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1,500-Year-Old Graffiti reveals Gladiator Battles

1,500-Year-Old Graffiti reveals Gladiator Battles

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The Italian word graffiti dates only to 1851, online sources say, but the practice of drawing and scribbling on walls and surfaces in public places dates back millennia. In fact, a Professor from Princeton University in New Jersey did a talk in Toronto in 2015 in which he revealed the discovery of hundreds of pieces of ancient graffiti in the Turkish city of Aphrodisias depicting gladiator bouts, religious controversies, sexual imagery and other aspects of city life from 350 to 500 AD.

Angelos Chaniotis, with Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, said in a talk at the Royal Ontario Museum, "Hundreds of graffiti, scratched or chiseled on stone, have been preserved in Aphrodisias — more than in most other cities of the Roman East” area that stretched from Greece to parts of the Mideast.

Three religious factions posted graffiti around the city, Chaniotis told a meeting of the Classical Association of Canada in Toronto. They were the polytheistic Pagans, Jews, and Christians.

"To the Christian symbol of the cross, the followers of the old religion responded by engraving their own symbol, the double ax," Chaniotis said. The double ax or double cross is a symbol of Zeus and was minted on city coins. Christians wrote in abbreviated form “Mary gives birth to Jesus” around town to refute the Pagans.

Zeus and Hera on a coin with Zeus' symbol the double ax in the reverse (Photo by Exekias/ Wikimedia Commons )

In addition, archaeologists found a representation of a menorah. "This may be one of the earliest representations of a Hanukkah menorah that we know from ancient times," Chaniotis said.

The graffiti started declining when Justinian became Byzantine emperor, 527 AD. In the decades that followed, Justinian restricted or banned polytheistic and Jewish practices. Aphrodisias, which had been named after the goddess Aphrodite , was renamed Stauropolis. Polytheistic and Jewish imagery, including some of the graffiti, was destroyed.

The sporting life seems to have preoccupied the ancients as much as it does modern people.

Pictorial graffiti connected with gladiatorial combat are very numerous. And this abundance of images leaves little doubt about the great popularity of the most brutal contribution of the Romans to the culture of the Greek east.

Chaniotis said the many graffiti concerning gladiatorial games is evidence people of the East enjoyed the bouts, which often were to the death.

A plaque in the stadium shows two gladiators, one with a net and trident, the other with a shield and sword, doing combat. Scenes show a trident-armed gladiator exulting and pointing his triple-headed spear at his downed opponents; a sword-wielding man chasing a trident-armed man; and the two in combat being refereed by a third party.

The ancient Roman stadium in Aphrodisias, Turkey (Photo by Dennis Jarvis/ Wikimedia Commons )

"Probably a spectator has sketched scenes he had seen in the arena," Chaniotis said."... an insight (on) the perspective of the contemporary spectator. The man who went to the arena in order to experience the thrill and joy of watching — from a safe distance — other people die."

There were three chariot-racing clubs in the city of Aphrodisias, Chaniotis said, and chariot-themed graffiti was common, according to Live Science .

A market area with a park and pool features a lot of chariot-racing graffiti. It was possibly where the clubhouses of the racing clubs were. The clubs were the reds, green and blues. One graffito says, “Victory for the red.” That must have been inscribed a different day than the one that said “the fortune of the blues prevails.” Alas for green: “bad years for the greens,” said a third graffito.

A modern re-enactment of a Roman chariot race at Puy du Fou theme park (Photo by Midx1004/ Wikimedia Commons )

There were also pieces of sexual graffiti in Aphrodisias, Chaniotis said. "A plaque built into the city wall has representations of phalluses of various sizes and positions and employed in a variety of ways."

In 2017, the Aphrodisias archaeological site finally made the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites . It had been on Turkey’s World Heritage Tentative List since 2009. The ancient location has now been recognized for its well-preserved sculptures, monuments, inscriptions (perhaps including the abovementioned graffiti?), structures, and marble quarries. “As a result of the intense efforts by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Turkish National Commission for UNESCO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the adoption of this decision, the number of inscribed properties of Turkey on the UNESCO World Heritage List has increased to 17,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry stated.

Featured image: Graffiti in Turkey from 1,500 years ago shows a gladiator with a net and trident and one with a sword and shield. (Drawing by Nicholas Quiring, photo by Angelos Chaniotis)

By Mark Miller

Restoration Reveals Colorful Secret of Rome’s Colosseum

Did you ever wonder what an ancient building looked like in its heyday? Sometimes archaeologists get the chance to find out, like the team that worked on a recent restoration project at the famous Colosseum of Rome.

Originally named the Flavian Amphitheater, because it was constructed by emperors of the Flavian dynasty, the Colosseum was completed in 82 AD and is still the world’s largest amphitheater. Surrounding the central arena — where gladiator fights and mock hunts took place — and connected by corridors, seating in the different spectator levels was organized by social status.

The Colosseum was built of concrete and different types of limestone, and the open-air seating area was mostly white marble. But the monochrome palette that remains doesn’t reflect its colorful past.

Archaeologists say the hallways and other interior areas were painted with bright colors, although less than 1 percent of the painted surfaces still exist. Only one internal passageway leading to the outdoor theater is still intact, and in 2012 archaeologists began a long-awaited cleaning and restoration project. They gently removed layers of crud and uncovered paintings done in red, light blue, green, and black. Some experts now think the outside of the stadium was painted too.

The cleanup project also revealed graffiti scribbled on the corridor walls by gladiator fans. Back in Roman times, some gladiators had huge followings that made them the sports heroes of their day.

Gladiator fights were the main attraction at a day of “spectacle,” which was free to the public and began with battles between wild animals, hunts led by armed men, and tamed-animal shows. Then the gladiators slugged it out with a variety of weapons. Battles to the death weren’t common, because spectators’ cheers would earn their favorites a pardon. Some gladiators won their freedom, others won money … and others won a memorial etched on a wall for all time.

Kids Discover For over 25 years, we’ve been creating beautifully crafted nonfiction products for kids. With a specialty in science and social studies, our team of talented writers, award-winning designers and illustrators, and subject-experts from leading institutions is committed to a single mission: to get children excited about reading and learning.

Gladiator Fights Revealed in Ancient Graffiti

Hundreds of graffiti messages engraved into stone in the ancient city of Aphrodisias, in modern-day Turkey, have been discovered and deciphered, revealing what life was like there over 1,500 years ago, researchers say.

The graffiti touches on many aspects of the city's life, including gladiator combat, chariot racing, religious fighting and sex. The markings date to a time when the Roman and Byzantine empires ruled over the city.

"Hundreds of graffiti, scratched or chiseled on stone, have been preserved in Aphrodisias &mdash more than in most other cities of the Roman East(an area which includes Greece and part of the Middle East)," said Angelos Chaniotis, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton New Jersey, in a lecture he gave recently at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

"Graffiti are the products of instantaneous situations, often creatures of the night, scratched by people amused, excited, agitated, perhaps drunk. This is why they are so hard to interpret," Chaniotis said. "But this is why they are so valuable. They are records of voices and feelings on stone." [See Photos of the Graffiti in the Ancient City of Aphrodisias]

The graffiti includes sexual imagery, with one plaque showing numerous penises. "A plaque built into the city wall has representations of phalluses of various sizes and positions and employed in a variety of ways," Chaniotis said.

Trident man vs. sword man

The graffiti also includes many depictions of gladiators. Although the city was part of the Roman Empire, the people of Aphrodisias mainly spoke Greek. The graffiti is evidence that people living in Greek-speaking cities embraced gladiator fighting, Chaniotis said.

"Pictorial graffiti connected with gladiatorial combat are very numerous," he said. "And this abundance of images leaves little doubt about the great popularity of the most brutal contribution of the Romans to the culture of the Greek east." [Photos: Gladiators of the Roman Empire]

Some of the most interesting gladiator graffitiwasfound on a plaque in the city'sstadiumwhere gladiator fights took place. The plaque depicts battles between two combatants: a retiarius (a type of gladiator armed with a trident and net) and a secutor (a type of gladiator equipped with a sword and shield).

One scene on the plaque shows the retiarius emerging victorious, holding a trident over his head, the weapon pointed toward the wounded secutor. On the same plaque, another scene shows the secutor chasing a fleeing retiarius. Still another image shows the two types of gladiators locked in combat, a referee overseeing the fight.

"Probably a spectator has sketched scenes he had seen in the arena," Chaniotis said. The images offer "an insight (on) the perspective of the contemporary spectator. The man who went to the arena in order to experience the thrill and joy of watching &mdash from a safe distance &mdash other people die."

Chariot-racing rivalry

Chariot racing is another popular subject in the graffiti. The city had three chariot-racing clubs competing against each other, records show.

The south market, which included a public park with a pool and porticoes, was a popular place for chariot-racing fans to hang outthe graffiti shows. It may be "where the clubhouses of the factions of the hippodrome were located &mdash the reds, the greens, the blues," said Chaniotis, referring to the namesof the different racing clubs.

The graffiti includes boastful messages after a club won and lamentations when a club was having a bad time. "Victory for the red," reads one graffiti "bad years for the greens," says another "the fortune of the blues prevails," reads a third.

Three religions

Religion was also depicted in the city's graffiti. "Christians, Jews and a strong group of philosophically educated followers of the polytheistic religions competed in Aphrodisias for the support of those who were asking the same questions: Is there a god? How can we attain a better afterlife?" said Chaniotis.

