Gladiators (Latin gladiatores) were professional fighters in ancient Rome who fought against each other and against wild animals, sometimes to the death, for the entertainment of spectators. These fights took place in arenas in many cities during the Roman republic and the Roman Empire.
The origins of gladiator fights lie probably in the Etruscan custom of ritual human sacrifices to honor the dead. The first Roman fights took place in 264 BC in the Forum Boarium, by Marcus and Decimus Brutus, at the funeral of their father.
Gladiator games (called munera, singular munus) took place in amphitheatres (like the Colosseum) and took the latter half of the day after the fights against animals (venationes) and public executions (noxii). Initially rich private individuals organized these, often to gain political favor with the public. The person who organized the show was called the editor, munerator, or dominus and he was honored with the official signs of a magistrate. Later the emperors would exert a near complete monopoly on staging the ludi circenses, "games" which included hunts of wild animals, public executions and gladiator fights. There was usually musical accompaniment.
Gladiators were typically picked from prisoners of war, slaves, and sentenced criminals. There were also occasional volunteers. They were trained in special gladiator schools (ludi). One of the largest schools was in Ravenna. There were four schools in Rome itself, the largest of which was called the Ludus Magnus. The Ludus Magnus was connected to the Colosseum by an underground tunnel. Gladiators often belonged to a troupe (familia) that traveled from town to town. A trainer of gladiators or the manager of a team of gladiators was known as a lanista. The troupe's owner rented gladiators to whoever wanted to stage games. A gladiator would typically fight no more than three times per year.
Gladiator could be also a property of a rich individual who hired lanista to train him. Several senators and emperors had their own favorites.
Criminals were either expected to die within a year (ad gladium) or might earn their release after three years (ad ludum) - if they survived.
Different gladiators specialized in different weapons, and it was popular to pair off combatants with widely different equipment. Gladiator types and their weaponry included:
Gladiators usually fought in pairs (Ordinarii), that is, one gladiator against another. However, sponsor or audience could request other combinations like several gladiators fighting together (Catervarii) or specific gladiators against each other even from outside the established troupe (Postulaticii). Sometimes lanista had to rely on substitutes (supposititii) if requested gladiator was already dead or incapacitated. Emperor could have his own gladiators (Fiscales).
At the end of a fight, when one gladiator acknowledged defeat by raising a finger, the audience could decide whether the loser should live or die. It is known that the audience (or sponsor or emperor) pointed their thumbs a certain way if they wanted the loser to be killed, but it is not clear which way they pointed. It is possible that they pointed their thumbs upwards if they wanted the loser to live, and downwards if they wanted him to die; or, they may have done the opposite, pointing downwards if they wanted the gladiator to live. Another possibility is that they raised their fist but kept their thumb inside it if they wanted the loser to live, and pointed down to signify death. A gladiator did not have to die after every match - if the audience felt both men fought admirably, they would likely want both to live and fight for their amusement in the future. A gladiator who won several fights was allowed to retire, often to train other fighters. Gladiators who managed to win their freedom - often by request of the audience or sponsor - were given a wooden sword as a memento.
The attitude of Romans towards the gladiators was ambivalent: on the one hand they were considered as lower than slaves, but on the other hand some successful gladiators rose to celebrity status. There was even a belief that nine eaten gladiator livers were a cure for epilepsy. Gladiators often developed large followings of women, who apparently saw them as sexual objects. This may be one reason that many types of gladiators fought bare-chested. It was socially unacceptable for citizen women to have sexual contact with a gladiator, but Faustina, the mother of the emperor Commodus, was said to have conceived Commodus with a gladiator (Commodus likely invented this story himself).
Despite the extreme dangers and hardships of the profession, some gladiators were volunteers (called auctorati) who fought for money; effectively this career was a sort of last chance for people who had gotten into financial troubles.
Their oath (which Seneca describes as particularly shameful) implied their acceptance of slave status and of the worst public consideration (infamia). More famous is their phrase to the emperor or sponsor before the fight: Morituri te salutant ("Those about to die salute you").
Some emperors, among them Hadrian, Caligula, Titus Flavius and Commodus also entered the arena for (presumably) fictitious or rigged combats. Emperor Trajan organized as many as 5000 gladiator fighting pairs. Gladiator contests could take months to complete.
Female gladiators also existed; The Emperor Domitian liked to stage torchlit fights between dwarfs and women, according to Suetonius in "The Twelve Caesars".
One of the most famous gladiators was Spartacus who became the leader of a group of escaped gladiators and slaves. His revolt, which began in 73 BC, was crushed by Marcus Licinius Crassus two years later. After this, gladiators were deported from Rome and other cities during times of social disturbances, for fear that they might organize and rebel again.
Gladiators in Science Fiction
Gladiators are sometimes mentioned in science fiction, being depicted in the film The Running Man; as well as the games Battletech, Quake, and Unreal. The exploits of gladiators are also typical fare in the sword and sandal genre of fantasy films.
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