Gladiators Part 2: Mythbusting
Updated: Jul 8, 2019
I hope you are enjoying this glorious rainy June thus far (whoever said British summer had to be dry?!) We had a fantastic – if slightly wet – weekend at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire, performing gladiatorial fights and putting the kids (and their dads) through their paces in our gladiator schools over Father’s day. As June normally has a gladiator-ish theme to me because of Chedworth, I thought this might be a good time to present part two of our gladiator blog.
In the first instalment, I introduced a few of the most common gladiators you may expect to see during a Munus Gladiatorum. These included the Murmillo, Thraex, secutor, and of the course the iconic Retiarius. These types are often referred to whenever gladiators are mentioned in ancient literature, and they appear the most common within visual culture – wall painting reliefs, epigraphic imagery, oil lamps, etc. For part two, I thought it would be beneficial to debunk some of the myths surrounding the games – myths that have been imbedded in the minds of modernity in no small part thanks to Hollywood – here’s looking at you Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe! Obviously, these myths can appear at any point through the chronology of a gladiator’s experience, so I thought it might be best to mirror the path and events of one entering the life of a gladiator and tackle myths as and when they come up. Now, you may be thinking (or shouting at me): how do I know these are myths when there is so much we don’t know ourselves about the games, or just because there might not be evidence that does not mean it didn’t happen; and I agree. Modern facts of the games are few and far outnumbered by academic guesses and theories that have no concrete confirmation, and I’ll be the first person to accept the age old saying so often thrown around in the re-enactment world (for good and bad): absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, some things that we may seemingly take as ‘fact’ is in fact (excuse the pun) a made up concept from either modern day or periods after that of the Romans – of which I’ll explain further on. Moreover, while accepting that evidence can be fragmentary and uncertain at the best of times, and acknowledging this as a factor that should not be forgotten, extant evidence must take preference over subjunctive, ‘possible’ works or artefacts that have not survived the passage of time; as such some myths could be termed “conditional-myths” – a myth on condition that both the extant evidence proves a contradiction, and that no evidence has been discovered to suggest otherwise – the conditional element is that this absent evidence could at some point be unveiled either in the literary or material realms. With this in mind, let’s jump in.
Who were gladiators?
The myth that should probably be dissolved is the idea that all gladiators were merely slaves who were chucked into a new life of violence and eventual death. While yes, slaves could, and were, sold to gladiatorial schools - a result of numerous possible causes - the population ratio of concurrent slaves/originally free in some form was fluid. During Rome’s expansion from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, particularly during the 2nd century BC through to the mid 1st century BC, Rome came into contact with numerous other cultures and societies - in which the majority ended in war and Rome taking over a new Provincia (province originally referred to an area under the military command of Rome and not necessarily an imperial occupancy as we are familiar with when it to comes to European empires in the modern age). Examples include 3 Macedonian wars, in which Macedonia was eventually placed under Roman rule after several failed alternatives, the razing of Carthage, the wars against Antiochus and the Aetolian League and the Gallic wars. the result of these wars would obviously meant vast numbers of prisoners who could be sold as slaves, thus during these periods of war and expansion, the majority of gladiator performing likely would have been slaves. However, after Rome’s great intrusion into the rest of Europe (and beyond), and once the new hyper-power was subdued through civil wars and the rare but impactful defeat of a battle or campaign, Augustan and post-Augustan was more measured about any potential expansion. This was for differing reasons but prisoners of war likely became a rarity. Alongside this probable shift in POW availability was another source of gladiatorial recruits - citizens themselves. We know several accounts when citizens have voluntarily signed up for the gladiator life. Reasons for this could vary and likely include an escape from debt, an attempt at fame and money, or that, like the army, the risk of injury and/or death was worth the security in knowing one would receive regular meals, combat training, shelter, and possible rewards should they prove successful. This, alongside the decline and infrequent flux of POWs could mean that, during the 1st-2nd centuries at least, the majority of gladiators were actually citizens in origin and now only slaves because of legality - it was illegal for citizens to kill other citizens, for example.
Today, when we look at movies and TV shows, particularly those within the action genre, we are often showered with muscle bound men and (though less frequently) women. When the tops come off we see bodies of almost no fat; skin moulded around conditioned muscles, and the ever sought after six-pack. TV shows of the 90s such as “Gladiators” provided this in both sexes and attributed this as one of the aspects to the term gladiator. The more recent TV series “Spartacus” highlighted this to an even more obvious and visual extent: fighters who were portraying the types of Murmillo and other heavily armed gladiators were still rocking the abs. This has led to a general assumption attributed to gladiators by modernity that to be “fit” and tough, one must have abs. However, from visual evidence and recent osteo-analysis on known gladiatorial skeletons, it seems that the opposite appears to be true. Instead of being “ripped”, the majority of combatants were heavily built, with a substantial amount of fat, particularly around the abdomen. The more conditioned appearances are more often seen on types such as the retiarius; a logical conclusion as agility and speed were in favour of such types, and any substantial fat would have only slowed the individual down. Osteo-analysis of bones have indicated a diet heavy in carbohydrates, magnesium and calcium of those individuals sampled - meaning fighters of impressive strength, but fat. A reason for the layers of fat, that is generally accepted as being the case, if to act as a protective buffering for internal organs and components that need protecting. If fat is cut into, then the organs and internal workings are safe, but additionally, the fighter can still continue the fight and the cut would produce - adding an entertaining element to the audience. If a fighter with little fat was cut then the blade would immediately cut into muscle and, more seriously, the internal workings. Thus, as much as TV would complain, it seems the majority were fat to some degree. Sorry to disappoint.
