Today I'm very excited to have Ben Kane, author of Spartacus, here to A Bookish Affair to talk about gladiators! Thanks for coming, Ben!
The word ‘gladiator’ conjures up an image for just about everyone. Usually, it’s a man – Kirk
Douglas, Russell Crowe or Andy Whitfield. Sometimes it’s a murmillo, a man wearing a fish-
crested helmet with armour on one arm, or a retiarius, a net-fighter with a trident. Whatever the
image, it’s impossible to deny that ‘gladiator’ is one of the most recognizable words from ancient
times. That in itself is a remarkable thing. What I’d like to explore in this short piece is how our
modern thinking about gladiators can sometimes be at polar opposites to their purpose more
than two thousand years ago.
Although it’s likely that gladiator fights were taking place earlier, the first documented evidence
that we have of them is in 264 BC. At this time, and for generations afterwards, the main purpose
of gladiatorial contests was not to entertain the masses, but to honour the dead. Trained fighters
would take each other in so-called munera (singular: munus) as part of the offerings to the memory
of deceased rich and famous Romans. Other, more popular, forms of public entertainment took
place as part of either the many religious festivals/holidays, or in the public games which were
held to celebrate the military victories won by Rome’s generals. Processions, theater productions
and chariot-racing were hugely popular as part of the feriae. Spectacles involving animals were
common too. These morphed over time to grander presentations with large and exotic animals
such as bears, bulls, lions and tigers etc.
It’s clear that the early munera in which gladiators fought served not just to raise the profile
of the deceased. They also aggrandized the reputations of the families involved and more
importantly, of the individuals who were paying for the contests. Gladiator fights soon became
so popular that each subsequent munus had to be bigger, better and grander than the ones
that had gone before. For an analogy, one only has to think of how the opening and closing
ceremonies of modern-day Olympics are compared to the previous games. By the first century
BC, the original purpose of the munera had been so eroded that it was commonplace for them
to be held long after the death of the person in whose honour they were being held. Their
enormous popularity with the Roman public had ensured that they were being held ever more
frequently. Now, they were staged when it was politically advantageous for the sponsor. So it
was, in 65 BC, twenty years after the death of his father, Julius Caesar held a magnificent munus,
with 320 pairs of gladiators who used silver weapons.
Octavian/Augustus, Caesar’s successor and the first emperor, shrewdly saw how important the
gladiatorial contests had become, and how significant a political tool they were. By 22 BC, he had
brought them under imperial control, a situation that was to remain in place for generations. So
what made these highly-trained, often well-paid, fighters so attractive? To try and understand
the likely answer it is necessary to forget our modern sensibilities and our sense of ‘fair play’. In
ancient Rome, it was commonplace to shed blood, either animal or human. Historically, this was
done to offer tribute to those who had passed away. It was also done to win the goodwill of the
gods, or to avert their displeasure, and to avert disaster in times of crisis (reference the large-scale
munera after the disastrous Roman defeat at Cannae in 216 BC). In other words, it was normal to
see sacrifices in everyday life. We can go further and say that bleeding hearts were rare, or even
non-existent, in ancient Rome. Pity – in Latin, misericordia ― was thought to be unmanly, while its
close relation, clemency or clementia ― a rational rather than emotional reaction ― was not.
The type of men who became gladiators also bears reflection. They were the lowest of the
low: prisoners-of-war, criminals and slaves ― non-citizens, who had no rights under Roman
law. Forcing them to fight before thousands of spectators was a public statement of the
grandest kind. It reiterated the magnificence of Rome’s military victories, made the punishment
of wrongdoers a communal, intimate and affair. The bloody message delivered in the most
uncompromising of ways was that opposition to Rome would never be tolerated, would be met
with the most savage retribution.
While gladiators occupied the lowest rung of Roman society’s ladder, they were also respected
and even admired. The gladiatorial vow, which promised to endure the most terrible of
punishments and ultimately, death itself, was the most sacred oath anyone in Rome could make.
By agreeing to suffer such a fate, the gladiator’s disreputable status faded into the background,
allowing honour to return to his life ― and in some cases, death.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that gladiators did not just provide gory entertainment. They
had many roles in ancient Rome. These included: offering tribute to the dead. Making requests
of the gods. Acting as a tool to increase politicians’ popularity. Proving that resistance to Rome
would meet with only one outcome and that lawbreakers would be punished. Satisfying the
citizens that law and order would prevail. Securing the positions of those in power.