Novea Terra Ludum Gladitore
URI, VINCIRI, VERBERARI, FERROQUE NECARI “I will endure, to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword” Sacramentum gladiatorium, the oath of the gladiators – Petronius Satyricon 117
ORIGINS: For a long time it was assumed that gladiatorial fights were of Etruscan origin since frescoes were found in Etruscan tombs on which duels with weapons were depicted, often supervised by a figure with a mask and hammer ready to ensure the defeated were dead, symbolizing the death demon Charun. Since there was an arena worker equipped in the same way, the connection to the Etruscans seemed obvious. This armed attendant appeared more likely at the execution of criminals. Of important note…never was a dead or executed gladiator beaten with a hammer to check if he was really dead. A gladiator that fought bravely and fearlessly was respected and given an honorable death. In South Italy many frescoes were found showing similar duels mainly at funeral celebrations. We can therefore assume an Oscan-Campanian-Lucanian origin, though the Oscans and Samnites were considered “backward” by the Romans. The most renowned gladiator schools were located in Campania, also known as Capua. The first recorded gladiatorial fight in Rome took place at the Forum Boarium in the year 264 BC at the funeral of Decimus Iunius Brutus Pera and was organized by his sons, as the Greek-Syrian historian Nicolaus of Damascus reports at the time of Augustus. Three pairs of gladiators fought against each other at his funeral pyre. Coincidentally this was also the year in which the First Punic War broke out. We can assume that there were gladiatorial fights in Rome before the year 264 BC but they were not recorded, since such a tradition does not evolve from one day to the next. However, there are no reports or inscriptions which witness gladiatorial bouts before this date. Until the Late Republic, gladiatorial fights which were called munera (pl. of munus, Latin “obligation, duty”) were held only in connection with remembrance days and funerals; e.g., C. Iulius Caesar organized gladiator fights in honor of his deceased father during his office as aedilis curulis. In addition, he wanted to boost his popularity with the people of Rome, proving his generosity by showing them extravagant games. After his assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC, the senate hosted the first gladiator fights which were publicly funded. Before, the munera had been paid by the editor himself.
THE LUDUS: The Latin word “ludus” had two meanings: games, such as chariot races and theatrical displays, but not the gladiator shows (munera) and the gladiator school which was run by a lanista (owner of the ludus). He also owned the gladiators which he rented to the editor. However, the Imperial ludi were under the control of certain officials were called procuratores. There was one procurator for each of the four Imperial ludi in Rome. The most famous was the ludus magnus, built next to the Amphitheatrum Flavium (known today as the Colosseum). It was connected to the Colosseum by an underground pathway so that the gladiators could get to the arena unseen. The familia gladiatoria consisted of gladiators, thier trainers, the doctores also called magistri, as well as medici (physicians). For example, Claudios Galenos ( Galen), the later personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, worked as a physician at the gladiator school in Pergamon. In most cases, former gladiators taught in the discipline in which they had fought themselves. Furthermore, there were servants responsible for the clothes (a veste gladiatoria), for the decoration of the games (adiutores procuratoris rationis ornamentum) and for the weapons and equipment, e.g., the manicarius for the manica (arm protection). The training sessions followed extremely rigid rules. We can assume that all new recruits had to undergo the same basic training to learn about their mannerisms and to assign them to the type that suits them. At first the fighters trained at the palus (wooden practice pole) before training with wooden weapons (rudis). In his Epitoma Rei Militaris, the historian Vegetius compares the training of gladiators with that of soldiers.
Who were they? Most gladiators were prisoners of war, slaves bought for the purpose, or criminals sentenced to serve in the schools (damnati ad ludos). At a time when three of every five people did not survive until their twentieth birthday, the odds of a professional gladiator being killed in any particular bout, at least during the first century AD, were perhaps one in ten. But for the criminal who was to be publicly executed (damnati ad mortem) or for Christian martyrs who refused to renounce their faith and worship the gods, there was no hope of survival in the arena. Free men also volunteered to be gladiators (auctorati) and, by the end of the Republic, comprised half the number who fought. Often, they were social outcasts, freed slaves, discharged soldiers, or former gladiators who had been liberated on retirement but chose to return for a period of service. They signed on for a fee and swore a fearful oath of absolute submission to the lanista to be burned, flogged, beaten, or killed if so ordered. In spite of the opprobrium, Roman citizens, even nobility, sometimes assumed the career of a gladiator—as did women (Amazones). Amazons. Often, they were compelled but sometimes prompted , as “a number of Italian towns vied with one another in holding out financial inducements to undesirables among the younger generation”. To celebrate his triumphal return to Rome in AD 46, Caesar sponsored gladiatorial games in which a former senator fought to the death. Another senator had wanted to fight in full armor but was denied permission. When a member of the Gracchi fought as a retiarius, the scandal was all the greater because his face could be seen. Indeed, writes Tacitus, the year AD 63 of Nero’s reign “witnessed gladiatorial displays on a no less magnificent scale than before, but exceeding all precedent in the number of distinguished women and senators disgracing themselves in the arena”.
In Summary… The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They were depicted in mosaics, on lamps and funerary monuments, and were the object of graffiti—in this case, boasts written by the gladiators themselves: “Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls’ heart-throb” and “Crescens the Netter of young girls by night.” But, even in victory, gladiators were infamis. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions. And yet, as Tertullian exclaims, “Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection….The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace” (De Spectaculus, XXII). The blood lust of the spectators, populus and emperors alike, the brutality of the combat, and the callous deaths of men and animals still disturb modern sensibilities. Certainly, Rome was cruel. Defeated enemies and criminals forfeited any right to a place within society, although they still might be saved (servare) from the death they deserved and be made slaves (servi). Because the life of the slave was forfeit, there was no question but that it could be claimed at any time. The paterfamilias of the family had absolute control over the lives of his slaves (and little less over those of his wife and children). The gladiatorial shows were part of this culture of war, discipline, and death. The gladiator demonstrated the power to overcome death and instilled in those who witnessed it the Roman virtues of courage and discipline. He who did not fight and die bravely dishonored the society that sought to redeem him. There was little sympathy, therefore, for the gladiator who valued his life too highly and flinched at the point of the sword. If not to have triumphed over his opponent, the defeated gladiator was expected, at least, to master the moment of his death. Not to do so reduced the gladiator to victim and the audience to onlookers at a sordid spectacle. If, in the morning venationes, there was the transition from life to death, so in the afternoon munera was the possibility of passing from death to renewed life. Earlier in the day, the threat outside society was overcome; in the afternoon, the threat of those who were no longer part of society. In their mutual defeat, the order of things was reasserted and death, itself, conquered. In witnessing how men faced the necessity of dying, in viewing the fate they feared, themselves, Romans confronted their own mortality and triumphed. In fighting courageously and skillfully, the gladiator might demonstrate sufficient valor to win salvation; in a death accepted without protest, he could acquire it as well. For the gladiator, the measure of his valor was a measure of the desperation of the circumstances in which it was acquired, and, paradoxically, if he could fight in contempt of life and glory, there was the possibility that he could regain them both. Indeed, Christian unease with the games was due not so much to their cruelty as to the fact that the gladiator could be saved by his own virtus.