Gladiators: Part 1

Updated: Jul 25, 2018

Hi again!

Well it's been a great summer so far; not only have we been having amazing and beautiful sunshine, but we been to some great places over the summer show season, including Chedworth Roman villa, and Chalke Valley History Festival!

The time is almost here when the group goes over to The Netherlands for the annual Roman festival at Archeon - An archaeological theme park and open air museum. We always have an amazing time over there, and if you're interested in history (as well as hands on learning), then Archeon should definitely be on your list of places to see.

The year is the Park's 25th anniversary, and to celebrate that, Archeon and we are putting on a special event during the middle weekend of the festival (4th/5th August): an evening event where people can truly experience what it may have been like to go to Munus Gladiatorum - the Roman gladiator games! So, as inspiration from this, and because I get to take part too and hit people with a trident and a net (guess which gladiator type I am), I thought this blog may a good way to introduce Gladiators and some of the most famous types that fought for the entertainment of the 'Roman' audience. I've titled this blog "part 1" because there is so much to say and discuss about gladiators and the games, that to put it all into one blog would just not do it justice, so I'll split it into different parts; they may not be directly successive, but will still delve into the fascinating, violent, and still mysterious world of gladiators and Roman combat-entertainment. Enjoy.

Gladiators are one of the most iconic figures to have come from the Roman period, and the events of gladiatorum munera was a spectacula that still fascinates, albeit horrifies also, audiences of the past and the modern world. However, even with their immortal popularity and draw, much like the vast majority of Roman society and culture, little is fully understood and there are, and possibly will always be, elements that a definitive answer will never be made clear. Even so, Gladiators have become a fascination that has gripped the likes of scholars, TV, film, and, recently, living history.

This guide is just to provide a basic and general outline of what gladiators were, their possibly origins, and why the games and spectacula became the most popular form of past time. I will also provide general descriptions of combatant types relative to our period (1st and 2nd century AD), and dispel common myths that have seeped in, and assumptions that have settled. At the end I will provide a short bibliography if you want to carry on any research yourself, and if you have any ideas or lines of thinking yourself, I’m always more than happy to listen to them.


Unfortunately, it seems the gladiatorial genesis will remain a mystery, populated with several theories. Their origin and evolution goes hand-in-hand with that of amphitheatres. A geographical origin appears to come from Campania; not only is this the region of the first monumental amphitheatre (that of Pompeii, C. 70BC), but Lacanian tomb-paintings appear to depict early forms of gladiators.

While the geographic element may be universally acknowledged (so far), the cultural author of munera is still a topic of discussion. An orthodox view is the games were an invention of the Etruscans, inherited by Rome through their conquests of Italy and selective incorporation of cultural traits; the view itself is an ancient possible explanation given by Suetonius, although this is by no means a certainty (an important factor to remember when looking at any ancient literary source). What also supports the Suetonian theory is the original character of what has been commonly referred to as Charon – an Etruscan god – associated with the arena attendant who carried a mallet and removed the corpses. Other more recent arguments have suggested Oscan-Samnite derivations. We can take some solace in our inability to precisely locate this cultural spring by acknowledging that even those in Roman society debated over the origins.

While ‘gladiators’, or, at least, participants of a violent ritualised act are depicted in tombs within Campania of the 4th century BC, it is not until the 3rd century BC that we discover the first historical reference to munera. Livy mentions a gladiator combat during a Campanian banquet, and the first munera was recorded occurring in 264BC in Rome – possibly in the Forum Boarium, where successive gladiator fights were staged. Coincidentally, this was during the same year that the first Punic war began between Rome and Carthage, which has drawn some speculation over who the combatants may have been as well as the occasion for the spectacle.


From the first record of the spectacle occurring, gladiatorial games grew in popularity and the show itself evolved and grew to include other elements – examples being the animal hunts (Ventiones) of the morning entertainments, and the executions occurring around midday. As I already mentioned, the first monumental amphitheatre was built in c.70BC, and not only symbolised how ingrained into society the games had become for a purpose-built stone superstructure to be constructed, but almost more important is the location -what was being considered a very ‘Roman’ practice, had its first superstructure not in Rome but in what was now the veteran colonia of Pompeii. In a recent study of the first of megalithic ampitheatres, it was argued that Pompeii was not just a randomly selected settlement for this type of structure, but instead this was the first instance of an ampitheatre existing alongside a society of soldiers – or, in this case, veterans. The veterans were those of Sulla’s legions and the ampitheatre may have been both a reward to his soldiers for their great loyalty, but also as a statement to the original, Campanian population that Pompeii was now Rome’s after the short but violent bellum socii (the Social War between Rome and several allied states over political and social rights).

In Rome itself, gladiators were not some mere side show due to a lack of a permanent arena, but had become the main form of entertainment for the masses, and an invaluable strategy for those planning to rise in the political ladder, the Cursus Honorum. Originally, munera were organised for specific religious and cultural festivals; the term munera originally refers to funerals, thus another standing view that the concept of gladiators was conceived during slave combats in honour of their deceased master. Such festivities included religious festivals throughout the year as well as actions that were critical to the state, such as the reaping and collection of crops.

With the popularity of the games appearing to even exceed those of the traditional chariot races, the elite order soon incorporated games into their PR campaigns, especially during the election campaign season; the idea was simple – the more grander and entertaining the games were, and the more enjoyable they were for people, the more likely those people would vote for them. This was originally carried out by Aediles, of which Plutarch provides a spectacular example by recounting Caesar’s attempted games in 65BC when he was an Aedile. The result was the Lex Calpurnia, a decree passed by the senate that limited the number of gladiators one person could purchase for their games. This may have been in response to the still recent past slave revolt, known as the ‘Spartacus’ rebellion of 73BC; it is also likely the law was passed to try and counter the munus of Caesar due to increasing tension and obvious dislike for him and the Populares by the likes of Cato, Cicero and the Optimates.

The games continued to grow, although it would not be almost 150 years after Caesar that Rome would finally receive its first permanent Ampitheatre in the form of the Flavian ampitheatre (the Colosseum), taking 10 years to build, and opened in AD 80. With the growth and evolution of the games came the same development with the combatants, and thus by the time of the second century AD, there was a wide variety of types and sub-types – a needed, fluid state in order to keep the games fresh and exciting.

The fighting types