The ancient Romans were a civilization known for their impressive engineering feats, intricate road networks, and establishment of a legal system that would shape the Western world for centuries to come. But beneath the surface of this sophisticated society lurked a fierce warrior spirit that was deeply ingrained in their culture. This innate desire for battle and conquest was evident in the Roman Empire’s imperialistic expansion and its fascination with gladiatorial games.
The Origins of Gladiatorial Games
The term gladiator is derived from the Latin gladiatores, in reference to their weapon the gladius – the short sword. Gladiators were elite fighters who were trained to battle in the arena, armed with the infamous gladius, a short sword that gave them their name. The origins of gladiatorial contests can be traced back to the Etruscan civilization, the predecessors of the Romans. In Etruscan society, gladiatorial games were an integral part of funerary rituals, a sacred tradition that honored the dead. But over time, these games evolved into a form of entertainment, drawing crowds of spectators who came to witness the fierce battles and the thrill of victory or defeat.
The origins of gladiators and gladiator games have been a topic of debate among literary sources for centuries. In the late 1st century BCE, Nicolaus of Damascus believed they originated from the Etruscans, while Livy wrote that they were first held in 310 BCE by the Campanians in celebration of their victory over the Samnites. The 7th century CE writer Isidore of Seville even went as far as to derive the Latin word for “manager of gladiators” (lanista) from the Etruscan word for “executioner” and the title of “Charon” (an official who accompanied the dead from the Roman gladiatorial arena) from Charun, the psychopomp of the Etruscan underworld. This theory was widely accepted and repeated in most early modern standard histories of the games.
However, modern scholars have begun to reappraise the pictorial evidence and have found support for a Campanian origin, or at least a borrowing, for the games and gladiators. Campania was home to the earliest known gladiator schools (ludi) and tomb frescoes from the Campanian city of Paestum (4th century BCE) depict paired fighters with helmets, spears, and shields in a propitiatory funeral blood rite that foreshadows early Roman gladiator games. In comparison, the evidence from Etruscan tomb paintings is weak and late. The Paestum frescoes may be the continuation of an even older tradition passed down from Greek colonists of the 8th century BCE.
Livy, on the other hand, states that the origins of the Roman gladiator games can be traced back to 264 BCE during the early stages of the First Punic War against Carthage. Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva, driven by his desire to honor his deceased father Brutus Pera, organized a gruesome spectacle in the Forum Boarium, Rome’s cattle market; it was attended by thousands of people from all walks of life. The games were a reflection of Roman society’s love for blood-sport, and the desire to be entertained. According to Livy, this event was referred to as a “munus” – a gift or a commemorative duty owed to the spirit of a deceased ancestor by his descendants. These events were a symbol of the power and wealth of the elite class who could afford to stage such lavish events. The games were a symbol of the Republic’s strength and resilience, and it was something that the citizens were proud of.
In the early years, the development of the gladiator munus and its various types were heavily influenced by the conflict between Rome and the Samnites. The earliest and most popular type of gladiator was the Samnite, as they were the primary opponents of Rome during the Punic War. As Rome expanded its territories, other groups and tribes would also become part of the gladiator cast list. Click here if you wish to read about the history of the Roman civilization on one of my other blogs.
Livy’s account of the gladiator games paints a picture of exotic and barbarous fighters, who were overpowered by the strength and courage of the Romans. The Romans, depicted as virtuous and morally upright, dedicated the spoils of war to the gods. Meanwhile, their Campanian allies staged a dinner entertainment featuring gladiators who may not have been Samnites but played the role of one.
As the gladiator munus evolved, it became a form of historic enactment in which the gladiators were expected to fight bravely or face death. The games were not only a form of entertainment but also served as a moral lesson for the Roman people.
Why Did Gladiators Fight?
The brutal and bloody world of ancient Rome’s gladiatorial games was not just a form of entertainment, but also a reflection of the empire’s military conquests. Many gladiators were forced into the arena as prisoners of war, slaves, or criminals facing a death sentence. The use of Rome’s defeated enemies in these games is reflected in some of the gladiator types, such as the Thraex (or Thracian), the Hoplomachus, and the Samnite. It was a way for Romans to re-enact their victorious battles and assert dominance over their conquered subjects.
However, not all gladiators were forced into the trade. Despite the harsh and uncertain life, the lure of fame, glory, and wealth was enough to entice some to become gladiators voluntarily. Though evidence of such citizen gladiators is scarce, it is recorded that some Roman emperors even participated in gladiatorial games themselves; the most famous of whom was probably Emperor Commodus. However, this was not well received by all as gladiators were considered to belong to the lowest social classes. But for those willing to risk it all, the arena offered the chance to become a legend, etched in the annals of history as a fierce warrior.
The discovery of gladiator remains in Driffield Terrace (York, UK) has shed new light on the harsh backgrounds of these ancient warriors. Studies of their teeth reveal that many of these men were malnourished as children, likely coming from disadvantaged homes. Despite their lowly origins, the remains also show that they were well-fed and trained for battle later in life, in order to become stronger and more impressive fighters in the gladiatorial games.
But the world of gladiators was not all about poverty and hardship. The upper classes, including the emperor himself, often took gladiators as patrons, showering them with gifts and accolades. According to historical records, Emperor Nero himself awarded a gladiator named Spiculus with houses and estates fit for a victorious general. And for many gladiators, the profession proved to be a path to wealth and glory. Gladiator schools were set up to train volunteer fighters, and men from all walks of life – from retired soldiers to knights and nobles – flocked to these schools in hopes of winning a share of the prize money and gaining fame and prestige. So, gladiatorial games were not only a source of entertainment but also a way of survival and up-gradation of social status.
The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, is without a doubt one of the most iconic and recognizable monuments in the ancient city of Rome. Built during the reign of Vespasian, the first emperor of the Flavian dynasty, construction of this monumental structure began in 72 CE and was completed just eight years later in 80 CE, under the rule of Vespasian’s eldest son and successor, Titus. Further modifications were made during the reign of Titus’ brother, Domitian, making the Colosseum a grand project of the entire Flavian dynasty.
In 80 CE, when the structure was completed, Titus celebrated its opening by holding inaugural games that lasted for an impressive 100 days. These games included not only gladiatorial battles, but also fights involving a variety of wild and tame animals, public executions, and even imitations of famous naval battles.
One of the highlights of these inaugural games was undoubtedly the battle between gladiators Priscus and Verus. Although other gladiatorial battles were also held during the celebrations, the battle between Priscus and Verus is unique in that it is the only detailed description of a Roman gladiatorial fight that has survived to this day. I’ll write more about them shortly.
Usually, gladiatorial combats were single-combat and lasted an average of 15 exhausting minutes; as many as 13 different combats could take place over the course of a single busy day at the mighty arena.
Types of Gladiators
The world of ancient Rome was one of blood, spectacle, and excitement. At the heart of this world were the gladiators, fierce warriors who fought to the death for the entertainment of the masses. These men were not just fighters, but also symbols of the Roman Empire’s power and might.