The idea of female fighters performing in the arena is not a myth, but an accuracy. Many people we talk to appear actually appear surprised when they learn the women were at one point involved in these violent spectacles. They were popular; so popular in fact that monument reliefs have been found showing female gladiators; one such example is that of the labeled Amazonia and Achillia relief, originally discovered in Halicarnassus and now housed in the British Museum. If you haven’t yet seen this relief, I would recommend a look next time you are visiting London! Female gladiators became a huge attraction in the games (which may have been no surprise in a male orientated spectacle), however, this doesn’t mean it was approved of by the upper social tiers - especially when it was women of high status who were the ones fighting. One of the myths, though not necessarily about the combatants themselves, but more with how we refer to them is the term “Gladiatrix”. As attractive and powerful as the term is, it is unfortunately a product of modern terminology - like the term Romanisation. Literary sources refer to female fighters but just as that; there does not appear to be mention of gladiatrix as a gladiatorial type - likely because actual gladiatorial types were reserved for males anyway - but a gladiatrix is a modern way of identifying a female fighter taking part in a Munus Gladiatorum.
When we think of a gladiator fight, we may automatically imagine two individuals facing off against each other in a sand-covered arena surrounded by an audience of adrenaline infused spectators. What we may not often imagine is the arena and fighting area populated by anyone other than the combatants. Again, our old nemesis of movies and TV series only strengthen this view. However, this was certainly not the case, and one of the biggest myths that needs debunking. In the vast majority of visual depictions that the ancient world have left for us of gladiatorial fights, the combatants have are certainly not isolated. Some reliefs show musicians in the background, others of ring attendees; one detailed stone relief appears to show fighters have a break and being attended to by aids – one is even receiving a massage! A figure that always appears though, and who has as much visual presence as the gladiators themselves, is that of the summi rudus; for all intents and purposes – the referee. The summi rudus (or summi rudi for when more than one appear, as can be the case). I will admit that, currently, very little is known about how gladiator fights were organised and controlled, but it seems that this individual could interrupt the fight if necessary; there are reliefs of him holding a wooden pole that could have been used to safely interrupt the fight so not to have be injured, and his positioning in between the gladiators. He may also have been the one who decided if a fight was over, if a combatant was not able to continue or to declare the victor and loser. Mosaic depictions show a gladiator either arguing with the ref (no change there then) or holding his finger to him as mission (the sign of surrender and asking for mercy). Two referees could be depicted for one fight; again, without knowing the exact flow of a gladiatorial fight, it could be that each ref was from the same Ludus as one of the gladiators, and having a fair representation kept decisions objective and not in favour of one school/fighter or the other. Whatever they’re duties explicitly, it is clear they were an essential factor in gladiator bouts – otherwise they would not be as represented as they are – indicating that gladiator fights were more controlled and disciplined than the big screen and our perceptions of simply blood-lustful people of the past would have us accept.
Gladiator fights were violent, risky affairs. The threat of serious injury and even death (whether intentional or not) were always present. After each fight, the loser would have his life decided by the editor, and, in the worst case scenario, his life would end by the hands of his victorious opponent. Or so we tend to imagine. In reality, death through this method seems rare. A great number of tombstones dedicated to a specific gladiator often have numerous similarities: the name of the deceased, a mention of their fighting type or a visual depiction, the dedicator of the monument, and in many cases a record of the number of fights the dedicatee took part in and how many were won, drawn, and lost. In some cases, the number of losses outnumber the wins and draws and can be in double digits. If gladiator fights always have the risk of being killed if lost, then either those who lost several times were extremely lucky for the amici of the editor or audience, or this was not the case. The archaeological marvel that is Pompeii has, fortunately, provided us with graffiti adverts for games. On some of these, the advert may state that a pair will fight to the death. This may appear to strengthen the myth, but it must be made aware that very often the ancient sources rely on assumption of context understanding, and not that these may be read almost 2000 year later. Because of this, if all such fights were designed to be to the death, the advert would not need to state this as it would already be common knowledge – it would just be a waste of space which could be utilised for other statements of main features of the event. However, the fact that this is mentioned as a highlight is likely indicative that to have a fight in which a gladiator’s fate would be decided at the end was not a common occurrence; indeed, more likely a rarity that when it happens (or afforded by the editor), it is worth shouting about. Recent studies have also uncovered a possible “gladiator’s code of conduct” in which during fighting, they would not be aiming to kill or even seriously wound each other, but to ensure a good show and entertainment. Certain tombstones have stated clearly that the deceased took pride in never ending a life – presumably either accident or on purpose. Moreover, there appears condemnation of those who did enter the arena with an evils and sick intention of killing as often as they could – even if not needed: one tombstone damns the actions of the dedicatee’s killer as one whose only intention was killing, but that retribution was enforced when that individual soon after fell to the sword of another. It needs to also be enforced that gladiator fighting was not necessarily about death and killing, but a lesson to its ‘Roman’ audience on how to behave in the face of danger – particularly during the Republic when conscription was still a factor – even after the so-called Marian reforms – but also in the imperial period when conscription could still be enforced and indeed was – although to a lesser extent. One could face danger at any moment during life in the ancient world, and it was important to know how to behave if and when it came about.
I’ve realised that actually this is a bigger topic and requiring more words than I thought – by nor your eyes might be rolling or having a slight glazing effect at the screen. I think I might also do a part 3 and finish off some of the myths of the arena – I’ll let you go and have a cuppa, now!
I hope this is had been another enjoyable and informative blog. If you want to add to the discussion, then please reply to this blog or make yourself known on our Facebook group Legio Secunda Augusta. Until then, and always valete.