Graffiti was one way in which these groups competed. Archaeologists have found the remains of statues representing governors (or other elite persons) who supported polytheistic beliefs. Christians had registered their disapproval of such religions by carving abbreviationson the statues thatmean"Mary gives birth to Jesus," refuting the idea that many gods existed.

Those who followed polytheistic beliefs carved graffiti of their own.

"To the Christian symbol of the cross, the followers of the old religion responded by engraving their own symbol, the double axe," said Chaniotis, noting that this object was a symbol of Carian Zeus (a god), and is seen on the city's coins.

Aphrodisias also boasted a sizable Jewish population. Many Jewish traders set up shop in an abandoned temple complex known as the Sebasteion.

Among the graffiti found there is a depiction of a Hanukkah menorah, a nine-candle lamp that would be lit during the Jewish festival. "This may be one of the earliest representations of a Hanukkah menorah that we know from ancient times," said Chaniotis.

End of an era

Most of the graffiti Chaniotis recorded dates between roughly A.D. 350 and A.D. 500, appearing to decline around the time Justinian became emperor of the Byzantine Empire, in A.D. 527.

In the decades that followed, Justinian restricted or banned polytheistic and Jewish practices. Aphrodisias, which had been named after the goddess Aphrodite, was renamed Stauropolis. Polytheistic and Jewish imagery, including some of the graffiti, was destroyed.

But while the city was abandoned in the seventh century, the graffiti left by the people remains today. "Through the graffiti, the petrified voices and feelings of the Aphrodisians still reach us, and they still matter," Chaniotis said.

The lecture by Chaniotis was the keynote address given at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada.


Roman gladiators fell into stock categories modelled on real-world precedents. [1] Almost all of these classes were based on military antecedents the retiarius ("net-fighter" or "net-man"), [2] [3] who was themed after the sea, was one exception. [4] Rare gladiator fights were staged over water these may have given rise to the concept of a gladiator based on a fisherman. Fights between differently-armed gladiators became popular in the Imperial period [5] the retiarius versus the scaly secutor developed as the conflict of a fisherman with a stylised fish. The earlier murmillones had borne a fish on their helmets [6] the secutores with their scaly armour evolved from them. However, because of the stark differences in arms and armour between the two types, the pairing pushed such practices to new extremes. Roman art and literature make no mention of retiarii until the early Imperial period for example, the type is absent from the copious gladiator-themed reliefs dating to the 1st century found at Chieti and Pompeii. [5] Nevertheless, graffiti and artifacts from Pompeii attest to the class's existence by this time. [7] Fights between retiarii and secutores probably became popular as early as the middle of the 1st century CE the net-fighter had become one of the standard gladiator categories by the 2nd or 3rd century CE and remained a staple attraction until the end of the gladiatorial games. [8] In addition to the man-versus-nature symbolism inherent in such bouts, [9] the lightly armoured retiarius was viewed as the effeminate counterpoint to the manly, heavily armoured secutor. [9] The retiarius was also seen as water to the secutor's fire, one constantly moving and escaping, the other determinedly inescapable. [10] Another gladiator type, the laquearius ("noose-man"), was similar to the retiarius but fought with a lasso in place of a net. [11]

The more skin left unarmoured and exposed, the lower a gladiator's status and the greater his perceived effeminacy. [12] Likewise, the engulfing net may have been seen as a feminine symbol. [13] The light arms and armour of the retiarius thus established him as the lowliest, most disgraced, and most effeminate of the gladiator types. [12] Helmets allowed both gladiators and spectators to dehumanise the fighters when an arena combatant had to kill a comrade-at-arms, someone he had probably lived and trained with every day, his opponent's helmet added an extra layer of separation. However, the retiarius was allowed no head protection his face was visible to all. [14] The emperor Claudius had all net-fighters who lost in combat put to death so that spectators could enjoy their expressions of agony. [15] The retiarius's fighting style was another strike against him, as reliance on speed and evasion were viewed as undignified in comparison to the straightforward trading of blows. [16] The retiarii lived in the worst barracks. [17] Some members of the class trained to fight as Samnites, another gladiator type, in order to improve their status. [18]

There is evidence that those net-men wearing tunics, known as retiarii tunicati, formed a special sub-class, one even more demeaned than their loincloth-wearing colleagues. [19] The Roman satirist Juvenal wrote that:

So even the lanista's establishment is better ordered than yours, for he separates the vile from the decent, and sequesters even from their fellow-retiarii the wearers of the ill-famed tunic in the training-school, and even in gaol, such creatures herd apart…. [20]

The passage suggests that tunic-wearing retiarii were trained for a different role, "in servitude, under strict discipline and even possibly under some restraints." [21] Certain effeminate men mentioned by Seneca the Younger in his Quaestiones naturales were trained as gladiators and may correspond to Juvenal's tunic-wearing retiarii. [22] Suetonius reports this anecdote: "Once a band of five retiarii in tunics, matched against the same number of secutores, yielded without a struggle but when their death was ordered, one of them caught up his trident and slew all the victors." The reaction of Emperor Caligula showed the disgust with which he viewed the gladiators' actions: "Caligula bewailed this in a public proclamation as a most cruel murder, and expressed his horror of those who had had the heart to witness it." [19] [23] The fate of the retiarii is not revealed. [23] This was probably not a standard competition, as real gladiators did not surrender so easily. [24] Rather, such tunic-wearing net-men may have served as comic relief in the gladiatorial programming. [19]

Juvenal's second satire, wherein he deplores the immorality he perceived in Roman society, introduces a member of the Gracchus family who is described as a homosexual married (in female persona) to a horn player. [25] Gracchus later appears in the arena:

Greater still the portent when Gracchus, clad in a tunic, played the gladiator, and fled, trident in hand, across the arena—Gracchus, a man of nobler birth than the Capitolini, or the Marcelli, or the descendants of Catulus or Paulus, or the Fabii: nobler than all the spectators in the podium not excepting him who gave the show at which that net was flung. [26]

Gracchus appears once again in Juvenal's eighth satire as the worst example of the noble Romans who have disgraced themselves by appearing in public spectacles and popular entertainments: [27]

To crown all this [scandal], what is left but the amphitheatre? And this disgrace of the city you have as well—Gracchus not fighting as equipped as a Mirmillo, with buckler or falchion (for he condemns—yes, condemns and hates such equipment). Nor does he conceal his face beneath a helmet. See! he wields a trident. When he has cast without effect the nets suspended from his poised right hand, he boldly lifts his uncovered face to the spectators, and, easily to be recognized, flees across the whole arena. We can not mistake the tunic, since the ribbon of gold reaches from his neck, and flutters in the breeze from his high-peaked cap. Therefore, the disgrace, which the Secutor had to submit to, in being forced to fight with Gracchus, was worse than any wound. [28]

The passage is obscure, but Cerutti and Richardson argue that Gracchus begins the fight as a loincloth-wearing retiarius. When the tide turns against him, he dons a tunic and a womanish wig (spira), [29] apparently part of the same costume, and thus enjoys a reprieve, although this attire may not itself have been considered effeminate as it was also worn by the priests of Mars of whom Gracchus was the chief priest. The change of clothing seems to turn a serious fight into a comical one and shames his opponent. It is unusual to see a gladiator depicted this way in a satire, as such fighters usually take the role of men who are "brawny, brutal, sexually successful with women of both high and low status, but especially the latter, ill-educated if not uneducated, and none too bright intellectually." [30] The retiarius tunicatus in the satire is the opposite: "a mock gladiatorial figure, of equivocal sex, regularly dressed in costume of some sort, possibly usually as a woman, and matched against a secutor or murmillo in a mock gladiatorial exhibition." [30]

Despite their low status, some retiarii became quite popular throughout the early Empire. [31] The fact that spectators could see net-fighters' faces humanised them and probably added to their popularity. [32] At Pompeii, graffiti tells of Crescens or Cresces the retiarius, "lord of the girls" and "doctor to nighttime girls, morning girls, and all the rest." [33] Evidence suggests that some homosexual men fancied gladiators, and the retiarius would have been particularly appealing. Roman art depicts net-men just as often as other types. [18] A mosaic found in 2007 in a bathhouse at the Villa dei Quintili shows a retiarius named Montanus. The fact that his name is recorded indicates that the gladiator was famous. The mosaic dates to c. CE 130, when the Quintilii family had the home built the emperor Commodus, who fought in gladiatorial bouts as a secutor, acquired the house in CE 182 and used it as a country villa. [34] In modern times, popular culture has made the retiarius probably the most famous type of gladiator. [35]

The retiarius is the most readily identifiable gladiator type, due to his signature equipment: arm guard (manica), shoulder guard (galerus), net (rete), trident (fuscina or tridens), and dagger (pugio). [4] (Technically, the retiarius was not a "gladiator" at all, since he did not fight with the sword—gladius—after which such fighters took their name. [35] ) His weapons and armour could be decorated. An embellished gladiatorial dagger is held at the Naples National Archaeological Museum. [36] Archaeologists have excavated three engraved shoulder guards from the gladiator barracks at Pompeii: one is engraved with illustrations of an anchor, a crab, and a dolphin another with cupids and the head of Hercules and a third with weapons and the inscription RET/SECUND ("retiarius, second rank"). [37]