The gladiators were divided into various types, each with their own unique weapons and armor. Some were heavily armed and armored, while others relied on speed and agility to defeat their opponents. The retiarius, for example, was a gladiator armed with a net, a trident, and a dagger. He was known for his speed and agility and would use his net to ensnare his opponents before striking them with his trident. However, the retiarius tunicatus, who wore a tunic and was considered the “girliest” of all fighters, was considered more disgraced. I’ll write more about the retiarii very shortly.
Venatio, another form of entertainment in Roman amphitheaters, involved the hunting and killing of wild animals. This spectacle was first introduced by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, who celebrated his Greek campaign by hosting games where gladiators would fight lions and panthers.
Exotic beasts from the far reaches of the Roman Empire were brought to Rome for these hunts, which were held in the morning prior to the afternoon gladiatorial duels. Though some animals did sometimes defeat the “bestiarius”, or hunter of wild beasts, very few animals survived these hunts. During the inauguration of the Colosseum, about 9,000 animals were killed in one day.
These gladiators’ stories, etched in history through the accounts of Roman historians and the intricate mosaics and tombstones that have stood the test of time, offer a glimpse into the brutal world of the ancient arena.
One such source is the Oneirocritica, a book written by Artemidorus, a renowned diviner of second-century CE Rome. In it, he also delves into the interpretation of dreams, examining what a man’s dream of fighting with a specific gladiator type implies about the wife he is going to marry.
The Roman gladiatorial games were a diverse and complex spectacle, featuring four principal classes of warriors: the Secutor (aka Samnites), the Thraex, the Murmillo, and the Retiarii. Each class possessed its own unique weapons and armor, with the Samnites being the most heavily armed of the four. Named after the great Samnite warriors that Rome defeated in the early years of the republic, the Samnites were feared for their skill and prowess in battle. However, after they became Roman allies, the name was dropped and they were likely changed to the Secutor (pursuer) although that is somewhat debated.
- The Secutor, also known as the “follower” or “chaser,” was a formidable gladiator known for his smooth helmet shaped like the head of a fish. Armed with a sword and shield, he was often pitted against the Retiarius in the arena. These “Samnites” were armed with a formidable array of weapons, including the Scutum, a large oblong shield made from three sheets of wood, glued together and topped with a leather or canvas coating. They also wore the Galea, a plumed helmet with a visor and small eye holes, and the Gladius, a short sword known as “the sword that divides the throat,” one of several words for a sword used primarily by Roman foot soldiers but also by gladiators. They also wore the Manicae, leather elbow or wristbands and greaves, and leg armor that went from the ankle to just below the knee.
- The Thraex, also known as the Thracian (or Thraces), was a gladiator known for their imposing armor and were a formidable force to be reckoned with, named after one of Rome’s most feared enemies. Similar to the Hoplomachus, he had a small round or square shield, but his helmet was adorned with a silver-plated head of Medusa on the front and a griffin’s head at the top. He fought with a curved, scimitar-shaped Thracian sword for slicing attacks on an opponent, making him a formidable foe in the arena. They were known for their fierce fighting tactics, often appearing on the battlefield in pairs to take on the Murmillo The ancient Greek philosopher, Artemidorus, even warned that if a man dreamed he was fighting a Thraex, it was a sign that his wife would become wealthy, cunning, and ambitious – a reflection of the Traex’s own armor-clad body, curved scimitar weapon, and advanced techniques. Furthermore, he was also equipped with a Galea, Manicae, and Greaves; each piece of armor was specially crafted to provide maximum protection and offensive capabilities.
- The Murmillo (or Mirmillones), also referred to as the “Fishman” (due to their distinctive helmet with a fish crest), was another fierce gladiator, easily recognizable by the fish motifs on his heavy helmet. They wore armor made of leather or metal scales and wielded a straight Greek-styled sword. The Murmillo was heavily armored, with a massive helmet that had tiny eye slits, and they were often paired with the Retiarii in battle. They carried a Cassis crista, a heavy bronze helmet used to protect the face, a Galea, Manicae made of mail, and Ocrea, shin guards to protect their legs.
- The Retiarii, also known as the “net men,” were a fierce and formidable force in the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome. Armed with weapons modeled after the tools of a fisherman, these warriors were experts at entangling their opponents with their weighted nets, known as retes. They also carried a long, three-pronged trident, called a fascina, which was thrown like a harpoon. The Retiarii only wore armor on their arm and shoulder, leaving their legs and head exposed, making them a formidable opponent to face in battle. The Roman satirist Juvenal even tells the story of a disgraced nobleman named Gracchus who trained as a retiarius because he was too proud to wear defensive armor or use offensive weapons and refused to wear a helmet that would have hidden his shame. The Roman dream analyst, Artemidorus, believed that men who dreamed of battles with the Retiarii were sure to find a wife who was poor and wanton, roaming about for any man who wanted her.
- The Provocator, or “challenger,” was a gladiator who wore a full breastplate and a helmet with a visor, dressed similarly to a legionnaire during the republican era (but later stripped down in elegance). These warriors starred in what was considered the best battles and mostly fought each other. The Roman dream analyst said that dreams of fighting this man meant you would get a wife who is attractive and graceful, but also flirtatious and wanton. Provacatores were armed with a Galea, a round top helmet with circular eye grates and feather plumages on either side of the head, a highly decorated square scutum (shield), a small breastplate, usually rectangular or crescent-shaped, manicae and greaves.
- The Hoplomachus, meaning “armed fighter,” was known for his impressive armor, including a lance, dagger, small circular shield, brimmed helmet, arm guard, and shin guards. The helmet was often adorned with feathers, making this gladiator a striking sight in the arena.
- The Rudiarius was a unique and highly-regarded type of gladiator, one who had earned his freedom but chose to return to the arena to continue fighting. These gladiators were beloved by the public, who eagerly awaited their appearances in the ring.
- The Andabata was a gladiatorial type that fought with intensity, but with a twist – they were blindfolded with eyeless helmets, leaving them to rely on referees (summa rudis) to guide them toward their opponents with long poles. The hacking and slashing was intense, but the comical aspect of the fighters’ blindness added a layer of entertainment for the audience. Their fights were sure to elicit laughter and cheers from the crowd.
- The Paegniarius was a lesser-known gladiator type, but one that played a crucial role in the entertainment of the arena. These gladiators would entertain the crowd between fights, such as after the morning’s Venationes. They were often armed with a club or whip, and their job was to distract the audience while stadium officials cleared the arena for the next fight. They were known for their comedic acts, feigning fear or even exaggerating effeminate traits to evoke laughter from the crowd. Some paegniarii were even dwarves or had physical impairments, adding to the entertainment value. They were not typically involved in serious fights and as a result, lived longer and with less duress than other types of gladiators. In fact, an epitaph for a paegniarius named Secundus boasted that he had lived for an impressive 99 years, 8 months, and 18 days before his death. They were the jesters of the arena, entertaining the crowd with their antics and providing a welcome respite from the more intense battles.
