This week, I present Gladiator!
Ooh boy. This post is acting as a little teaser, but also to give you a little bit of background about the nature of Roman gladiatorial matches as well as a couple tidbits about the movie. On Tuesday or Wednesday, I will post the full review of the film.
So let’s start with an image that encapsulates everything. This painting was done by artist Jean-Léon Gérôme is titled Pollice Verso (which in Latin translates to “with thumb turned”) and shows a gladiator waiting to see if his instructions are to kill the man he has defeated. It’s a fitting portrayal of what we think gladiatorial matches are, and supposedly served as the inspiration for Ridley Scott to work on the film Gladiator itself.
The costume and setting are actually both pretty well done (apparently the artist did a little bit of his own research) while the actual situation is a little more questionable. Historians have been debating about the thumbs up/thumbs down business for awhile. Did this actually ever happen? Some historians believe it happened but that we have the directions wrong. A thumbs up would actually indicate the man should be killed, as if you are jabbing your thumb at your throat to say: “Finish him!” A thumbs down could indicate that you should instead stick your sword into the ground, or more of a general “No violent bloodshed today, thanks.” Whatever the case, the pollice verso does make for a great bit of drama. I like the idea that a film go with the alternate version of the event, so the first time an emperor gives the thumbs up, the audience thinks, “Oh good, he’s going to make it out of this – WHAT IS THAT I THOUGHT HE WAS OKAY!?”
Gladiator matches generally started out on a smaller scale and were far less elaborate than the spectacles they would become. Traditionally paired with animal baiting (the practice of killing animals or forcing them to fight each other to the death), gladiator fights were categorized as munera which translates to “duties.” A wealthy man would organize a fight to commemorate his dead father or uncle, proving his loyalty and upholding the memory of a great man with more death. On the other side of the coin you at the ludi, which translates to “games.” This mostly include chariot races, which were the all star sport of ancient Rome. If you take ancient Rome as the current day America, then chariot races would be NFL football, while gladiator matches would merely be the MLB. Still beloved, but not quite as rabid. Chariot races were funded by the state and planned by magistrates, who might throw in their own money. On days when the ludi were held, the city shut down for a holiday.
The Roman people loved spectacle. As senators realized that their home-thrown gladiator matches helped gain them favor (and votes) the fights began to grow in spectacle and cost until they basically became synonymous with the ludi. This would be around the time the amphitheaters were built, the most famous of which is the Flavian Amphitheater, or as it is more well known today, the Colosseum. This arena could hold approximately 40-60,000 spectators, roughly similar to smaller football stadiums. (To give you an idea of the crazy popularity of chariot races, the Circus Maximus in Rome could hold about 150,000 spectators. That’s a big place.)
With an intricate series of tunnels underneath the floor of the arena, they could move gladiators and animals alike to where they needed to be, as well as propel them up through trapdoors. Oh, and if they were feeling bored one day, they might plug everything up and flood the arena floor to recreate a naval battle.
Most people get the idea that gladiators were slaves. They were either captured in battle, or slaves to the city, or one of several other ways people could be forced in subjugation. However, they were not immediately shipped into the ring for death. Gladiators were sponsored by patrons and sent to schools where they learned the basics in fighting. Depending on their skills and size they would be assigned to a specific type of fighting. Generally, there were gladiators with less armor, who could move about nimbly to attack and dodge. Others had more armor and heavy weapons which protected them, but made it hard to keep up. My favorite is the Retiarius or “net man” who had basically no armor, a net to tangle up his opponents, and a trident. Other types include the Murmillo or “fish” named for his crested helmet, and given a rectangular shield and short sword (called a gladius, which you can safely assume helped give these slaves their title); the Provacator or “attacker” who was the most heavily armed and therefore the slowest; and Hoplomachus and Thraex, based on the Greek hoplite and Thracian soldiers respectively.
Despite being slaves, gladiators were well fed and tended to with good medical care. This is not to say that they were treated well, but their patrons were interested in keeping the men around for as long as possible. Because of the amount of money it took to train and feed a gladiator, most matches did not deliberately end in death. Blood might indicate the end of a match. Not to say that there would be a day of ludi where no one died – that would be absurd! – but you can assume that fewer than half of the gladiators participating in a day’s battle would die.
The popularity of the ludi did not mean that people valued the lives of these men. Yes, they were a great source of entertainment. The more popular fighters might sponsor products or be invited to dinners with the rich and powerful people in the city. But Roman culture dictated that men did something with their lives of value (such as war or politics), something that would contribute to the city. They loved entertainment, but it didn’t propel Rome forward, and an entertainer should not be held in high esteem. Also, the fact that gladiators and chariot racers were slaves meant that they were not in charge of their own persons. A freedman in Rome would be looked down on, not for his race or lack of money, but because he once been a slave and had allowed people to talk down to him and beat him. A free person would never allow that sort of indignity. Therefore, slaves were far beneath a free Roman citizen. Very few boys would grow up hoping to participate in the ludi, and their parents would certainly never encourage them to do so.
That’s a quick look and background into the movie Gladiator which will also get into some other issues, such as real historical figures and Roman naming, but I want to leave you with a thought. Juvenal once said the people of Rome would be happy as long as they had panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses.” If the city provided them food and spectacle, then who cares what the senate or the Emperor did? The overall tone of these games was violent and bloodthirsty, with people rejoicing in the deaths of slaves and animals in the name of entertainment.
What does it say about us that the gladiator fights we recreate are even more deadly and bloody than the ones that took place in Rome? Are we as desperate for blood and entertainment as the ancient Romans?
See you soon for Gladiator! I’ll be doing some live tweets as I watch the film. Follow me @hhistrionics. Or click on the Twitter feed you find on the main page.
Source: Check out Joann Shelton’s “As the Romans Did.” It’s a primary sourcebook, which contains tons of little scraps of writings, bits of graffiti, etc. used to help illustrate a comprehensive portrait of Rome. The entire book is wonderful, but her sections on gladiatorial matches, chariot races, and slavery are really excellent.