|Illustrations of the gladiator and gladiatorial combat by one of our volunteers, James.|
One sport of the ancient world which seems to fascinate us is the Roman gladiatorial contest, which, in its own time was not very controversial at all. This is hard for us to get our heads around because we’re not used to such brutality in the entertainment industry, but we’ll see in the second part of this blog next week that the Romans viewed these competitions very differently to us.
Gladiatorial games seem to have started around 264 BC when slaves fought at the funerals of noblemen for entertainment. Over time the fights began to be held for their own sake, and they became a useful way for Emperors to keep their people happy.
So who were these gladiators? Most obviously: slaves and criminals. Criminals could be condemned ‘to the sword’ (execution by a gladiator) or to train at a gladiatorial school, which at least gave them the opportunity to learn and develop the skills which could save them. Remarkably though, by the end of the Roman Republic half of all gladiators were voluntary free men, probably lured by the down payment.
The ludus magnus – the best-known training ground for gladiators.
There were many different types of gladiator, each with his own armour, weaponry and, above all, fighting style. Participants were usually paired up with a different gladiator type to make for a more interesting contest, given the varying advantages and disadvantages of each type. Though there were no points to be won, only victory, there were still strict rules and a referee to enforce them.
On the surface, the world of the gladiator seems poles apart from our sporting contests, but in the end the games were about winners and losers, as they will be in London come July.
Be sure to look out for part II, where we explore how the gladiator was perceived in his own city.
Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, ed. Kohne, E., and Ewigleben, C., London 2000