Although the net (rete) was this gladiator's signature weapon, few depictions of the device survive. [4] Combat with throwing nets may have occurred on ancient battlefields, [11] but modern experiments and comparisons with modern fishing nets offer the only clues as to how the gladiatorial net was constructed. Such data indicate that the rete was circular, with a wide mesh about 3 metres (9.8 feet) in diameter and lead weights along the edges. [4] A rope ran around the perimeter of the mesh, with the ends tied to the gladiator's wrist. [38] Because it was thrown, the net was sometimes called a iaculum. [4]

The retiarius complemented his net with an iron or bronze trident (fuscina, fascina or, rarely, tridens) [39] that stood about as high as a human being. [40] A skull found in a gladiator graveyard in Ephesus, Turkey, shows puncture holes consistent with a trident strike. The wounds are 5 centimetres (2.0 inches) apart and match a bronze trident excavated from Ephesus harbour in 1989. The trident's prongs are 21.6 centimetres (8.5 inches) long. [41]

A long, straight-bladed dagger (pugio) was the gladiator's final weapon. [42] A tombstone found in Romania shows a retiarius holding a dagger with four spikes (known as a quadrens—each spike at the corner of a square guard) instead of the usual bladed dagger. This was previously thought to be an artistic invention or perhaps a ceremonial weapon but a recently excavated femur bone from a gladiator graveyard in Ephesus has wounds consistent with the use of such a weapon. [41]

The retiarius wore minimal armour unlike other gladiator types, he wore no helmet, greaves, or shield. He wore a manica on his left arm, where other gladiators wore it on the right [4] this allowed him to more fluidly make a right-handed cast of his net. [43] Attached to the top of this was a long bronze or leather guard over the upper left arm and shoulder, known as a galerus. [4] [11] This guard extended 12 to 13 centimetres (4.7 to 5.1 inches) beyond the shoulder blade and flared outward, allowing free movement of the gladiator's head. The device protected the upper arm, head and face when the retiarius kept his left side to his opponent. [4] The armour was designed to let the net-man duck his head behind it, and it was curved so as to deflect a blow from the top downwards, not up towards the eyes. [44] Three examples of this protective gear found at Pompeii vary between 30 and 35 centimetres (12 and 14 inches) in length and about the same in width. They weigh about 1.1 to 1.2 kg (2.4 to 2.6 lb).

In the Eastern Roman Empire in later years, some retiarii wore a chainmail manica instead of the galerus. This mail covered the arm and upper chest. [4] Equipment styles stayed relatively fixed in the Western Empire. [11]

Besides these items, the retiarius wore only a loincloth (subligaculum) held in place by a wide belt and gaiters or, as images show in lieu of the loincloth, a tunic that left the right shoulder uncovered. [4] He wore fabric padding on his body to provide minimal additional protection. [36] Artistic depictions show that other options included legbands, anklebands, [11] a headband, and a medallion. [45] All told, the retiarius's equipment weighed 7 to 8 kilograms (15.4 to 17.6 lb), making him the lightest of the standard gladiator types. [42] Like other arena combatants, the retiarius fought barefoot. [41]

The retiarius was traditionally pitted against a secutor or, possibly on rare occasions, a murmillo. [4] [46] Despite the disparity between the nearly nude net-fighter and his heavily armoured adversary, modern re-enactments and experiments show that the retiarius was by no means outmatched. [4] [47] His lack of heavy equipment meant that he could use speed and evasion to his advantage. [48] He also fought with three offensive weapons to his opponent's one. [49] The net-fighter had to avoid close combat at all costs, keep his distance, and wait for an opening to stab with his trident or throw his net. [5] [42] The name secutor means "pursuer" or "chaser", because this gladiator had to chase down the retiarius. They were also known as contraretiarii ("those against the net-man"). [5] [11] The secutor's strategy was to keep behind his shield (scutum) and force his opponent into close combat so that he could strike with his sword. [5] In close quarters, the net-man had only his galerus shoulder guard for defence its design forced him to keep his head ducked down behind it. [44] The secutor's helmet greatly restricted his sight, hearing, [5] and airflow. Coupled with the heavy weight of his arms and armour—the gear of a murmillo, of which the secutor was a variant, weighed 15 to 18 kg (33 to 40 lb) [50] —this gladiator was in greater danger of exhausting himself in a long fight. [51] One of the retiarius's tactics was to jab at the secutor's shield (the heaviest part of his equipment), forcing him to block and wear himself out. [50] [52]

In skilled hands, the net was a useful weapon. The retiarius's primary objective with it was to capture his opponent. [11] A ewer found at Rheinzabern demonstrates the throwing technique: the retiarius held the net folded up in his right hand and cast it underhanded. He held his trident and dagger in his left hand, careful to keep the trident's prongs pointed downward to avoid snagging it in the mesh. [53] If the toss missed, the retiarius used the drawrope tied to his wrist to bring the net back in hand. [11] [45] On a successful cast, the gladiator tightened the drawcord around the net's perimeter and tried to unbalance or topple his rival. [40] A successful cast of the net could win the battle for the retiarius straightaway. [49] This was not certain, however, as a mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid shows: in the first panel, the retiarius Kalendio has caught his opponent, a secutor named Astyanax, in his net. In the later image, however, Kalendio lies on the ground, wounded, and raises his dagger to surrender. The inscription above Kalendio shows the sign for "null", implying that the match organisers ordered him killed. [54]

The net could ensnare the secutor's weapon to disarm him [12] and snag away his shield to put him at a significant disadvantage. [49] Other retiarius tricks were to whip the net at his opponent's eyes to blind him and at his legs to trip him. [2] [55] The helmet of the secutor was smooth and round to avoid snagging the net. [5] In most cases, the secutor knew to expect the net-man's tactics and tried to intercept and hold on to the weapon, [42] possibly unsteadying his enemy by yanking on the net. In such danger, the retiarius could sever the drawstring from his wrist with his dagger. [36] The secutor stood by a lost net and left little chance to recover it. [44] [47] Speculation surrounds the frequency with which the retiarius used his net. Extant imagery rarely shows gladiators of the type with a net, yet the class is named for the device, and Juvenal uses the net to quickly identify a retiarius in his satires. The discrepancy may simply be a case of artistic licence other types of gladiator are often shown without their weapons but can be assumed to be holding them due to their stance, and a net is a particularly difficult weapon to depict. The lack of nets in retiarius images may show gladiators who have already lost the weapon in the fight. Another possibility is that some retiarii simply did not use nets. [56]

In most bouts, the retiarius probably had to resort to fighting with just his trident and dagger, [42] placing him at a disadvantage. [44] The trident was his primary weapon in such situations, [42] and its length allowed the retiarius to keep his opponent at bay. [57] He held the weapon two-handed, left nearer the prongs, so that he could parry his enemy's strikes with its shaft and strike with both ends. Wielded two-handed, the weapon could land powerful blows. [40] [42] Images show retiarii stabbing downward at the secutor's unshielded legs or stabbing down at the helmet in an attempt to poke through an eyehole. The trident itself was too weak to pierce the metal, [42] although a skull found at Ephesus, Turkey, dating to CE 200 to 300 shows that a trident strike to the head could be fatal on a bareheaded opponent. [58] The secutor's helmet was rounded and free of protrusions to avoid snaring the net or being caught in the trident's prongs, but attacks on it forced the secutor to duck or hide behind his shield. This reduced his field of vision and gave the retiarius an advantage with his speed. [42] Should the secutor strike with his sword, the retiarius parried with the trident prongs and attempted to disarm him. [42] Likewise, the more heavily armoured gladiator tried to block the trident with his shield and force the net-man to lose it. [40] Another type of gladiator, scissor could also be pitted against a retiarius. Images from the Eastern Roman Empire show scissores wearing a tubular arm-guard in lieu of a shield. The guard fits over the left hand and ends in a hooked, knife-like blade that was probably intended to parry the net and trident or to snag and pull away the net. Scissores who succeeded in this probably dropped the hook weapon and fought with just a sword. [59] [60]

The retiarius held the dagger in his left hand. [42] The gladiator could use the dagger to cut his net free if it got snagged on his trident. [61] He might fight with the trident in one hand and the dagger in the other, but this negated the advantage of distance afforded by the longer weapon when wielded by itself. [62] The dagger also served as a backup should the retiarius lose both net and trident. [49] He attacked with the dagger when he had the element of surprise and could attempt to wrestle the secutor to the ground. [42] Fights could devolve into straight wrestling matches in such situations, perhaps with daggers. [62] Should the retiarius win and be ordered to kill his rival, he used his knife to stab him or cut his throat. [36] Evidence shows that retiarii could be quite successful combatants a tombstone from Gaul reads, "[For] the retiarius, L. Pompeius, winner of nine crowns, born in Vienna, twenty-five years of age. His wife put this up with her own money for her wonderful spouse." [63] Nevertheless, the gladiators themselves were prone to boast: A graffito at Pompeii shows the retiarius Antigonus, who claims a ridiculous 2,112 victories, facing a challenger called Superbus, who has won but a single fight. [64]

In some contests, a retiarius faced two secutores at the same time. He stood on a bridge or raised platform with stairs and had a pile of fist-sized stones to lob at his adversaries and keep them at bay. The secutores tried to scale the structure and get at him. The platform (called a pons, "bridge") may have been constructed over water. [65] Such scenarios were one of the rare situations where gladiators were not paired one on one. [66]

