropping the sword.”