- The Equites were gladiator cavalrymen who fought on horseback. They were lightly armed and only fought one another. Artemidorus said that dreaming of battle with an Eques meant you would have a bride who was rich and noble but of limited intelligence. Equites carried or wore a sword or spear, a medium-sized shield, and a brimmed helmet with two decorative feathers and no crest. These horse-riding warriors were a force to be reckoned with in the arenas of ancient Rome, their swift and agile movements leaving their opponents struggling to keep up.
- Then there were a bunch of other lesser-known gladiator types such as the Dimachaerii, who wield their deadly siccae blades with precision and ferocity, striking fear into the hearts of their opponents; these “two-knife men” may have worn nothing but a loincloth or belt, or been fully armored in chain mail. The Essadarii, riding into battle in the style of the Celts, brandish their spears and gladii from the safety of their war chariots, introduced to the games by Julius Caesar himself. The Laquearii, skilled in the use of the noose or lasso, entangle their opponents with deadly efficiency. The Velites, or skirmishers, hurl missiles and fight on foot, while the Scissor wields their specialized short knife with two blades in the shape of an open pair of scissors. The Catervarii fight in groups, rather than one-on-one, while the cestus fighters strike with fists wrapped in leather and studded with spikes. The Crupellarii, enslaved trainees burdened with heavy iron armor, struggle to survive in the arena. The Noxii, criminals forced to fight animals or each other, are not true gladiators. These eight types, in addition to the above-mentioned ones, are some of the Gladiators of lesser fame, each with their own unique skills and weapons, ready to fight for glory and survival.
A day at the games was not only filled with intense battles but also a diverse array of entertainers. Dancers gracefully twirled, musicians strummed their instruments, poets recited their verses, comedians cracked jokes, and actors performed their plays. It was like a halftime show, but with a much more ancient twist.
But the games weren’t all fun and games. Sometimes, they served as a form of punishment. During the reign of Emperor Gallienus in the 250s CE, a jeweler was accused of selling fake stones. He was dragged to the amphitheater, where he was sentenced for his crimes. As he trembled in fear, a lion’s cage was rolled out in front of him. The jeweler fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face as he begged for mercy.
But the emperor had a different form of punishment in mind. When the doors of the cage opened, out walked a chicken. The jeweler fainted from shock, unable to comprehend what was happening. The emperor declared:
“As the man practiced deceit, he has now had it practiced on him.”
The crowd erupted in laughter, and the jeweler was allowed to leave the games, his lesson learned. The punishment may have been harsh, but it served as a reminder to all who witnessed it to always be honest in their trades.
All in all, the games of Rome were a brutal, visceral spectacle that showcased the power of the Roman Empire. Though the gladiators fought for their lives and the entertainment of the masses, they also represented the strength and dominance of the Roman people.
The thrill of gladiator fighting captured the hearts of Romans for over 650 years, with victorious gladiators becoming increasingly valuable as they racked up more wins. The allure of these skilled fighters is evident in the surviving graffiti found on the walls of Rome and other cities where the games were held, where admirers would boast of their favorite gladiators’ number of victories, such as “Petronius Octavius 35, Severus 55, Nascia 60.” The gladiators were not just popular with men but also with women, as graffiti like “Crescens, the net fighter, holds the hearts of all the girls” and “Caladus, the Thracian, makes all the girls sigh” attest.
In the following detailed list, you can catch a glimpse at some of ancient Rome’s most popular gladiators of all time:
- Attilius was a free-born Roman who had made the bold decision to enroll in gladiator school. Unlike most gladiators who were forced into the profession, Attilius had volunteered to fight, making him part of a small but elite group of gladiators. The Roman overseers were known for making matches as fair as possible by assigning gladiators to fight opponents of similar experience levels. But when Marcus Attilius stepped into the amphitheater in Pompeii as a “tiro”, a term for a new gladiator, he was thrown into the ring against Hilarus, a seasoned veteran who had won 12 out of 14 matches in his career – equivalent to several years of experience. In a breathtaking display of skill and determination, the young Attilius not only fought Hilarus to a surrender but in his next battle, he defeated another 12-time-winning gladiator. This back-to-back upset prompted the graffiti artists of Pompeii to immortalize his achievement by inscribing it on the walls of the city. Although Attilius was not likely known throughout the Roman Empire, his fame in Pompeii was significant, and it came at a fortuitous time in history. Just a few decades after his fights, in 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city, preserving his legacy and the graffiti that recorded it for centuries to come.
- Commodus, sometimes referred to as the “mad” emperor, was the son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Commodus inherited the throne at the young age of 16 and swiftly plunged the empire into chaos. His rule was marked by cruelty, debauchery, and a belief in his own divinity. He kept a harem of 600 boys and young women and considered himself the reincarnation of Hercules. He often walked around the palace in a lion skin, and even styled himself a gladiator, entering the ring 735 times. Though he was not particularly skilled, no one dared to harm or kill a reigning emperor. As the games continued, it was clear that the empire was on the brink of collapse, and that the days of the Pax Romana, Rome’s golden era, were coming to a close. But for the crowd in the Colosseum, all that mattered at that moment was the thrill of the fight, and the chance to see the legendary Hermes in action.
- Flamma the Syrian was another iconic gladiator of ancient Rome, known for his mysterious refusal of freedom despite winning it multiple times. The only remaining record of this great gladiator is an eroded inscription on an ancient tombstone in modern-day Sicily, which reads:
“Flamma, secutor. He lived 30 years. He fought 34 times, won 21 times, drew (stans) 9 times, and was spared (missus) 4 times. Syrian by birth. Delicatus, his comrade-at-arms (coarmio), made (this tomb) for a worthy man.”
Flamma, also known as “the flame,” is thought to have been a young Jewish Syrian who was captured and sent to Rome to prove himself in the arena. He was highly renowned for his skill in the arena and his immense charisma, which allowed him to earn the mercy of the crowd, even in defeat. He was a fierce and celebrated fighter, and his name was well-known throughout the Roman empire. However, what made him truly unique among the gladiators of history was his refusal of freedom even when he had earned it four times. Instead, he chose to continue fighting, eventually losing his life at the age of thirty in the arena. It is said that his one wish was to die in the arena, to the sound of the roar of his beloved crowd, his only friend being an honored combatant by the name of Delicatus, who cared enough to pay for his tombstone. It is a testament to the gladiator’s love of the life he had chosen, and his desire to remain in the spotlight of the arena forever.
- Hermes – little is recorded of his life outside of the arena, but one thing is certain: he was a true master of his craft. Praised by the Roman poet Martial in lavish verse, Hermes was said to have overwhelming superiority over his fellow gladiators. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who specialized in a single fighting style and trained rigorously to master it, Hermes was a jack-of-all-trades. He was well-versed in the use of a wide variety of weapons and had mastered at least three different techniques, giving him a decisive advantage over his opponents. As he strode into the arena, the crowd could sense that this was a fighter to be reckoned with.
