Ancient Rome


Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition. Robert A. Guisepi: Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)

"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war."

"We who are about to die salute you!"

Gladiator (Latin gladius,"sword")

This was the cry of the gladiators, or professional fighters, when they saluted the Roman emperor as they marched about the amphitheater before engaging in combat with one another or with wild beasts for the entertainment of the people. For the most part they were prisoners taken in war, slaves, or the worst classes of criminals. When a gladiator was disabled or disarmed, the spectators turned up their thumbs to indicate that the vanquished man should be spared. If they turned their thumbs down, he was to be slain. The successful fighter was at first rewarded with a palm branch. In later years, however, it became the custom to add to this rich and valuable presents and a prize of money.

The custom of giving gladiatorial shows seems to have been borrowed from the Etruscans, who sacrificed slaves and prisoners on the tombs of illustrious chieftains. The first combat in Roman history took place in 264 BC, and the fashion rapidly spread. Julius Caesar gave a show at which 320 couples fought, and the Emperor Titus gave an exhibition of gladiators, wild beasts, and sea fights that lasted 100 days and in which 10,000 men fought. Such contests were finally stopped in AD 404, supposedly as a result of the daring of Telemachus, an Asian monk. After he rushed into the arena to try to separate two gladiators, the spectators stoned him to death. Afterward the Emperor Honorius issued an edict suppressing such exhibitions.

Gladiators were professional fighters who performed in spectacles of armed combat in the amphitheaters of ancient Rome. The practice of armed men fighting to the death originated in Etruria, in central Italy, probably as a funeral sacrifice. The first gladiatorial exhibition in Rome was in 264BC, when three pairs of gladiators fought as part of a funeral celebration. By 174BC, at a 3-day spectacle, 37 pairs participated. Julius Caesar's large-scale exhibitions (300 pairs on one occasion) prompted the Roman Senate to limit the number of contestants. The largest contest of gladiators was given by the emperor Trajan as part of a victory celebration in AD107 and included 5000 pairs of fighters. The emperor Domitian in AD90 presented combats between women and between dwarfs. Mostly males, gladiators were slaves, condemned criminals, prisoners of war, and sometimes Christians. Forced to become swordsmen, they were trained in schools called ludi, and special measures were taken to discipline them and prevent them from committing suicide. One gladiator, Spartacus, avenged his captivity by escaping and leading an insurrection that terrorized southern Italy from 73 to 71BC. A successful gladiator received great acclaim; he was praised by poets, his portrait appeared on gems and vases, and patrician ladies pampered him. A gladiator who survived many combats might be relieved from further obligation. Occasionally, freedmen and Roman citizens entered the arena, as did the insane Emperor Commodus. According to their arms and methods of fighting, gladiators were divided into various light- and heavy-armored classes. For example, the retiarius ("net man"), clad in a short tunic, attempted to entangle his fully armed opponent, the secutor ("pursuer"), with a net and then to kill him with a trident. Other classes fought with different weapons, or from horseback or chariots. According to the most common tradition, when a gladiator had overpowered his opponent, he turned to the spectators. If they wished to spare the defeated man, they waved their handkerchiefs; to indicate that he should be killed, they turned down their thumbs. Although Constantine the Great proscribed gladiatorial contests in AD325, they continued to be held until about 500.

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