  1. ^ Duncan 204.
  2. ^ ab Baker 53.
  3. ^ Ward 39.
  4. ^ abcdefghijkl Junkelmann 59.
  5. ^ abcdefg Junkelmann 61.
  6. ^Oxford Classical Dictionary, "Gladiators"
  7. ^ Jacobelli 48.
  8. ^ Junkelmann 51, 59–60.
  9. ^ ab Duncan 206.
  10. ^ Auguet 78.
  11. ^ abcdefgh Grant 60.
  12. ^ abc Braund 159.
  13. ^ Edwards 93, note 47.
  14. ^ Junkelmann 68.
  15. ^ Auguet 49.
  16. ^ Baker 55–56.
  17. ^ Grant 60–61.
  18. ^ ab Grant 61.
  19. ^ abc Cerutti and Richardson 589.
  20. ^ Juvenal, Satires VI: Oxford text 1ff. "purior ergo tuis laribus meliorque lanista, in cuius numero longe migrare iubetur psyllus ab

quid quod nec retia turpi iunguntur tunicae, nec cella ponit eadem munimenta umeri

1,500-Year-Old Graffiti reveals Gladiator Battles - History

Roman pantheon isn’t just rich in the case of ancient groups of deities. Ancient Roman famous gladiators were just big of a deal as the divine beings they worshipped. The word gladiator meant ‘swordsman’ in Latin which was based on the morpheme gladius, meaning ‘sword’. That being said, by definition, a gladiator battle was typically and expectedly bloody. In ancient Rome, gladiators were armed combatants who fought in large arenas to entertain the audience. Some participated willingly as a means to achieve wealth or fame, but most were usually criminals, captured enemies or slaves forced into combat. In a nutshell, they were athletic superstars in ancient Rome. A skilled and successful gladiator could enjoy lavish gifts, gained thousands of following and even be awarded freedom if they could impress the Emperor and tail up enough victories.

The first gladiator fights were held in 246 B.C by Marcus and Decimus Brutus who intended the battles to be a funeral gift for their deceased father. They sent their slaves in the arena and had them fight against each other to death. That being said, the very first gladiators were either prisoner of war or slaves. However, as this bloody sport kept getting more and more popular, soon free men volunteered to fight, mainly due to the lavish rewards that awaited the winners.

Despite the fact, those fighters typically came from the lowest classes in society, but being a good fighter came with its perks such as having the ability to build a following and even become famous. Thus, being a gladiator was considered as the glamorous profession in Ancient Rome. There were even special schools in which they attended self-defense class and underwent a selection process. The best fighters were treated to a hearty diet, if regimented, and given a leg up, and subjected to the best medical attention. Meanwhile, those who didn’t show any potential were trotted out to be executed by either the victors or wild animals, like lions.

It’s impossible to mention all of the Roman gladiators in one article and each has their own interesting factoid to tell. Thus, we’ve collected the 10 most famous gladiators in ancient Rome.


Despite being classified as one of the most popular gladiators in ancient Rome, almost nothing is known of Tetraites, which is quite a strange thing to say. It is because no contemporary record in the form of a document or some sorts exists. However, he was definitely well known throughout the Empire to have pictures of him fighting etched into the glass and displayed in mosaics in as disperse locations as Hungary and France. He fought in the murmillones style, wearing a helmet, a rectangle shield, arm guards and shin guards as well as wielding a sword. The one battle that was deemed worthy to be committed to memory for eternity in art was when he fought against Prudes.

Aside from the fact that he was known to be a spirited and victorious combatant, pretty much every aspect of Tetraites’ life is still a mystery until today. Nobody even knows in what period of time he lived. The only clue lying about is that a wall with a painting of this gladiator was unearthed in Pompeii in 1817. The graffiti itself is believed to have been done right before the disastrous eruption of the Vesuvius Mountain in 79 AD.


Spiculus didn’t come into the limelight until years later when Emperor Nero reigned in the mid-60s AD. The numerous artworks that survived to the modern day suggest he was greatly revered throughout Rome. He managed to win a number of fights and take down many skilled adversaries.

Not only was he admired by his fans, but the notorious Emperor Nero had also taken a particular liking to Spiculus and maintained a particularly close relationship with him. The supposedly evil Emperor showered him with gifts and awarded him a palace, slaves and other luxury things beyond imagination. When the Emperor was overthrown in 68 AD, he sought out the gladiator for he wanted to die at his hands. However, Spiculus was nowhere to be found, so Nero forced one of his closest servants to do it, unable to bring himself to end his own life.


The life of Hermes wasn’t documented much except for when he became one of the Roman gladiators. However, he gains profligate praise from Martial, a contemporary poet. He admires the warrior so much that he even dedicated an entire poem praising Hermes’ talents as a capable gladiator. Hermes was, in fact, an adept combatant who always took pleasure in having an overwhelming superiority over the other fighters. He was very versatile and very well trained. He took advantage of having access to using different weapons that gladiators used in the arena and used them to take down his opponents.

Generally, gladiators would choose a particular fighting style and train hard in order to become a master in this aspect. Hermes, on the other hand, wasn’t only well-versed in pretty much every fighting style, but he was also an expert in more than three different gladiator’s techniques. This knowledge obviously contributed a lot to his victories. It should come as no surprise that he was known to bring fear into an enemy and that he had the strength of three men.

Priscus and Verus

Priscus and Verus

Just like Tetraites, not much is revealed about Priscus and Verus. However, their final combat was very well documented. The battle between these two gladiators marked the first gladiator fight in the First Century AD that took place in Flavian Amphitheatre. The spirited battle dragged on for hours before the two combatants eventually conceded to each other simultaneously and put down their swords out of respect. The spectators roared in approval and Emperor Titus granted them both with the rudis, which was a small wooden sword awarded to gladiators upon retirement that also indicated freedom. They both walked out of the arena side by side as free men. That’s why they both are always mentioned together in every documentation or record about the ancient Roman gladiators.

Their battle was recorded by Martial in the form of a poem. It has come to pass that it is the only comprehensive description of gladiatorial combat which survives to the 21st century. Through this poem, we can learn that these gladiators were equally matched and the fact that they didn’t use shields but wooden swords were because the fight was intended more for a show. The only personal fact about Priscus that is known is that he was from the northern regions of what is today known as France and he was born a slave. Verus, on the other hand, was a captured soldier originated from outside of the Empire. He was then given the name Verus which meant ‘truth’ when he became a gladiator. Additionally, Verus was already a renowned fighter before he faced Priscus.

Marcus Attilius

Marcus Attilius

Marcus Attilius was a Roman citizen by birth and thus making him one of the non-slave people that volunteered himself to fight in the ring. He began to appear in the spotlight in the 60s AD. Not much is told about this man except for his time inside the Coliseum. Perhaps the reason he volunteered was that he needed money because after all, gladiators were afforded a stable lifestyle during their contracted time as combatants. Even so, gladiators would still be shunned outside the arena. It was believed he joined because he needed to pay the heavy debts he had accumulated over the years.

His very first fight shocked all who had come to see. He was pitted against a very skilled veteran named Hilarius, who happened to have won every battle he had been in twelve times consecutively. That’s why, Marcus Attilius’ victory astonished everyone, even Emperor Nero. Attilius then went on to face Raecius Felix, another gladiator who had won several consecutive battles and defeated him.


Most of the famous gladiators in this list were known for their hand-to-hand combat against other gladiators. Carpophorus was notorious for his time in the arena fighting against wild animals. He was known for singlehandedly defeating a lion, bear, and leopard in a single battle at the initiation of the Flavian Amphitheatre. On the same day but in a different battle, he also butchered a rhinoceros with a spear. It’s said that he took down twenty wild animals in total that day alone. This event led fans and other fellow gladiators to compare him to Hercules.

Because of his specialty in fighting the beasts, he was called famed bestiaries. Because the bestial shows were typically used as an intermission of sorts between the gladiators’ fights, this caused him to have a very brief-lived career. Aside from the fact the battled these wild animals himself, he was also responsible for training the animals that were set upon Christians and unarmed criminals.


His life wasn’t recorded until he became a prisoner at a gladiator school near Capua in the year 70 B.C. Crixus was most known for being Spartacus’ right-hand man, the number one entry on this thread. His real name was Gaulish, meaning ‘one with curly hair’. Though he enjoyed the fame that came with being undefeated in the ring, he resented his owner, Lanista, who also happened to own the school. He escaped from the gladiator school in later 73 B.C with the other 70 prisoners and headed to Spartacus’ training camp at Mount Vesuvius. The number soon grew with other men joining along the way and reaching to 30,000 soldiers.

However, Crixus split from Spartacus’ main group due to having different objectives. All Crixus wanted was to march with his men to ravage Southern Italy, while Spartacus was more interested in finding complete freedom on the Alps. Crixus and most of his men soon lost to the Roman legions after the split because of being confronted near Mount Garganus. Those who survived were either captured or fled and returned to join Spartacus’ army.


You probably recognize him from the 2000 film Gladiator, in which he’s famously portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. He was one of the few gladiators who entered the ring voluntarily and had a high rank in the society. He was an Emperor who loved battling. His ego was so swelled and he considered himself to be the greatest gladiator and the most important man in the universe. He even considered himself as Hercules, even going so far as to put on a leopard skin like the one that’s usually donned by the mythological hero. His constant victory in the arena was mainly due to unfair fights. He often fought against weak, injured animals or gladiators armed with wooden swords. That’s why, unlike most real gladiators, Commodus’ life was never really in danger.