- Among the most famous gladiators of all time were Priscus and Verus, who lived during the latter part of the 1st century CE. Their legendary fight in the Flavian Amphitheater of Rome (aka Colosseum) was one of the first ever held in the famous arena and it is believed that their brutal and intense struggle helped draw in the crowds. Their fight was immortalized by the Roman poet Martial in his famous work On the Public Shows of Domitian, which describes the unconventional battle in vivid detail (Liber Spectaculorum is the only known detailed description to survive of a gladiatorial fight). Both gladiators were declared victors of the match and were unexpectedly awarded their freedom by the astonished Emperor. The memory of Priscus and Verus, as well as their fight, still lives on to this day, cementing their place in history as two of the most iconic gladiators of all time.
- In the ancient Roman world, the name Spartacus was synonymous with fear, power, and rebellion. Born in the rugged and untamed Balkans, this Thracian warrior was sold into slavery and sent to a gladiator school in Capua to train for battle. But Spartacus was not content to spend his days fighting for the entertainment of the Roman elite. In 73 BCE, he led a daring escape from the school, taking with him over 70 other gladiators and making a run for freedom. The group made their way to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, where they found shelter and began to gather followers. As word of their rebellion spread, more and more enslaved men and women flocked to their cause, swelling their numbers to an estimated 90,000 to 100,000. Together, they fought a guerrilla war against the Roman army, striking swiftly and then disappearing into the mountains. Spartacus was a brilliant leader, outsmarting the Romans at every turn. His men were fiercely loyal, and they followed him as he led them on a march across the Roman Empire, all the way to Gaul in the north. At first, the Roman leaders dismissed the rebellion as a minor annoyance. But as Spartacus and his followers continued to score victory after victory, they began to take the threat more seriously. In 71 BCE, the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus finally succeeded in defeating the rebel army at Lucania, about 56 kilometers southeast of Naples. Spartacus was believed to have died in the battle, but his legacy lived on. Even in death, he was a symbol of resistance, a hero who had dared to take on the might of Rome and had come closer than any other to defeating it, next only to Hannibal Barca of Carthage. Despite the crushing defeat, around 6,000 of his men survived the battle, only to be captured and crucified by the Roman army. But even in the face of this brutal punishment, the memory of Spartacus and his rebellion continued to inspire those who sought freedom from oppression.
- The Italian city of Capua was home to the notorious gladiator school where Spiculus honed his skills and prepared for the brutal battles in the amphitheater. It was clear from the start that he possessed a raw talent, as he quickly rose through the ranks and caught the attention of his trainers. In his debut match, he faced off against Aptonetus, a seasoned veteran and free Roman who had won an impressive 16 fights. The crowd held its breath as the two gladiators stepped into the arena, but in a shocking turn of events, Spiculus emerged victorious. He delivered the final blow to Aptonetus, ending his life and cementing his own reputation as a fierce and ruthless gladiator. News of his victory reached the ears of Rome’s then-emperor, Nero, who was known for his love of gladiatorial games. Impressed by Spiculus’ skill and determination, Nero took a liking to the young gladiator, showering him with lavish gifts, including a palace. This placed Spiculus in a unique social position – technically enslaved, yet living in luxury and attended to by servants who were also enslaved. In 68 CE, as Nero faced a rebellion in the empire and the prospect of his own death, he turned to his trusted friend Spiculus, asking him to execute him. But Spiculus either did not receive the message or refused, and Nero ultimately took his own life. The Roman citizens, outraged by Nero’s brutal reign, began to tear down and destroy statues of the emperor. According to the writer Plutarch, the mob even used one of these statues to crush Spiculus to death, ending the life of the once-promising gladiator.
In the below list are some mentions of gladiators as written in the Epitaphs on their gravestones:
- Constantius, the sponsor of games (munerarius), to his gladiators on account of the popularity of his show (munus). He gave this grave as a tribute (munus) to Decoratus, who killed the retiarius Caeruleus, and then himself fell dead. The trainer’s rod killed them both; the funeral pyre covers them both. Decoratus, secutor, a veteran of nine fights, has bequeathed grief above all to his wife Valeria
- Here I lie victorious, Diodorus the Wretched. After breaking my opponent Demetrius, I did not kill him immediately. But murderous Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis (aka referee) killed me and leaving the light I have gone to Hades. I lie in the land of the original inhabitants. A good friend buried me here because of his piety
- To the souls of the departed. Glauco, born at Mutina, a veteran of seven fights, (was) killed in the eighth. He lived 23 years, five days. Aurelia, along with his fans (amatores), (made this tomb) for a well-deserving husband. I recommend that each of you attend to his own fate; don’t put your trust in Nemesis; that’s how I was deceived! Hello! Goodbye!
- To the souls of the departed. Lyco, freeborn (or freed), left-handed murmillo, four fights. Longinas, freeborn (or freed), contraretiarius, made (this tomb) for his well-deserving brother (frater)
- Marcus Antonius Exochus, Thracian. M. Antonius Exochus, by birth an Alexandrian, (in the games given) at Rome to mark the triumph of the deified Trajan (117 CE), on the second day, in his first-ever appearance (tiro), he secured a draw (stans missus) with Araxis, imperial slave; at Rome, on the ninth day of the same games, he caused Fimbria, freeborn, a veteran of nine fights, to concede… [text breaks off]
- To the souls of the departed. Pardo, from Dertona, a veteran of ten fights, (lies) here, deceived in the eleventh. He lived for 27 years. Arriane to her darling husband, who lived with me… [text breaks off]
- I, who was once celebrated in the amphitheater, have truly found oblivion, after killing my opponent, who was full of irrational bitterness. My name is Stephanos. After I was crowned the winner for the tenth time in competition, I died and passed into eternity, bound in the bosom of the earth. Strength never left me, until the guardian of my life (perhaps a deity?) killed me by tricks. Polychronis set up the inscription as a memorial
- To the souls of the departed. For Urbicus, secutor of the first rank (primus palus), by birth Florentine, who fought 13 times. He lived 22 years. Olympias, his daughter, whom he left at 5 months old, and Fortunensis, his daughter’s slave, and Lauricia his wife (who built this tomb) for a deserving husband, with whom she lived for seven years. I recommend that he who beats a man should kill him. His fans (amatores) will nurture his shade
- To the souls of the departed. (Tomb of) Vitalis, unbeaten retiarius, Batavian by birth. He courageously fought it out to the end on an equal footing with his opponent; he was fast in his fights. Himen (?), his messmate… [text breaks off]
Last, but certainly not least, one of the most legendary gladiators to ever come into existence, Carpophorus, shall be honored in this article with his very own section down below until the title “King of the Beasts”.
