De Gladiatoribus

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De Gladiatoribus

Postby Valerius Claudius Iohanes on Fri May 04, 2007 2:03 am

Salve, Cleopatra Aelia -

Not a newbie, but I am interested in your take on gladiators.

- What are the most common or the most egregious of our misconceptions?

- How often was gladiatorial combat mortal for the participants? It seems to me these guys were something like chariot racers in terms of their celebrity.... Getting them killed seems counterproductive.

- In what other cultures have gladiatorial games similar to Rome's been found? Where else does history show this? I can only think of sword-less boxing in the West. Jousting? Fencing? Kendo? And yet these were training or even just showing-off for well-to-do folk, not quite the same as for the gladiator - or was it?

Any answers, thoughts or revelations will be appreciated.

Vale, magistra Aelia.
Valerius Claudius Iohannes
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Postby Cleopatra Aelia on Fri May 04, 2007 3:15 pm

Salve Valeri Claudi Johanne,

Thanks for your questions on gladiators which I hopefully can answer to your satisfaction:
- What are the most common or the most egregious of our misconceptions?


There are several misconceptions and actually I’m planning to write an essay for our site about this. So I’ll name some just shortly:

Thumbs-up and thumbs-down: There was no such thing as a thumbs-up sign if the audience wanted to spare a defeated gladiator’s life. It is not clear what the sign really was, Junkelmann suggests in his book “Das Spiel mit dem Tod” (which will hopefully published in December in English – finally) that they waved their mappa to signal they wanted to spare his life. As for the opposite the Ancient authors mention a sign called “pollice verso” but it is not clear in which way the thumb was pointing, if down, to the throat or to the heart – the latter two being then imitations of stabbing someone to death.

Due to Hollywood movies it is in our memory mixed up of what the munera consisted. There were three parts which were all separated from each other: in the morning you had the venationes (beast hunts), at noon time you had the public executions (damnatio ad bestias, damnatio ad gladios), and in the afternoon you had the highlight, the gladiatorial fights.

Another misconception is that every bout was “sine missione” that means to the death – see my answer below.

- How often was gladiatorial combat mortal for the participants? It seems to me these guys were something like chariot racers in terms of their celebrity.... Getting them killed seems counterproductive.


You are right, it would be too costly to have half of the gladiators in every munus getting killed because training was very expensive and you trained them for a long time before a tiro (rookie) even had his first bout. So if a gladiator fought well, showed skills and the audience liked his performance he had great chances to be spared by the editor. We already had discussed this in another thread here on the board so check it out here and scroll down a bit:

http://societasviaromana.net/phpBB2/vie ... 8542dd4a24


- In what other cultures have gladiatorial games similar to Rome's been found? Where else does history show this? I can only think of sword-less boxing in the West. Jousting? Fencing? Kendo? And yet these were training or even just showing-off for well-to-do folk, not quite the same as for the gladiator - or was it?


Well, I have to admit I am not too familiar with other Ancient cultures esp. from the Far East so I cannot compare the gladiatura to some other type of Martial Art. As far as I am concerned the gladiatura was in that form something unique Roman, the origins remaining unclear if they are Osco-Samnitian or Etruscan or came from the Samnites to the Etruscans. Anyhow, the first gladiator fights were at funerals and hence be seen as a human sacrifice to the spirits of the deceased. Only wealthy families could afford a thing like that and in the beginning the gladiator bouts were strictly privately organized. Only later they helped to trigger political ambitions as they were held publicly. Only during the Empire they became a public event and even more larger and lavish scales than before.

There was never such a thing as a tournament of gladiators where the winner had to fight some other opponent to find out in the end who was the champion. So we could not compare the gladiatura to Medieval jousting. I guess one thing was that the gladiators showed their fighting skill and hence being a role model in virtus for the audience. Virtus was regarded as one of the highest Roman moral qualities and esp. from soldiers it was expected to fight bravely and face death without fear so it was recommended for them to watch gladiator fights.

The first gladiators were prisoners of war and fought with weapons specific to their backgrounds, which you could see from the names of the very first gladiator types about which we do not know that much: e.g. Samnites, Galli, Thraex (this one still existed in the Imperial time). The fighting of gladiators hences resembled always that of soldiers only that they did it in duels and did not fight in line. Their fighting therefore was not just for training and showing-off, it was a serious thing.

These are just my short answers to this topic about which I could write novels, I guess ;-)

Vale optime,
Cleopatra Aelia
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