This should go without saying but most Romans resented Commodus. Most of his time spent in the arena was intended for a cheap thrill for himself and many considered his antics as disrespectful. At one point, this narcissistic egomaniac even imprisoned disabled Roman citizens and slaughtered them in the ring. He then charged one million sesterces for every show, despite the fact he was never exactly invited by everyone. Many people believed his actions eventually encouraged his inner-circle to assassinate him in AD 192.


Flamma was revered for being the greatest gladiator of all time. He was of Syrian national and had been a soldier before he got captured and thrown into an arena. He participated in 34 battles in total as a gladiator. It’s an impressive number considering the likelihood of being killed is always high in any battle. In all of these 34 fights, he won 21 of them and only lost four. The rest of the battles ended in a draw. Politicians were so impressed with his skills that he was offered complete freedom on four different occasions. This freedom meant he would be freed of his shackles and allowed to live a normal life among the Roman citizens. However, he turned them down each time for he was already determined that this was what he lived for.

Flamma wasn’t actually his given name, but rather his stage name when he was in the ring. His career came to an end when he was in his thirty and in the Coliseum, as expected. In the course of his life, he had commanded unparalleled domination against numerous enemies in the Coliseum for 13 years, all of this armed with only a small sword, a shield and armour on one half of his body. The history of Flamma is recorded on his gravestone, which you can still see to this day in Sicily.


He is probably the only famous gladiator in ancient Rome that everyone can name off the top of their head, all thanks to Kirk Douglas for portraying him! However, his actual story is still a mystery to many. Spartacus started out as a soldier from Thrace, situated in present-day Bulgaria and includes small pieces of today Turkey and Greece. Different sources vary slightly but the first recorded date of his life goes back to 73 B.C, at which time Spartacus was already a slave. This means, at some point before that, he had been taken captive due to having lost in a battle against the Roman legions.

The one who had captured him owned a gladiatorial school near Capua and sent him there. He was considered as murmillo, a heavyweight fighter and even got to fight with the biggest swords which could typically be 18” long. His victory in the arena had, no doubt, gained him some localized notoriety. However, being a true soldier at heart who reversed his freedom, he became famous for plotting and executing a mass escape of as many as 70 slaves from the school in 73 B.C, most of whom were defeated, warriors. Crixus was one of the 70 escapees and soon became the right hand of Spartacus. They marched southward to Mount Vesuvius, adding to their numbers as they went and finally setting up a military encampment along with training regimens. The Roman Senate dispatched legion after legion to take down the revolutionaries but Spartacus was able to put them down during what later became known as the Third Servile War. That is until the Senate sent Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome’s wealthiest men, who marched with approx. 40,000 soldiers. Spartacus finally met his end in 71 B.C due to Crassus’ soldiers being able to get behind Spartacus’ forces and boxing them in what’s now known as the village of Quaglietta.


Contrary to what Hollywood movies portray, ancient Roman gladiators didn’t always fight to the death. In reality, most battles were conducted under the supervision of a referee, who would typically stop the combat once any of the combatants were severely injured. All these famous gladiators were greatly worshipped by the masses and were seen as an important method of keeping the Roman citizens happy at the time. However, they didn’t always live a comfortable life for they had to train on their strictly assigned weapon throughout their gladiator career.

Tags : famous gladiators , famous roman gladiators, famous female gladiators, most famous roman gladiators, famous gladiators names, famous gladiators of Rome

Troy (2004)

Admittedly we&rsquore not dealing so much here with ancient history here as with ancient mythology. But it&rsquos still a movie littered with problems. It&rsquos not director Wolfgang Petersen&rsquos decision to leave out the gods (apart from that weird scene with Achilles, his divine mother and that seashell necklace). It&rsquos not even why, after years of Achilles killing masses with exactly the same jump-up-high-and-stab-them-in-the-upper-back move, the Trojans don&rsquot start wearing armor to protect themselves there. It&rsquos the dozens of other serious, mythological/historical errors.

Achilles with his &ldquocousin&rdquo Patroclus. Prevent the adache guide

Making Brad Pitt&rsquos Achilles constantly refer to Patroclus as his &ldquocousin&rdquo is frankly insulting to ancient attitudes towards homosexuality patronizingly watering their relationship down to make it more palatable to modern audiences. Although the &ldquoIliad&rdquo is never explicit about the two warriors being lovers, later Greek philosophers, playwrights and orators weren&rsquot so sure. Plato, Aeschylus and Aeschines portrayed their relationship as being sexual, and Alexander the Great seems to have done so too when he and his lover Hephaestion publically honored their joint tomb in front of the entire army while traveling through Troy in around 334 BC.

But at least Wolfgang Petersen is loyal to the &ldquoIliad&rdquo in killing off Patroclus. Where he goes completely off script is in killing off two leaders of the Greek army: Helen&rsquos rather irate husband, Menelaus, and his warmongering brother Agamemnon. In the movie, Hector bumps Menelaus off after Hector&rsquos brother Paris disgraces himself by losing one of Hollywood&rsquos most one-sided battles. With Paris sniveling at his feet, Hector shoves a sword through the unsuspecting Menelaus: successfully bringing this cringe worthy scene to an end. In Greek mythology, Menelaus returned home after the war with Helen, and together they went on to live a long and thoroughly unhappy life.

But the absolute nail in the coffin—or arrow in the heel, if we&rsquore going to go there—was the decision to kill off Agamemnon. According to Greek mythology and, perhaps, history, after the Trojan War Agamemnon returned to Mycenae carrying his spoils of war. Among his spoils was the Trojan princess Cassandra (cursed never to be believed), and the fact that he brought back a royal Trojan mistress—combined with the small issue that he sacrificed his only daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, the goddess of wind—was enough to drive his wife Clytemnestra to extreme measures: throwing-a-net-over-him-in-the-bath-and-stabbing-him-to-death-type extreme.

6. The German

For this next fighter, we don’t even know his name, we just know that he was a German who worked in a training school for “wild beast gladiators.” But it’s not who he was that made him remarkable, but rather what he did and how he did it.

Besides proper gladiators, the arenas featured many wretched men whose sole purpose was to have a violent, gruesome death to satiate the bloodlust of the crowds. These showcases typically took place around midday which, more or less, made them the Roman version of a halftime show.

As you might imagine, many of these condemned men would have preferred a quick suicide instead of being mauled or butchered for the benefit of an audience. However, such a death would be a waste of money for the organizers, which is why they kept these doomed men under strict guard and made sure they had no access to weapons of any kind prior to entering the arena.

Seneca was one of the few Roman statesmen who spoke out against this practice. He said he was disgusted by this cruel slaughter put on to distract the plebs while the aristocrats left for lunch. He also told us of the German who went to extreme lengths in order to go out on his own terms.

In Letter 70 of his collection of Moral Epistles, titled “On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable,” Seneca talks of suicide as being a positive thing used to break “the bonds of human servitude.” He brings up the German who went to relieve himself before his fight, as it was the only time he was left unguarded. He grabbed the only thing he could find – a stick with a sponge “devoted to the vilest uses.” In other words, Romans used it to wipe their butts. As it was, the German, a “brave fellow” as described by Seneca, shoved it down his own throat and choked himself to death with it.


In northern Britannia, 62 AD, a tribe of Celtic horsemen is brutally wiped out by Romans led by Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). The only survivor, a boy named Milo, whose mother Corvus personally killed, is captured by slave traders.

Seventeen years later, in Londinium in 79 A.D., slave owner Graecus (Joe Pingue) watches a class of gladiators battle, unimpressed until he sees the grown Milo (Kit Harington), a talented gladiator the crowds call "the Celt". Milo is soon brought to Pompeii with his fellow slaves. On the road, they see a horse fall while drawing a carriage carrying Cassia (Emily Browning), returning after a year in Rome, and her servant Ariadne (Jessica Lucas). Milo kills the horse to end its suffering, and Cassia is drawn to him. Cassia is the daughter of the city governor Severus (Jared Harris) and his wife Aurelia (Carrie-Anne Moss). Severus is hoping to have the new Emperor Titus invest in plans to rebuild Pompeii, despite Cassia's warning of Rome becoming more corrupt. Felix (Dalmar Abuzeid), a servant, takes Cassia’s horse Vires for a ride only to be swallowed up when a quake from Mount Vesuvius opens up the ground under him.

In Pompeii, Milo develops a rivalry with Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who, by Roman law, will be given his freedom after he earns one more victory. The gladiators are shown off at a party where Corvus, now a Senator, tells Severus the Emperor will not invest in his plans but he himself will. It is revealed Cassia left Rome to escape Corvus’s advances. When an earthquake causes some horses to become anxious, Milo helps calm one down. He then takes Cassia on a ride and tells her they cannot be together. Returning to the villa, Corvus is ready to kill Milo (not recognizing him from the village massacre), but Cassia pleads for Milo's life. Milo is lashed for his actions, and Atticus admits respect for his rival as they prepare to face each other at the upcoming festival.

In the Amphitheatre of Pompeii, to punish Milo, Corvus orders him killed in the first battle, and wicked trainer Bellator (Currie Graham) convinces Graecus to sacrifice Atticus, as well. The two men, and other gladiators, are chained to rocks as other gladiators come out as Roman soldiers, to recreate Corvus’ victory over the Celts. Working together, Milo and Atticus survive the battle Atticus realizes the Romans will never honor his freedom. During the battle, Corvus forces Cassia to agree to marry him by threatening to have her family killed for supposed treason against the Emperor. When Milo and Atticus win, Cassia defies Corvus by holding a “thumbs-up” for them to live, and Corvus has her taken to the villa to be locked up. Claiming an earthquake is a sign from Vulcan, Corvus has his officer Proculus (Sasha Roiz) fight Milo one-on-one. Their battle is interrupted when Mount Vesuvius erupts, creating massive tremors that cause the arena to collapse, sending Milo and Proculus crashing to the dungeons. Milo opens up the gates to allow his fellow gladiators a chance to attack Proculus escapes, while the gladiators kill Bellator. Seeing Corvus fallen under a collapsed beam, Severus tries to kill him, but Corvus stabs him and escapes.