The School of Gladiators
The ancient Romans were renowned for their gladiatorial contests, and the training schools that produced these fearsome fighters were a sight to behold. One such school, located in the city of Capua, was particularly famous for the caliber of gladiators it produced. Agents would scour the land, searching for potential recruits to persuade them to come and fight for glory and honor.
These gladiator schools were a unique blend of safety and incarceration. Similar to a prison regime, the gladiators were provided with the comfort and security of three hearty meals a day and the best possible medical attention. However, the recruits, who were mostly free men, were forced to live in shackles and were not allowed to speak at mealtimes.
The gladiators were allowed to keep any rewards and money they won in the fight. Their diet consisted of protein and carbohydrates, such as barley porridge and cereals. They were not allowed to consume wine, only water. Despite their rigorous training, most gladiators were a little on the round side. This extra ‘padding’ around the midsection was desirable as it offered some protection against superficial sword wounds.
Gladiators were an expensive investment for those who ran the gladiator schools, so it was preferable that the fighters did not die on the field. This meant that the gladiators had to be strong enough to last more than one fight. These men were the ultimate warriors, trained to perfection and ready to face death in the arena, all for the entertainment of the Roman public.
On behalf of their owners, after every fight, the gladiators were taken back to their training facility where a highly experienced “doctor” would attend to their wounds, if any. They would then be allowed to rest for a few days before returning to training. This was also true for many of the gladiators who lost their bouts. However, it was also commonplace for the Emperor to have the final say as to whether the combatants lived or died, often taking into account the opinions of the audience. So, whether you fought well or not, your fate could ultimately lie in the hands of your ruler.
The training facilities were state-of-the-art, with amenities such as heated floors for winter training, baths, infirmaries, plumbing, and even a nearby graveyard. The gladiators slept in 3-square-meter cells, home to one or two people. These cells were kept separate from a wing containing larger rooms for their trainers, known as magistri, themselves retired survivors of gladiatorial combat who specialized in teaching one style of weaponry and fighting. These training facilities were not just places of incarceration and training but also a reflection of the grandeur and opulence of the Roman empire.
During the Roman Empire, between 66 to 145 CE, Jewish slaves were a common commodity in gladiator schools. Due to ongoing conflicts with Jewish populations in various regions such as Judea, Cypress, Egypt, Macedonia, and Syria, there was a constant supply of persecuted Jews who were captured and subsequently trained to become gladiators. Those who were rejected were often sent to die as noxii, or the unwanted. It is believed that one of these Jewish slaves may have been Flamma the Syrian, the legendary gladiator who refused to accept freedom four times.
Contrary to popular belief, not many gladiators actually fought to the death. Some historians say one in five died in battle, others say one in ten, yet most only lived to their mid-twenties anyway. With a few exceptions, it was the badly injured who were executed. And, unlike the movies, during the majority of the Empire’s existence, it wasn’t the winner who killed the loser if the “Game Host” so indicated, but a professional executioner was paid to kill with as little pain as possible. This usually involved beheading. Still, it was a public spectacle. For most of Roman history, under most circumstances, it was actually illegal for a gladiator to kill his opponent and the Romans went to great lengths to prevent fatalities.
Gladiatorial combat was regulated by rules and there were even referees (summa rudis) to enforce them; these referees were usually retired gladiators who intimately knew the ins and outs of the profession. For example, gladiators were prohibited from striking opponents who had fallen and could face consequences if they did. Usually, a fight concluded when one gladiator submitted to the other, a gladiator was injured, or both were too exhausted to continue.
The Romans had a problem of limited supply when it came to gladiators in the early first century CE; slaves fit to become gladiators were not easy to come by. To ensure the longevity of their gladiators, the Romans commonly sentenced convicted criminals and prisoners of war to die in the arena. These individuals were subjected to all manner of horrific death sentences, from forced fights to the death with other untrained criminals or unarmed and unarmored against a fully armed and armored professional gladiator, to being burned alive or torn apart by wild animals. This provided both entertainment and an opportunity for the gladiators to stay alive as long as possible.
Female Gladiators also Existed
Ancient Roman gladiators were most commonly thought of as male warriors or slaves, however, female slaves also participated in the bloody games. Emperor Domitian even pitted them against dwarves for his twisted entertainment. Women fought in gladiator fights for two centuries until Emperor Septimius Severus prohibited their participation.
Female gladiators were referred to as ‘Amazons’ due to the Roman people’s belief that they were similar to the mythical Amazons from the east; the etymology, however, was gladiatrix (plural: gladiatrices). Reliefs from Ancient Rome show female gladiators were dressed in a similar fashion to male gladiators, yet with specific differences. Female gladiators typically did not wear helmets or tunics and instead opted for only a loincloth. Additionally, they used small swords called gladius and wore arm and leg protectors along with a body shield.
It is interesting to note that helmets were rarely used by female gladiators. This lack of helmets was likely due to the desire to show off their feminine hairstyles and gender in front of the crazed spectators in the arena.
A Symbol of Roman Vanity
Female gladiators were highly associated with opulence and decadence in ancient Rome, with their luxurious battles often being the center of attention during private parties of the Roman elite. Cassius Dio, Petronius, and Juvenal all wrote about these lavish fights, in which female gladiators’ performances were also presented as a form of sexual entertainment.
Although male gladiators were mainly slaves, the first female gladiators were free women who engaged in the activity for the thrill and adventure it provided. Tacitus (56-117 AD) mentions that noblemen would rarely participate in the gladiatrix fights, though they were highly popular among the general population. And while female fighters did not fight for money, they were mostly wealthy and were looking for ways to gain attention and notoriety. This required special permission from someone who had the authority to arrange the matches.
Gladiatrix in Historical Records
During the reign of Emperor Nero, the Roman historian Cassius Dio described the festival of gladiator fights that were held as a tribute to the emperor’s mother; in this context, female gladiators appeared in records for the very first time.
“In honor of his mother he (Nero) celebrated a most magnificent and costly festival, the events taking place for several days in five or six theatres at once…There was another exhibition that was at once most disgraceful and most shocking, when men and women not only of the equestrian but even of the senatorial order appeared as performers in the orchestra, in the Circus, and in the hunting theatre, like those who are held in lowest esteem… they drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will.”
Aside from Nero, various other Roman emperors such as Domitian (81-96 CE) invited gladiatrix to their palaces, feasts, and other grand celebrations held in arenas. As written by Cassius Dio about Domitian:
“He would often host games at night, pitting dwarfs and women against each other.”
Septimius Severus allowed female gladiators to fight until around 200 CE but then banned female fights to discourage noble women from indulging in such base behavior.
Damnatio ad Bestias
The Roman Games were the ultimate form of entertainment for the ancient Romans, much like the Olympics was for the ancient Greeks or the World Cup is for modern-day folk. They provided a grand stage for their organizers, known as editors, to showcase their views and philosophies to a wide range of people. The Games drew in a diverse crowd of all ages, genders, and social classes, from the wealthy elite to the poorest of citizens.
