The Gladiatorial Games
I watched the carnage from inside my cell, knowing that I would be facing the exact same thing just a little later. When my time did come, I stepped into the Colosseum, the hot, harsh sun beat down on my neck and back. I looked around at the thousands of Romans in the stands. I knew what they wanted to see - death. Death and blood. Gruesome deaths were all these people cared about, it was the Roman way. I clenched my gladius in a fist of steel, nothing or no one could tear it away from me. I was nervous, scared, anxious, and excited all at the same time. My heart raced. My heart raced because I knew I might only live for another minute. But then again, fate can be kind...
No one knows for sure what exactly went through a gladiator's head as he stepped into the Colosseum. In ancient Rome, a Gladiator was a professional fighter who fought for the amusement of the masses, earning his freedom if he fought well enough. The word Gladiator is derived from the word gladius. The gladius was a short sword commonly used by Roman legionaries and some gladiators. Originally begun by the Etruscan civilization and later adopted by the Romans as a form of entertaiment, gladiatorial games held a special place in every true Roman's heart. Any Roman who was a real Roman loved the games, no matter how brutal they were. The Etruscans began the practice because they believed that when an important figure died, his spirit would require a blood sacrifice to be able to sustain itself in the afterlife. The earliest recorded gladiatorial combat took place in 264 BC. The show was staged by Decimus Junius Brutus in honor of his late father.
Ampitheaters, much like the Colosseum, were where public spectacles would be held. The shows were often staged by rich individuals who wished to gain prestige and possibly a vote out of the Roman people. In the earlier days, those who organized the games were honored with the official signs and insigna of the magistrate. Later, however, it was the emperors who exerted a near complete control over staging the games. Forms of public entertainmet would include chariot races, animal hunts, public executions, gladiatorial fights, and more; usually accompanied by music.
Most gladiators were prisoners of war, slaves, or criminals, although the occasional volunteer was not unheard of. Men were trained under harsh conditions in special schools, ludi, the largest one located in Ravenna. Four gladiatorial schools existed within Rome's walls as well, with many, many, many more spread throughout the empire. Gladiators were often grouped together with other gladiators trained at the same school, and they traveled around from town to city together. A lanista was the trainer of gladiators or the manager of a gladiator group. Managers would rent certain fighters to whomever wished to put on a spectacle for the people. Unlike what we see today on TV and in movies, with gladiators often fighting several times a day, most gladiators in Roman times fought no more than three times a year.
A gladiator's equipment often depended on from where he originated. Some (but not all) types of equipment are listed below:
- Andabatae: Fought with visored helmet and possibly blindfolded and on horseback.
- Cimachaeri: Carried two short swords (the gladius).
- Bestiari: Fought against beasts, usually with spears.
- Equites: Fought on horseback with a spear and gladius, dressed in a full tunic, with a manica (arm-guard).
- Essedari: Charioteers in Celtic style.
- Hoplomachi: Fully armored, based on Greek hoplites. They wore a helmet with a stylized griffin on the crest, woollen leg wrappings, and shin-guards. They carried a gladius and a small, round shield, and were paired with mirmillones or Thraces. They apparently became Samnites later.
- Laquerii: Lasso Laqueatores were those who used a noose to catch their adversaries.
- Mirmillones (or murmillones): Wore a helmet with a stylized fish on the crest, as well as a manica. They carried a gladius and an oblong shield in the Gallic style. They were paired with hoplomachi or Thracians.
- Provocatores: Fought with the Samnites but their armament is unknown (might have been variable, hence the term "provocators").
- Retiarii: Carried a trident, a dagger, and a net, and had at least naked torso, no helmet, and a larger manica. They commonly fought secutores or mirmillones.
- Samnites: Carried a long rectangular shield, visor, plumed helmet and short sword. The name came from the people of the same name Romans had conquered.
- Secutores: Had the same armour as a murmillo, including oblong shield and a gladius, however, they wore a helmet with only two eye-holes. They were the usual opponents of retiarii.
- Thracians: Had the same armour and weapons as hoplomachi, but instead had a round shield and also carried a curved dagger. Their name came from Thracians, and they commonly fought mirmillones or hoplomachi.
Gladiators were known to fight one on one. However, audiences could make special requests such as a group of gladiators fighting with eachother (as in the movie Gladiator) or several different types of gladiators fighting against eachother. Substitues were sometimes needed in case a certain fighter had already been killed earlier in the day or they were incapacitated. When the fight had ended, and one gladiator lay defeated, if he acknowledged his defeat, he would raise a finger in a sort of mercy request. At this point, the life of the fighter was held within the hands of the people - literally. While the acutal gesture is argued today, it was commonly believed that the audience would give a tumbs up if they wished the defeated gladiator to live, or a thumbs down if they wished him to die. Others argue it was just the opposite. Still others argue that the audience would raise their fist, but keep their thumb hidden if they wanted the loser to live, and pointed down for death. Not every fight ended with one gladiator dying. If the people felt that both men fought well, they would want them both to live and fight again for their amusement in the future. If a gladiaor was especially lucky, he would gain his freedom, symoblized by a wooden gladius he received.
Gladiators were often seen as lower then slaves, but those who were skilled (or perhapes lucky) enough to win enough battles would reach a sort of celebrity status. Large groups of women would often form around and follow gladiators, who were possibly seen as sexual objects by the women. This might be one explanation as to why most gladiators fought bare-chested. It was also seen as socially unacceptable for citizen women to have sexual relations with gladiators, however Faustina, mother of the emperor Commodus, was said to have conceived the boy with a gladiator. The story was likely invented by Commodus himself.
As said earlier, volunteer gladiators were not unheard of. They were usually driven to such a proffession due to severe financial problems. For this reason, they often fought for money. They agreed to take on a slave's life, and were seen as essentially the scum beneath the rock. A famous phrase spoken to the emperor or sponsor before the fight is Morituri te salutant ("Those about to die salute you").
In 73 BCE, a gladitorial revolt broke out in Italy led by a gladiator named Spartacus. It took two years to crush the rebellion, but was eventually squashed by Marcus Licinius Crassus. During times of social disturbances, gladiators in Rome and other cities were often deported to other parts of the empire for fear that another uprising would take place. The games were outlawed by emperor Constatine I in 325 AD, but continued openly even then until about 450. The last known gladiatorial competition in the city of Rome took place on January 1, 404 AD.
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