The eruption sends flaming debris raining down upon the city as the populace tries to flee to the harbor. One fireball destroys and sinks a ship, killing the escaping Graecus. Before dying, Aurelia tells Milo that Cassia is at the villa. Milo races to the villa and manages to save Cassia, but Ariadne is killed when the villa collapses into the Mediterranean Sea. Atticus tries to reach the harbor, but a tsunami created by the volcano smashes into the city, destroying the harbour and the outer walls, and smashing several ships. Reuniting with Atticus, Milo suggests searching the arena for horses to escape. As the gladiators face Roman soldiers at the arena, Cassia is abducted by Corvus after finding her parents' bodies. Atticus has Milo chase after the chariot carrying the two while he fights Proculus. Atticus is mortally wounded in the duel, but nonetheless manages to kill Proculus.

Milo chases Corvus across the city both barely avoid fireballs, and collapsing infrastructure. Cassia manages to free herself before the chariot crashes into the Temple of Apollo. Milo and Corvus duel as a fireball destroys the temple. Cassia chains Corvus to a building, as Milo declares who he is, that Corvus killed his family and now his gods are coming to punish the Senator. Milo and Cassia ride off as a pyroclastic surge races into the city, incinerating Corvus. At the arena, Atticus proudly proclaims that he dies a free man before being consumed by the pyroclastic flow. At the city outskirts, the horse throws off Milo and Cassia. Milo tells Cassia to leave him, realising the horse isn't fast enough to carry them both. Instead, she sends the horse off, not wanting to spend her last moments running, and knowing they cannot outrun the surge. Milo kisses Cassia as the surge engulfs them. The last shot is of the duo's petrified bodies, locked in an eternal embrace.

The film was shot in Toronto, Canada from March to July 2013, [18] primarily at Cinespace Film Studios' Kipling Avenue facility. Constantin Film and Don Carmody Productions formerly selected Cinespace as a shooting locale for Resident Evil: Retribution and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. [19]

Leading man Kit Harington underwent a gruelling training regimen for the film in order to bulk up for the role. Harington stated he had "wanted to do a body transformation for something—it was one of those processes that I had never really done before. I became obsessed with it. To the point where I was going to the gym three times a day for six days a week. I was becoming exhausted. So the trainer stepped in and said, 'Look, you don't need to go through all of this. This is body dysmorphia now." [20]

Pompeii was the fourth time that director Anderson used 3D cameras in his films, the first being Resident Evil: Afterlife in 2010. Resident Evil producers Jeremy Bolt and Don Carmody reunited with Anderson for the film. FilmDistrict bought the distribution rights in the US, and because of Sony's relationship with the filmmakers, they chose to release the film with TriStar Pictures. [3] Summit Entertainment, who released Anderson's The Three Musketeers, handled distribution sales outside of Germany and the US (through Lionsgate).

Box office Edit

Pompeii grossed ten million in its opening weekend, finishing in third, against strong competition from The Lego Movie. [21] As of June 30, 2014, the film has grossed $23.2 million in North America and $78.6 in other territories for a worldwide total of $117.8 million. [8]

The film won the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television's Golden Screen Award for 2014 as the year's top-grossing Canadian film. [22]

Critical response Edit

Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 27% based on 162 reviews, with an average rating of 4.36 out of 10. [23] The site's consensus reads, "This big-budget sword-and-sandal adventure lacks the energy and storytelling heft to amount to more than a guilty pleasure." [23] On Metacritic, the film has an aggregate score of 39 out of 100 based on 33 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". [24] Audiences polled by the market research firm CinemaScore gave an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale. [25]

Some critics were rather favorable as shown by Vulture.com's review which summarized the film as ". not a particularly original story, but it gallops along at a nice clip, with the good guys appropriately gallant and breathless and the bad guys appropriately smug and snarly. And whether it's elaborate gladiatorial battles or a chariot chase through a burning city, Anderson directs with precision, rhythm, and ruthlessness – he has an eye and an ear for violence, for the visceral impact of a kill. At his best, he creates action sequences in which you feel anything might happen, even though you usually know how they'll turn out. And the ones in Pompeii are more engaging than those of any superhero movie I saw last year. Meanwhile, the disaster renders the villains even pettier, and the devoted lovers even more romantic. That is all as it should be. From Bulwer-Lytton to Leone, the Pompeii story has never not been schlock: It ain't the Bible, and it ain't Homer. In this gorgeous, silly, exciting new version, it finds its level. Pompeii 3-D wants merely to entertain. And it does, proudly." [26]

Harington later joked about the film's reception on Saturday Night Live, remarking that the movie was "more of a disaster than the event it was based on." [27]

Accolades Edit

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Golden Raspberry Awards February 21, 2015 Worst Supporting Actor Kiefer Sutherland Nominated [28]
Golden Screen Award: Feature Film March 1, 2015 Achievement in Art Direction, Achievement in Costume Design, Achievement in Overall Sound, Achievement in Sound Editing, Achievement in Visual Effects Pompeii Won [22] [29]

The film relies for its reconstruction of historical events on two letters from Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian, Tacitus. It opens with the quotation from Pliny: "You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore." [30] Anderson became enamored of his writings, particularly their near fantastical element and their eloquence, whose influence can be seen throughout the film in the destruction of Pompeii. [31]

The depiction of the eruption is based on eruptions which occurred all over the world over the last ten years. Anderson cites the volcanic eruption of Mount Etna in Italy and various eruptions of Japanese volcanoes as specific examples of volcanic eruptions which the production crew observed through footage which has been captured on film. [31] Furthermore, Anderson wanted to portray the lightning which is often seen in the ash cloud above eruptions, as he had never seen it portrayed before, and he felt it was both magnificent and very terrifying. The animation team was so concerned with realism in the eruption that they would always have real photographs and footage of real eruptions visible to them on separate screens as they put together the eruption of Mount Vesuvius for the film. [31] Claims from Rosaly Lopes, a volcanologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, support Anderson's work, stating that the film "realistically captured the earthquakes that preceded the eruption, the explosions and the pyroclastic flows of hot ash and gas that buried the city and its residents." [32]

The depiction of the city was based on the surviving ruins of Pompeii. To ensure complete accuracy, any shots of the ancient city were built upon existing footage of the ruins. Anderson states, "we would do a real helicopter shot over the ruins of the city so that we knew we were getting the layout of the city correct. Then we would project a computer-generated image over the top of the real photography. That is how we got the architecture of the city precise." [31] Sarah Yeomans, an archaeologist at USC, has praised the attention to detail in the film's depiction of Pompeii, noting, for example, the raised paving stones in the streets, the political graffiti on the buildings, and the amphitheatre where gladiatorial combat takes place. [32]

Anderson has described other aspects of the film as being less rigorously historical. For example, he states that the timeframe of the events was compacted in order to keep the intensity levels high. His portrayal of some aspects of the eruption, in particular the inclusion of fireballs raining from the sky, were included for dramatic effect rather than historical accuracy. [31] He also received minor criticism from Yeomans for his portrayal of women, who would not have been seen alone in town, involved in political affairs, nor wearing the revealing clothes they wore in the film. [32] Anderson portrayed these women more according to modern tastes. The characters themselves are fictional. Anderson found inspiration for them in real people, representing the famous plaster cast of the "twin lovers" of Pompeii as Milo and Cassia, and finding inspiration for Atticus in the casts of the cowering man. Anderson said he received approval from every vulcanologist and historian he has shown the movie to, having received "high marks for both scientific and historical accuracy", which is what the team was striving for. [31]

Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome

Gladiatorial shows turned war into a game, preserved an atmosphere of violence in time of peace, and functioned as a political theatre which allowed confrontation between rulers and ruled.

Rome was a warrior state. After the defeat of Carthage in 201 BC, Rome embarked on two centuries of almost continuous imperial expansion. By the end of this period, Rome controlled the whole of the Mediterranean basin and much of north-western Europe. The population of her empire, at between 50 and 60 million people, constituted perhaps one-fifth or one-sixth of the world's then population. Victorious conquest had been bought at a huge price, measured in human suffering, carnage, and money. The costs were borne by tens of thousands of conquered peoples, who paid taxes to the Roman state, by slaves captured in war and transported to Italy, and by Roman soldiers who served long years fighting overseas.

The discipline of the Roman army was notorious. Decimation is one index of its severity. If an army unit was judged disobedient or cowardly in battle, one soldier in ten was selected by lot and cudgelled to death by his former comrades. It should be stressed that decimation was not just a myth told to terrify fresh recruits it actually happened in the period of imperial expansion, and frequently enough not to arouse particular comment. Roman soldiers killed each other for their common good.

When Romans were so unmerciful to each other, what mercy could prisoners of war expect? Small wonder then that they were sometimes forced to fight in gladiatorial contests, or were thrown to wild beasts for popular entertainment. Public executions helped inculcate valour and fear in the men, women and children left at home. Children learnt the lesson of what happened to soldiers who were defeated. Public executions were rituals which helped maintain an atmosphere of violence, even in times of peace. Bloodshed and slaughter joined military glory and conquest as central elements in Roman culture.