To the editors, the Games were not just a form of entertainment, but a tool for power, wealth, and opportunity. Politicians and those striving for nobility would spend vast sums of money to sponsor the Games, in the hopes of gaining public favor, winning votes, or getting rid of any opponents or rivals.
The more extravagant and mesmerizing the spectacles, the more the Games captivated the general public, and the more popular the Games, the more influence the editor would have over the masses. As the Games could make or break the reputation of their organizers, the editors meticulously planned every detail to ensure they would be a success.
These bloodthirsty grand spectacles engaged audiences for centuries. While chariot races and gladiator fights are the most well-known elements of the games, there were many other forms of entertainment that took place. Theater performances, musical concerts, and parades of exotic animals were all common features of the games. One spectacle that has largely been forgotten, however, is the halftime show known as Damnatio ad Bestias, or “Condemnation by Beasts.”
During the sweltering mid-afternoon heat, the bestiarii, or animal trainers, would orchestrate brutal battles between condemned criminals and Christians and wild beasts. The Ludi Meridiani, held during the mid-day break between venationes and gladiatorial combats, were particularly popular in the Imperial era and served as a gruesome reminder of the harsh realities of Roman society.
The condemned were thrown into the arena, often with little or no weapons, to fight for their lives against animals such as lions, bears, and even elephants. The screams of the victims and the roar of the beasts echoed throughout the stadium as the blood-spattered show played out before the cheering crowd.
An Epic Scene
The starting scene of one of those games was nothing short of cinematic at the very least; right before a Damnatio ad Bestias event begins, the arenas would be bustling with cheers, jeers, and excitement as the crowds eagerly awaited the unfolding of ceaseless entertainment. The grand stage was set, with nothing but the towering seesaws and the dozens of condemned criminals sitting upon them, their hands bound behind their backs.
The criminals were unfamiliar with the recently invented contraption known as petaurua and nervously tested the seesaws. Suddenly, one criminal would get pushed off the ground and find himself soaring 15 feet into the air, while his partner on the other side of the seesaw would plummet swiftly to the ground. The crowd of Roman citizens watched with a mix of curiosity and boredom, wondering what the next act of the “big show” would bring.
With a flourish, trap doors in the arena’s floor would suddenly open up, and a horde of lions, bears, wild boars, and leopards would rush into the arena.
The hungry animals bounded towards the terrified criminals, who scrambled to escape their snapping jaws. But as one criminal flung himself upwards to safety, his partner on the other side of the seesaw was sent crashing into the seething mass of claws, teeth, and muscle.
The crowd of Romans erupted into laughter at the dark spectacle before them, clapping and yelling as they placed bets on which criminal would die first, which one would last the longest, and which one would ultimately be chosen by the largest lion, still prowling the outskirts of the arena’s pure white sand.
The “halftime show” of Damnatio ad Bestias had succeeded in keeping the jaded Roman population glued to their seats, much to the delight of the event’s scheming organizer. The gruesome spectacle of men being hunted down by wild animals was a common scene in those times, but it never failed to captivate and thrill the crowd. The arena was a place of blood, death, and entertainment, where the fate of condemned criminals was left in the hands of the wild beasts and the whims of the Roman citizens.
“Criminals destined for a fate without hope were nevertheless well fed in order to fatten the animals… A special effort had been made to bring these brave animals from abroad to serve as executioners for those condemned to death.” – Apuleius, The Golden Ass (IV.13)
Such scenes were a testament that gladiatorial combat was a brutal form of entertainment that was deeply woven into the fabric of Roman culture and society; to take it away from them would be nothing short of snatching a newborn from its mother.
The Roman audience was captivated by the thrill of witnessing fantastical beasts from the edges of the empire, brought to them through the efforts of a multitude of hunters and tamers such as the Egyptian crocodile hunters along the Nile. This desire for the exotic and unknown was evident not only in the art of the time but also in the selection of animals featured in the Roman games. These choices can give us insight into the trends and preoccupations of the Roman Empire, particularly in their fascination with the exotic East and the religious adoption of the cult of Isis.
The metaphor of imperialism is also evident in the way the Romans viewed the subjugation of, for example, crocodiles in the arena as a triumph, providing a sense of victory for those distant from the conquered land of Egypt. It was a way to relive the excitement of conquest through sports. The crocodiles were not just animals, they were symbols of power, terror, and exoticism that fed the hunger of the Roman audience. The spectacle of the Roman games was a window into the Roman psyche, revealing their desire for adventure, dominance, and control.
By 167 BCE, General Aemilius Paullus would make history by delivering Rome’s first-ever ‘Damnatio ad Bestias’, a public execution in which military deserters would be brutally demolished by large elephants. This was done as a stern warning to anyone attempting to oppose the authority of Rome.
The pleasure and relief experienced by spectators as they watched those deemed inferior to them fall prey to the animals would become a cornerstone of the experience at the Roman Games; it generated a sense of shared force and approval. This marked the start of the grand civilization’s slide into excessive and self-indulgent luxury and its eventual downfall.
At the time, Roman spectacles of animal fights and executions were becoming increasingly grand and cruel. The practice of Damnatio ad Bestias’, placing criminals and enemies in the arena with starving animals, became a preferred method of execution, for the government would be killing two birds with one stone – mete out capital punishment, and gain the favor of the populace. This brutality was so popular that when meat became too expensive, Emperor Caligula made the drastic order to have all of Rome’s prisoners ‘devoured’ by the bestiarii’s animals.
In order to keep the audience entertained, the bestiarii had to come up with newer and more creative ways to execute their victims. They invented contraptions and structures that would give the condemned prisoners the illusion of escape, only to have the structures collapse at the last moment, dropping them into the waiting jaws of the animals.
To add to the excitement, the prisoners were tied to boxes, stakes, dollies, and crosses, adding to the suspense of the fight. Crowds placed bets on which of the helpless men would be devoured first, and the action was paused for the bets to be placed. It was a cruel and dehumanizing entertainment, but it was a captivating show and one that kept the Roman crowds enthralled.
Public executions in the Roman world were often considered degrading and humiliating, particularly for those of lower status and non-citizens. These individuals were given the worst of punishments due to their lack of status within society. By humiliating the condemned, the executioner was creating a sense of shared moral superiority with the spectators, ensuring they would be psychologically separated from the condemned. Such was the intent of the individual responsible for the execution.
To make the executions even more captivating, the executioner would often recreate classical scenes from famous myths and legends. For instance, training an eagle to rip out the organs of a thrashing man, as seen in the myth of Prometheus, or staging a battle between two gladiators could take months of preparation. Spectators of these executions would be enthralled by the spectacle and left in awe as the condemned were given their last rites and honorably sent off into the afterlife.
The gruesome show of Damnatio ad Bestias was something to be feared, with some prisoners resorting to suicide just to avoid the horrors that lay ahead. Roman philosopher Seneca related a story of a barbarian prisoner who, rather than face execution, opted to kill himself by shoving a communal lavatory sponge down his throat. Another prisoner who refused to walk into the arena had his neck broken when he thrust his head between the spokes of a cartwheel.
