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  • Writer's pictureMolly Richardson

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

This will just be a general bio of each of the major types present during our period. During any research you may encounter types such as Samnite, Gallic, and others. They are impressive looking combatants, however, we strive for historical accuracy in every aspect, and so I have not included them in this.


Thraex gladiators may have been introduced by Sulla, and appear to be a popular type during Republican and Imperial history. Normally, gladiator types could represent defeated enemies of Rome, as in the case of the Samnite, Gallic, and Hoplomachus types. These peoples are also examples of those that proved difficult, originally, for Rome to subdue, and who even could claim victories over Rome’s armies, thus a propagandist attempt by Rome to show that now, even some of her greatest enemies we now little more than features of her entertainment. The Thracians, however were defeated, and much like many of Rome’s previous rivals, were incorporated into the army; there is direct evidence of both literary, and iconography of the famous Thracian rider – normally portrayed in native gear and riding down a ‘barbarian’ foe. It is interesting that a people who had become so established in the military sphere, were also a form of entertainment, aimed originally in mocking those Rome had defeated. It could be argued the same of the Gallic gladiator as Gallic forces were also prominent and well respected entities within the army, however, it appears the Gallic type was abandoned during the late Republic/ early Augustan people, and it may have been such a type fell out of favour for this reason, although why the Thraex did not is still of speculation.

The iconic weapon of the Thraex is the sica – a short sword with a slight curve. The helmet originally took the form of the native style, but eventually developed to look similar to other gladiator type helmets. One defining feature of the helmet was the head of a Griffon at the tip of the crest; the Griffon was often associated with protecting the dead, but also connected with Nemesis – a deity the ampitheatre is often tied with.The Thraex would wear greaves, have a small square shield, the pamula, and a manica on his right arm. The Thraex would normally face either a Murmillo, or a Hoplomachus.


The Murmillo was a heavily armoured gladiator, or as close to armoured as gladiators tended to get. The name derives from the Greek for a type of fish, and literary reference points the connection to the very pronounced and angled crest on the helmet, taking the form of a fin – hence the translation of Murmillo to ‘fish-man’. There is suggestion that this type was the replacement for the Gallic type during the early imperial period, and, like the Thraex, it too became a universally popular type, and is arguably one of the first figure types to spring to mind by the general public when encountered with gladiators. The body build of the Murmillo appears to be of a heavy build, suiting the presumed fighting style as an immovable object, forcing its opponents to be more agile.

One very common misconception is, due to the name, the Murmillo was often paired with the Retiarius – normally described as the ‘fisherman’- the Retiarius chasing the fishman and presumably trying to catch him in the net. This idea seems to have stemmed from one quote in Suetonius’ Deva Vespasianus in which one of Vespasian’s advisors quoted a chant from a Retiarius to his pursued Mermillo opponent claiming it’s the fish he wants to catch. This may have also inspired the famous gladiator painting by Gerome, in which a Mermillo stands victorious over his Retiarius opponent – ready to deliver the death blow. It seems this idea is still alive and well among recent media, and some groups tend to accept its possibility. While it may have been mentioned, in an ancient source, this makes it far from fact, and the sheer impracticality of a heavy armoured gladiator running away from a far more agile opponent, as well the sheer risk of wearing a fin against a net, meant that any such competition much have been far too uneven.

Alongside the helmet, the Murmillo carried a shield similar to a legionary shield, a greave on his left leg, and an arm manica. The sword would have been a short stabbing sword, originally seen as a legionary sword, although there is evidence for a far shorter sword also.


A type very similar to the Thraex, the Hoplomachus also wore high leg greaves, a manica on his right arm, no torso protection, and a helmet of almost exact design, except without the Griffon head. Translating as ‘armoured man’, this type is traditionally seen as taking after the classic Greek hoplite. Not only part of the name possibly referring to the Greek hoplite- the ‘Hoplo’ part, but also the fighter’s use of a round shield, spear, and short sword. Basing the Hoplomachus simply on a Greek hoplite is a bit too basic, and does not account for similarities in appearance the style has with that of the Thraex. It’s important to know or remember that Rome very rarely went to war with the traditional Hellenes; instead most of the engagements, and the major wars, Rome had with the Hellenistic world was with the successor kingdoms founded by the Diadochoi – successor generals of Alexander the Great. The most serious wars with the Hellenistic world being the four Macedonian wars, between the years 215BC – 148BC. Even Rome’s earliest encounter with a Hellenistic enemy, Pyrrhus of Epirus, this would also have been more in the style of the Macedonian phalanx rather than a classic Greek style due to Pyrrhus’ background and lineage. Macedonian culture could be seen as varying between that of the Greeks, but also that of outside people – ‘barbarians’. Even within Ancient Greece, there was much strong debate on whether to see Macedonians as Greeks, and great argument over their allowance to take part in the Olympic Games.

It is possible, for these reasons, the Romans saw Macedonians as similar, not only to Greeks, but to the Thracians too who neighboured the North of Macedonia and both having similarities – one example being the helmet which was quite similar in appearance. Thus this may explain why the Thracian gladiator and the Macedonian looked quite similar in appearance – The Romans saw the Hoplomachus not so much as a Greek fighter, but as that of a Macedonian.

The equipment of the Hoplomachus included ocreae, greaves that extended past the knee, as well as a manica on the right arm. The helmet could look similar to the Thraex (as discussed), or the crest could be a smaller and more angled – almost like a smaller version of the murmillo in some cases. The weapons included a long spear, a small round shield, and a short sword, possibly more like a gladius than the Greek kopis. How the fighter used this combination is not entirely known, but this in itself implies there were specific ways of having to fight – the fights may have had rules but the actually fighting style could be very unique and whatever felt more comfortable or suited the combatant. Depictions, however, do show either the sword of the spear, so it’s possible the gladiator started with the spear and used the sword for when the spear was either broken or his opponent managed to get through.

I hope that's given you some information you may not have already known, and in the next part I'll include some more fighting types, as well as some different views and theories about gladiator culture. Until then, I hope you are having a lovely summer, and, if you can make a trip out there, come and see us at Archeon in The Netherlands - it is a truly worthwhile trip!

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