With the accession of the first emperor Augustus (31 BC – AD 14), the Roman state embarked on a period of long-term peace (pax romana). For more than two centuries, thanks to its effective defence by frontier armies, the inner core of the Roman empire was virtually insulated from the direct experience of war. Then in memory of their warrior traditions, the Romans set up artificia1 battlefields in cities and towns for public amusement. The custom spread from Italy to the provinces.

Nowadays, we admire the Colosseum in Rome and other great Roman amphitheatres such as those at Verona, Arles, Nimes and El Djem as architectural monuments. We choose to forget, I suspect, that this was where Romans regularly organised fights to the death between hundreds of gladiators, the mass execution of unarmed criminals, and the indiscriminate slaughter of domestic and wild animals.

The enormous size of the amphitheatres indicates how popular these exhibitions were. The Colosseum was dedicated in AD 80 with 100 days of games. One day 3,000 men fought on another 9,000 animals were killed. It seated 50,000 people. It is still one of Rome's most impressive buildings, a magnificent feat of engineering and design. In ancient times, amphitheatres must have towered over cities, much as cathedrals towered over medieval towns. Public killings of men and animals were a Roman rite, with overtones of religious sacrifice, legitimated by the myth that gladiatorial shows inspired the populace with 'a glory in wounds and a contempt of death'.

Philosophers, and later Christians, disapproved strongly. To little effect gladiatorial games persisted at least until the early fifth century AD, wild-beast killings until the sixth century. St Augustine in his Confessions tells the story of a Christian who was reluctantly forced along to the amphitheatre by a party of friends at first, he kept his eyes shut, but when he heard the crowd roar, he opened them, and became converted by the sight of blood into an eager devotee of gladiatorial shows. Even the biting criticism quoted below reveals a certain excitement beneath its moral outrage.

Seneca, Roman senator and philosopher, tells of a visit he once paid to the arena. He arrived in the middle of the day, during the mass execution of criminals, staged as an entertainment in the interval between the wild-beast show in the morning and the gladiatorial show of the afternoon:

All the previous fighting had been merciful by comparison. Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder. The combatants have no protective covering their entire bodies are exposed to the blows. No blow falls in vain. This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests, and even to those which are put on by popular request. And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armour? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death.

In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At mid-day they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner has a man killed, than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end, every fighter dies. And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.

You may object that the victims committed robbery or were murderers. So what? Even if they deserved to suffer, what's your compulsion to watch their sufferings? 'Kill him', they shout, 'Beat him, burn him'. Why is he too timid to fight? Why is he so frightened to kill? Why so reluctant to die? They have to whip him to make him accept his wounds.

Much of our evidence suggests that gladiatorial contests were, by origin, closely connected with funerals. 'Once upon a time', wrote the Christian critic Tertullian at the end of the second century AD, 'men believed that the souls of the dead were propitiated by human blood, and so at funerals they sacrificed prisoners of war or slaves of poor quality bought for the purpose'. The first recorded gladiatorial show took place in 264 BC: it was presented by two nobles in honour of their dead father only three pairs of gladiators took part. Over the next two centuries, the scale and frequency of gladiatorial shows increased steadily. In 65 BC, for example, Julius Caesar gave elaborate funeral games for his father involving 640 gladiators and condemned criminals who were forced to fight with wild beasts. At his next games in 46 BC, in memory of his dead daughter and, let it be said, in celebration of his recent triumphs in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar presented not only the customary fights between individual gladiators, but also fights between whole detachments of infantry and between squadrons of cavalry, some mounted on horses, others on elephants. Large-scale gladiatorial shows had arrived. Some of the contestants were professional gladiators, others prisoners of war, and others criminals condemned to death.

Up to this time, gladiatorial shows had always been put on by individual aristocrats at their own initiative and expense, in honour of dead relatives. The religious component in gladiatorial ceremonies continued to be important. For example, attendants in the arena were dressed up as gods. Slaves who tested whether fallen gladiators were really dead or just pretending, by applying a red-hot cauterising iron, were dressed as the god Mercury. 'Those who dragged away the dead bodies were dressed as Pluto, the god of the underworld. During the persecutions of Christians, the victims were sometimes led around the arena in a procession dressed up as priests and priestesses of pagan cults, before being stripped naked and thrown to the wild beasts. The welter of blood in gladiatorial and wild-beast shows, the squeals and smell of the human victims and of slaughtered animals are completely alien to us and almost unimaginable. For some Romans they must have been reminiscent of battlefields, and, more immediately for everyone, associated with religious sacrifice. At one remove, Romans, even at the height of their civilisation, performed human sacrifice, purportedly in commemoration of their dead.

By the end of the last century BC, the religious and commemorative elements in gladiatorial shows were eclipsed by the political and the spectacular. Gladiatorial shows were public performances held mostly, before the amphitheatre was built, in the ritual and social centre of the city, the Forum. Public participation, attracted by the splendour of the show and by distributions of meat, and by betting, magnified the respect paid to the dead and the honour of the whole family. Aristocratic funerals in the Republic (before 31 BC) were political acts. And funeral games had political implications, because of their popularity with citizen electors. Indeed, the growth in the splendour of gladiatorial shows was largely fuelled by competition between ambitious aristocrats, who wished to please, excite and increase the number of their supporters.

In 42 BC, for the first time, gladiatorial fights were substituted for chariot-races in official games. After that in the city of Rome, regular gladiatorial shows, like theatrical shows and chariot-races, were given by officers of state, as part of their official careers, as an official obligation and as a tax on status. The Emperor Augustus, as part of a general policy of limiting aristocrats' opportunities to court favour with the Roman populace, severely restricted the number of regular gladiatorial shows to two each year. He also restricted their splendour and size. Each official was forbidden to spend more on them than his colleagues, and an upper limit was fixed at 120 gladiators a show.

These regulations were gradually evaded. The pressure for evasion was simply that, even under the emperors, aristocrats were still competing with each other, in prestige and political success. The splendour of a senator's public exhibition could make or break his social and political reputation. One aristocrat, Symmachus, wrote to a friend: 'I must now outdo the reputation earned by my own shows our family's recent generosity during my consulship and the official games given for my son allow us to present nothing mediocre'. So he set about enlisting the help of various powerful friends in the provinces. In the end, he managed to procure antelopes, gazelles, leopards, lions, bears, bear-cubs, and even some crocodiles, which only just survived to the beginning of the games, because for the previous fifty days they had refused to eat. Moreover, twenty-nine Saxon prisoners of war strangled each other in their cells on the night before their final scheduled appearance. Symmachus was heart-broken. Like every donor of the games, he knew that his political standing was at stake. Every presentation was in Goffman's strikingly apposite phrase 'a status bloodbath'.

The most spectacular gladiatorial shows were given by the emperors themselves at Rome. For example, the Emperor Trajan, to celebrate his conquest of Dacia (roughly modern Roumania), gave games in AD 108-9 lasting 123 days in which 9,138 gladiators fought and eleven thousand animals were slain. The Emperor Claudius in AD 52 presided in full military regalia over a battle on a lake near Rome between two naval squadrons, manned for the occasion by 19,000 forced combatants. The palace guard, stationed behind stout barricades, which also prevented the combatants from escaping, bombarded the ships with missiles from catapaults. After a faltering start, because the men refused to fight, the battle according to Tacitus 'was fought with the spirit of free men, although between criminals. After much bloodshed, those who survived were spared extermination'.

The quality of Roman justice was often tempered by the need to satisfy the demand for the condemned. Christians, burnt to death as scapegoats after the great fire at Rome in AD 64, were not alone in being sacrificed for public entertainment. Slaves and bystanders, even the spectators themselves, ran the risk of becoming victims of emperors' truculent whims. The Emperor Claudius, for example, dissatisfied with how the stage machinery worked, ordered the stage mechanics responsible to fight in the arena. One day when there was a shortage of condemned criminals, the Emperor Caligula commanded that a whole section of the crowd be seized and thrown to the wild beasts instead. Isolated incidents, but enough to intensify the excitement of those who attended. Imperial legitimacy was reinforced by terror.

As for animals, their sheer variety symbolised the extent of Roman power and left vivid traces in Roman art. In 169 BC, sixty-three African lions and leopards, forty bears and several elephants were hunted down in a single show. New species were gradually introduced to Roman spectators (tigers, crocodiles, giraffes, lynxes, rhinoceros, ostriches, hippopotami) and killed for their pleasure. Not for Romans the tame viewing of caged animals in a zoo. Wild beasts were set to tear criminals to pieces as public lesson in pain and death. Sometimes, elaborate sets and theatrical backdrops were prepared in which, as a climax, a criminal was devoured limb by limb. Such spectacular punishments, common enough in pre-industrial states, helped reconstitute sovereign power. The deviant criminal was punished law and order were re-established.

The labour and organisation required to capture so many animals and to deliver them alive to Rome must have been enormous. Even if wild animals were more plentiful then than now, single shows with one hundred, four hundred or six hundred lions, plus other animals, seem amazing. By contrast, after Roman times, no hippopotamus was seen in Europe until one was brought to London by steamship in 1850. It took a whole regiment of Egyptian soldiers to capture it, and involved a five month journey to bring it from the White Nile to Cairo. And yet the Emperor Commodus, a dead-shot with spear and bow, himself killed five hippos, two elephants, a rhinoceros and a giraffe, in one show lasting two days. On another occasion he killed 100 lions and bears in a single morning show, from safe walkways specially constructed across the arena. It was, a contemporary remarked, 'a better demonstration of accuracy than of courage'. The slaughter of exotic animals in the emperor's presence, and exceptionally by the emperor himself or by his palace guards, was a spectacular dramatisation of the emperor's formidable power: immediate, bloody and symbolic.