King of the Beasts
This was the era that saw the rise of the notorious bestiarus, Carpophorus, known as “The King of the Beasts”. Carpophorus derives from Greek – it means “fruit-bearer.” His name alone was enough to fill the 250,000-seat arena and he was famous for training animals to fight against foes in the arena, as well as taking to the center himself to battle the most dangerous creatures known to man.
As Carpophorus stepped into the grand arena for the first time, showcasing his menagerie of wild beasts, the crowd erupted in a frenzy. Shrieks of excitement echoed through the stands as onlookers begged for more, even going so far as to throw women into the pit to be devoured by the animals. In the midst of this chaos, a woman accused of poisoning five individuals was brutally assaulted by a donkey in front of the spellbound crowd.
But Carpophorus was not content to simply let the bloodshed continue. With a flick of his wrist, he released even more ferocious creatures into the arena, bringing an end to the women’s suffering, and putting her on her way to the next world. He claimed that his extraordinary abilities were derived from a powerful amulet, which he ultimately traded for his freedom. Despite the fact that the amulet did not work for anyone else, the people were enraptured by Carpophorus and his feats of strength and skill.
Other competitors in the arena included better-trained, voluntary warriors such as the venatores. Carpophorus was celebrated for his bravery and skill in these deathly shows, and he was a source of awe and fear for the people of Rome.
His incredible feats were more legendary with every story told. Not only did he triumph in a match that featured three of the most feared animals in all of Rome – a bear, a lion, and a leopard – but he was also renowned for his ability to command animals to attack humans, including bulls, zebras, stallions, wild boars, and giraffes.
It was said that he killed twenty animals with his bare hands in a single battle, and he was even credited with the remarkable feat of forcing animals to rape human beings during ludi meridiani, a spectacle apparently designed to honor the god Jupiter, who was known to take animal forms in Roman myth in order to have his way with human women.
Such displays of forced bestiality, while the subject of much debate among historians, left poets and artists of the day in awe, as the combination of sex and death was too horrific to imagine. Carpophorus’ accomplishments were truly a sight to behold and his legacy continues to be celebrated by many today. His power over animals was so unmatched that the poet Martial, in his best-known work Epigrams, wrote odes to Carpophorus:
“If the ages of old, Caesar, in which a barbarous earth brought forth wild monsters, had produced Carpophorus… Marathon would not have feared her bull, nor leafy Nemea her lion, nor Arcadians the boar of Maenalus. When he armed his hands, the Hydra would have met a single death; one stroke of his would have sufficed for the entire Chimaera. He could yoke the fire-bearing bulls without the Colchian; he could conquer both the beasts of Pasiphae. If the ancient tale of the sea monster were recalled, he would release Hesione and Andromeda single-handedly. Let the glory of Hercules’ achievement be numbered: it is more to have subdued twice ten wild beasts at one time.”
Carpophorus was a master at training animals for the Colosseum, renowned for his skill in teaching beasts to copulate with humans. He taught a variety of beasts from bulls, giraffes, leopards, cheetahs, wild boar, zebras, stallions, jackasses, and huge dogs to copulate with humans, whether they were men or women, vaginally or anally.
But Carpophorus was not content with simply training animals to copulate: he wanted to create a creature so perfectly trained that it would not feed on regular meat, and instead only desire a human as its mate. To do this, he created special training methods and named each beast after its own unique characteristics. Such remarkable skills earned him the undying roar of the crowds; whenever he would set foot in the arena, the crowds would continuously scream his name.
There was even a time when he burst into a fit of anger and killed a leopard that was much more valuable than he was; he was sentenced to death for this incident. While his sentence was being carried out, Carpophorus called out, one by one, the animals (by their individual, uniquely-given names) that were supposed to devour him; not a single one of them would dare touch him, for he was like a master and a father to them.
Despite his many skills, Carpophorus was unsatisfied and wanted a greater challenge. He saw his next feat in the stands, where his services could be bought for money. This time, instead of just normal copulation, he would train a beast on how to rape a human, particularly females, something that everyone said was impossible. By using advanced techniques and perseverance, Carpophorus trained an animal to do the unthinkable, proving that nothing was impossible. Knowing that animals moved on instinct and that their behavior could be manipulated by scent, he would wait for female animals to be in heat, collect samples, and then rub them against slaves or homeless women he had tempted to the arena.
The results were brutal and gruesome. Women from under the stands would willingly wrap themselves in these clothes, hunching to the ground and waiting for the animals to be released. Carpophorus selected only the most docile males, those that didn’t startle at the noise or freeze when confused. He released them in the pen and waited. Those women who were matched with bulls and giraffes usually didn’t survive, as the animals grew more confident and violent with each performance. But Carpophorus knew there were always more women who’d be willing, ready to perform, and properly broken down enough not to care about anything but their promised pay.
“It’s not like you’d think. It’s surprisingly hard to train an animal to eat a man, unless directly provoked, their instincts are to run. So, you need to start with a cub that hasn’t been taught to fear. You need to build up the big cat’s ego, give them slaves pretending to be afraid, have them fall in a faux agony whenever the cats give them the lightest swipe. Cover the slave in meat. When the cats attack they’ll be immediately rewarded. As the big cats get bigger, let them go after live slaves. Break the slave’s arms, knock out their teeth so they cannot injure the big cats. Remember: the cat needs to be convinced he can always, easily win. As the confidence builds, give the cats children, give them women, get them to point where they will attack uncrippled slaves, stronger slaves, but always have a blade ready if it looks like the slaves might win. Never let the slaves win.”
It is said that with his bare hands, he snapped the necks of lions. He trained tigers to show mercy to wounded elks but to charge ferociously at Caesar’s enemies who were brought to the arena to meet their end. One time, he brought out a young girl and declared her “Europa,” and a bull, as “Rome,” raising his arms in triumph as the bull mounted, bellowed, and ravished, as the crowd screamed and roared in ecstasy. Carpophorus was truly a master of the wild, and his shows were the talk of the town.
To wrap this section up, historical records attest to Carpophorus as a master of his craft, a visionary, and a true expert in the art of training animals to do his bidding. He was a man who pushed the boundaries of what was possible with animals and human performers alike. With an unparalleled understanding of their needs and triggers, he was able to mold these beasts into fierce and deadly instruments of entertainment. Giraffes, bulls, and other wild creatures were all at his command, and he used them to create some of the most gruesome and spectacular shows that the ancient world had ever seen. Carpophorus’s shows were the stuff of legends, and his name will forever be remembered as one of the most daring and innovative bestiarii of all time.
By the 4th century CE, the popularity of gladiator games was on the decline as the Roman Empire embraced Christianity as its official religion. Emperor Honorius eventually outlawed these contests in 404 CE due to the martyrdom of St. Telemachus, a monk who had come to Rome from Asia Minor.
