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Ancient Roman Entertainment: Gladiatorial Games

Ancient Roman Entertainment Header

Although historians are not sure why exactly gladiator games began in Ancient Rome, they do believe that it was likely related to funeral services. Originally the gladiator games were probably carried out as a tribute to the recently dead person. Gradually that connection must have been lost and it became a standard part of the culture's entertainment. We know that at least this last part was true, from the countless Ancient Roman paintings and sculptures of gladiator games.

The Arena

A gladiator game was essentially a fighting contest. Just as we have large wrestling rings today, the Ancient Romans had a large arena. It was an open area, with seats all around for spectators to watch. At first people simply placed temporary seats into an outdoor space. Eventually, the sports became so popular that permanent buildings had to be constructed. These were known as amphitheaters.


The Colosseum

The Roman Colosseum Today

The largest amphitheater ever built by the Romans was called the Colosseum. It was four stories tall and beautifully decorated with fine detail. The construction was so well planned that even several earthquakes did not majorly affect it. However, today visitors will notice that only small parts of the original Colosseum exists. This is because many centuries later it was used as a stone quarry. Italians removed large chunks of the stone to create other buildings.


The Roman Gladiators

Although many of our modern movies make gladiators seem like impressive, heroic men, this was not the case with real life gladiators. Most of them were not free men; in fact, they were usually slaves, prisoners, or even criminals. Only a few of the gladiators were actually free men who volunteered to fight in the arena, and upper class citizens were not allowed to participate. Gladiators had to train heavily. If they won a fight, they were awarded a prize of money and a token wooden sword.


Gladiator Categories

In Ancient Rome there were many different types of gladiators. Observers could distinguish them from their clothing, weapons, and fighting style.


  • Eques – The "horsemen" gladiators were so-called because they likely started the fight on horses. They wore normal tunics instead of armor, and helmets that bore feathers. Their weapons were a long sword and a round shield.

  • Hoplomachus – The "heavy weapons" gladiator used a big, long spear, and also a small dagger. They wore helmets with a crest and metal leg protectors.

  • Murmillo – These gladiators earned their name after the helmet they wore. It had a tall crest, which resembled the spine of a fish. Murmillos used short swords for stabbing motions, and a rectangular-shaped shield for protection.

  • Gladiator Reenactor in Gold Helmet
  • Provocator – The "attacker" gladiator typically had the most amount of armor, making them move slower than others. Like the Murmillo, they used small stabbing swords and rectangle shields.

  • Retiarius – This "netman" was the only gladiator to fight without a helmet. They used nets to throw over opponents and trap them, as well as small daggers and tridents (a spear with three points).

  • Secutor – The "pursuer" wore a helmet that allowed them a small range of vision. They only had protective layers on one leg and one arm. Secutors fought with a dagger and a rectangular shield.

  • Thraex – The Thraex derived inspiration from Rome's earlier enemies. They used a small sword with a bent blade, and a very small square shield. Since the shield was so tiny, Thraex gladiators required a lot of padding and protection on their bodies.

  • Bestiarius – This was a special sort of gladiator who had to fight against animals in the arena. They were not very popular at all. Often they did not have much armor, and fought using spears or whips.

Training

The lanista was much like a coach of modern day sports teams. He helped gladiators to train for their big matches. This was usually done at a location near an amphitheater.


Zliten Mosaic Showing Gladiators in Training

The Big Day

Think about a game of ice hockey. It normally begins with much fanfare, singing of the national anthems, introduction of players, and so on. Similarly, gladiator matches involved a large procession, an appearance by the emperor, music, and warm-up mock fights in the morning. The crowd would then break for lunch, at which time criminals were executed publicly. Finally in the afternoon, spectators were treated to the main event: gladiator fights! There were usually several different matches, and when it became too violent, the crowd could sometimes offer input as to whether a gladiator should be excused or killed.


Antique Engraving of Roman Gladiators in Combat
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