He was stoned to death by an angry crowd when he intervened to prevent two gladiators from fighting in the arena. Nevertheless, one form of such games, the venationes, or wild animal hunts, continued for another century. The gladiator is still remembered as the iconic symbol of ancient Roman entertainment, even though the days of its existence are long gone.
Taking Everything into Account
As the mighty Roman Empire expanded its borders and solidified its grip on the known world, the emperors and senators grew increasingly ambitious and arrogant. They sought to outdo one another in the grandeur and spectacle of the Games, using the bestiarii – fierce warriors who fought against beasts – to add a new level of grotesque and thrilling entertainment to the crowds. But little did they know that these “halftime shows” would leave a more indelible mark on history than the gladiators and chariot races that dominated the arena. The blood-soaked sands of the Colosseum, the roar of the crowd, and the brutal clashes between man and beast are etched in our collective memory, a testament to the enduring legacy of the bestiarii and their role in shaping the Roman Games into the grand spectacle we know and remember.
The Roman Games were not just a source of entertainment, but it was a powerful political tool as well. The emperors and the elite class used it as a means to control the masses. The games were a way to distract the citizens from their problems and keep them from rising up against the government. The games were a way to remind the people that their rulers were powerful and could afford to stage such lavish events. But above all, it was a way for the elite to show off their wealth and power to the masses, and to remind them of their place in society.
In the bustling city of Rome, where politics and power were intertwined, the expense of lavish shows was a topic of great debate, however. In 160 BCE, Polybius reported that the cost of such spectacles reached a staggering 30 talents, the equivalent of 750,000 sesterces. Despite laws being passed to prevent politicians from using games to promote their candidacies and circumvent bribery laws, they were proven to be ineffective. Cicero, who had even passed his own law limiting when people could hold games, known as the Lex Tullia, in 63 BCE, defended Lucius Licinius Murena on a charge of electoral bribery. He attempted to pass the blame for spending on feasts and shows to Murena’s friends and, in the event that didn’t work, claimed that such spending was entirely legitimate and in line with Roman tradition.
Nevertheless, the educated elite of Rome held a different viewpoint. They saw gladiatorial events as a form of mass entertainment for the lower classes and opposed them vehemently. But their opposition was not rooted in altruism, they were far less concerned about the lives of those participating in the brutal combat, viewing them as disposable and undeserving of empathy. Rather, their opposition stemmed from what they saw as moral indolence and the indignities of indulgence.
At the turn of the century, the Jews and Christians also shared similar sentiments. They were seemingly unconcerned about the victims of arena violence and their arguments against the games centered around the idolatry inherent in the gladiatorial shows, which often occurred during pagan religious festivals and featured idols and images of pagan gods.
In conclusion, the Roman Games were a cultural phenomenon that shaped the society and the culture of ancient Rome. It was a reflection of society’s love for blood sports and the desire to be entertained. It was a powerful political tool used by the elite class to control the masses and a symbol of the Republic’s strength and resilience. The Roman Games were a window into the ancient world, and it’s a legacy that still resonates today.
Last, but not least, I’ve added an extra section below that gives a detailed account of the Roman people’s obsession with the drinking of gladiator’s blood as an essential healing remedy.
The Blood Cure
Now, although the bloodshed in the arena was an integral part of all those bloodthirsty spectacles that we’ve been talking about since the beginning of this article, it would also extend beyond that – as records suggest that between the 1st and 6th centuries CE, some physicians and theologians believed that drinking the blood of gladiators (or consuming their livers) could cure epilepsy.
Gladiators were individuals who were armed with basic weaponry and released into an arena to fight with other gladiators, wild animals, criminals, or prisoners of war. It was a ‘last man standing’ concept, but many gladiators that survived their bouts often received some form of veneration or recognition, even appearing in popular art or culture.
The idea of treating epilepsy by drinking gladiator’s blood originates in Etruscan funeral rites, which were performed by the ancient people who lived between the Tiber and Arno rivers, south of the Apennines. Many of their customs and traditions would be adopted by the Romans, their successors to power in the peninsula. By drinking the warm blood of a gladiator, patients believed that they could be cured of their maladies.
The practice of drinking the blood of slain gladiators has been documented as far back as the 19th and 20th centuries. While it wasn’t initially seen as a medical treatment, it eventually shifted to be used as a remedy for epilepsy and other ailments. In 1668 CE, Englishman Edward Browne noted that people attended executions to collect the blood of the victims for this purpose. When gladiatorial sports were outlawed around 400 CE, the focus shifted to fresh blood from executed individuals, with the throat being cut first. This supposedly would “cleanse the soul” and those who consumed it were thought to be cured of their maladies. The notion of drinking human blood as a form of treatment was first mentioned by a Roman encyclopedist, but the practice has persisted in some form or another until modern times.
In 40 CE, Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote the voluminous De Medicina. In this work, he writes:
“Some have freed themselves from such a disease (epilepsy) by drinking the hot blood from the cut throat of a gladiator: a miserable aid made tolerable by a malady still more miserable….. But as to what is really the concern of the practitioner, the last resources are: to let a little blood from both legs near the ankle, to incise the back of the scalp and apply cups, to burn in two places with a cautery, at the back of the scalp and just below where the highest vertebra joins the head, in order that pernicious humour may exude through the burns. If the disease has not been brought to an end by the foregoing measures, it is probable that it will be lifelong.”
In the first century CE, Roman physician Scribonius Largus reported an effective new therapy for epilepsy utilizing gladiator’s blood in his book Compositiones. This shocking remedy inspired a number of other authors, including Pliny the Elder, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, and Alexander of Tralles in the 6th century. These authors noted that consuming the warm blood of a recently slain swordsman or executed man, either directly or mixed with wine, could have excellent results in treating epilepsy. Research by Ferdinand Peter Moog and Axel Karenberg has revealed a total of 8 ancient sources discussing this use of gladiator blood as a medical treatment.
Alexander of Tralles was in fact one of the last ancient authors to comment on swordsman’s blood as a remedy; in the first volume of his Medical Books, he writes:
“Take a bloody rag of a slain swordsman or executed man, burn it, mix the ashes into wine, and with seven doses you will free the patient of epilepsy. Often applied with excellent results.”
In some ancient civilizations, it was believed that fallen gladiators were offerings to the gods, as well as escorts to the afterlife. To honor this practice, sword duels were arranged as part of the funeral rites. Victors’ blood was seen as a holy, healing, and apotropaic substance, while the liver of the deceased was used in Etruscan sacrifice rituals and medical prognosis. Roman writers later adopted this practice and wrote about it in their own works. While using gladiator blood as a treatment for epilepsy was seen as a way to combat its seeming incurability, few seemed to acknowledge the brutality of such a treatment for a cruel disease. As Pliny the Elder summarized:
“The blood of gladiators is drunk by epileptics as though it were the draught of life.”