Gladiatorial shows also provided an arena for popular participation in politics. Cicero explicitly recognised this towards the end of the Republic: 'the judgement and wishes of the Roman people about public affairs can be most clearly expressed in three places: public assemblies, elections, and at plays or gladiatorial shows'. He challenged a political opponent: 'Give yourself to the people. Entrust yourself to the Games. Are you terrified of not being applauded?' His comments underline the fact that the crowd had the important option of giving or of withholding applause, of hissing or of being silent.

Under the emperors, as citizens' rights to engage in politics diminished, gladiatorial shows and games provided repeated opportunities for the dramatic confrontation of rulers and ruled. Rome was unique among large historical empires in allowing, indeed in expecting, these regular meetings between emperors and the massed populace of the capital, collected together in a single crowd. To be sure, emperors could mostly stage-manage their own appearance and reception. They gave extravagant shows. They threw gifts to the crowd – small marked wooden balls (called missilia ) which could be exchanged for various luxuries. They occasionally planted their own claques in the crowd.

Mostly, emperors received standing ovations and ritual acclamations. The Games at Rome provided a stage for the emperor to display his majesty – luxurious ostentation in procession, accessibility to humble petitioners, generosity to the crowd, human involvement in the contests themselves, graciousness or arrogance towards the assembled aristocrats, clemency or cruelty to the vanquished. When a gladiator fell, the crowd would shout for mercy or dispatch. The emperor might be swayed by their shouts or gestures, but he alone, the final arbiter, decided who was to live or die. When the emperor entered the amphitheatre, or decided the fate of a fallen gladiator by the movement of his thumb, at that moment he had 50,000 courtiers. He knew that he was Caesar Imperator , Foremost of Men.

Things did not always go the way the emperor wanted. Sometimes, the crowd objected, for example to the high price of wheat, or demanded the execution of an unpopular official or a reduction in taxes. Caligula once reacted angrily and sent soldiers into the crowd with orders to execute summarily anyone seen shouting. Understandably, the crowd grew silent, though sullen. But the emperor's increased unpopularity encouraged his assassins to act. Dio, senator and historian, was present at another popular demonstration in the Circus in AD 195. He was amazed that the huge crowd (the Circus held up to 200,000 people) strung out along the track, shouted for an end to civil war 'like a well-trained choir'.

Dio also recounted how with his own eyes he saw the Emperor Commodus cut off the head of an ostrich as a sacrifice in the arena then walk towards the congregated senators whom he hated, with the sacrificial knife in one hand and the severed head of the bird in the other, clearly indicating, so Dio thought, that it was the senators' necks which he really wanted. Years later, Dio recalled how he had kept himself from laughing (out of anxiety, presumably) by chewing desperately on a laurel leaf which he plucked from the garland on his head.

Consider how the spectators in the amphitheatre sat: the emperor in his gilded box, surrounded by his family senators and knights each had special seats and came properly dressed in their distinctive purple-bordered togas. Soldiers were separated from civilians. Even ordinary citizens had to wear the heavy white woollen toga, the formal dress of a Roman citizen, and sandals, if they wanted to sit in the bottom two main tiers of seats. Married men sat separately from bachelors, boys sat in a separate block, with their teachers in the next block. Women, and the very poorest men dressed in the drab grey cloth associated with mourning, could sit or stand only in the top tier of the amphitheatre. Priests and Vestal Virgins (honorary men) had reserved seats at the front. The correct dress and segregation of ranks underlined the formal ritual elements in the occasion, just as the steeply banked seats reflected the steep stratification of Roman society. It mattered where you sat, and where you were seen to be sitting.

Gladiatorial shows were political theatre. The dramatic performance took place, not only in the arena, but between different sections of the audience. Their interaction should be included in any thorough account of the Roman constitution. The amphitheatre was the Roman crowd's parliament. Games are usually omitted from political histories, simply because in our own society, mass spectator sports count as leisure. But the Romans themselves realised that metropolitan control involved 'bread and circuses'. 'The Roman people', wrote Marcus Aurelius' tutor Fronto, 'is held together by two forces: wheat doles and public shows'.

Enthusiastic interest in gladiatorial shows occasionally spilled over into a desire to perform in the arena. Two emperors were not content to be spectators-in-chief. They wanted to be prize performers as well. Nero's histrionic ambitions and success as musician and actor were notorious. He also prided himself on his abilities as a charioteer. Commodus performed as a gladiator in the amphitheatre, though admittedly only in preliminary bouts with blunted weapons. He won all his fights and charged the imperial treasury a million sesterces for each appearance (enough to feed a thousand families for a year). Eventually, he was assassinated when he was planning to be inaugurated as consul (in AD 193), dressed as a gladiator.

Commodus' gladiatorial exploits were an idiosyncratic expression of a culture obsessed with fighting, bloodshed, ostentation and competition. But at least seven other emperors practised as gladiators, and fought in gladiatorial contests. And so did Roman senators and knights. Attempts were made to stop them by law but the laws were evaded.

Roman writers tried to explain away these senators' and knights' outrageous behaviour by calling them morally degenerate, forced into the arena by wicked emperors or their own profligacy. This explanation is clearly inadequate, even though it is difficult to find one which is much better. A significant part of the Roman aristocracy, even under the emperors, was still dedicated to military prowess: all generals were senators all senior officers were senators or knights. Combat in the arena gave aristocrats a chance to display their fighting skill and courage. In spite of the opprobrium and at the risk of death, it was their last chance to play soldiers in front of a large audience.

Gladiators were glamour figures, culture heroes. The probable life-span of each gladiator was short. Each successive victory brought further risk of defeat and death. But for the moment, we are more concerned with image than with reality. Modern pop-stars and athletes have only a short exposure to full-glare publicity. Most of them fade rapidly from being household names into obscurity, fossilised in the memory of each generation of adolescent enthusiasts. The transience of the fame of each does not diminish their collective importance.

So too with Roman gladiators. Their portraits were often painted. Whole walls in public porticos were sometimes covered with life-size portraits of all the gladiators in a particular show. The actual events were magnified beforehand by expectation and afterwards by memory. Street advertisements stimulated excitement and anticipation. Hundreds of Roman artefacts – sculptures, figurines, lamps, glasses – picture gladiatorial fights and wild-beast shows. In conversation and in daily life, chariot-races and gladiatorial fights were all the rage. 'When you enter the lecture halls', wrote Tacitus, 'what else do you hear the young men talking about?' Even a baby's nursing bottle, made of clay and found at Pompeii, was stamped with the figure of a gladiator. It symbolised the hope that the baby would imbibe a gladiator's strength and courage.

The victorious gladiator, or at least his image, was sexually attractive. Graffiti from the plastered walls of Pompeii carry the message:

Celadus [a stage name, meaning Crowd's Roar], thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls' heart-throb, and Crescens the Netter of young girls by night.

The ephemera of AD 79 have been preserved by volcanic ash. Even the defeated gladiator had something sexually portentous about him. It was customary, so it is reported, for a new Roman bride to have her hair parted with a spear, at best one which had been dipped in the body of a defeated and killed gladiator.

The Latin word for sword – gladius – was vulgarly used to mean penis. Several artefacts also suggest this association. A small bronze figurine from Pompeii depicts a cruel-looking gladiator fighting off with his sword a dog-like wild-beast which grows out of his erect and elongated penis. Five bells hang down from various parts of his body and a hook is attached to the gladiator's head"so that the whole ensemble could hang as a bell in a doorway. Interpretation must be speculative. But this evidence suggests that there was a close link, in some Roman minds, between gladiatorial fighting and sexuality. And it seems as though gladiatoral bravery for some Roman men represented an attractive yet dangerous, almost threatening, macho masculinity.

Gladiators attracted women, even though most of them were slaves. Even if they were free or noble by origin, they were in some sense contaminated by their close contact with death. Like suicides, gladiators were in some places excluded from normal burial grounds. Perhaps their dangerous ambiguity was part of their sexual attraction. They were, according to the Christian Tertullian, both loved and despised: 'men give them their souls, women their bodies too'. Gladiators were 'both glorified and degraded'.

In a vicious satire, the poet Juvenal ridiculed a senator's wife, Eppia, who had eloped to Egypt with her favourite swordsman:

What was the youthful charm that so fired Eppia? What hooked her? What did she see in him to make her put up with being called 'The Gladiator's Moll'? Her poppet, her Sergius, was no chicken, with a dud arm that prompted hope of early retirement. Besides, his face looked a proper mess, helmet scarred, a great wart on his nose, an unpleasant discharge always trickling from one eye, But he was a Gladiator. That word makes the whole breed seem handsome, and made her prefer him to her children and country, her sister and husband. Steel is what they fall in love with.

Satire certainly, and exaggerated, but pointless unless it was also based to some extent in reality. Modern excavators, working in the armoury of the gladiatorial barracks in Pompeii found eighteen skeletons in two rooms, presumably of gladiators caught there in an ash storm they included only one woman, who was wearing rich gold jewellery, and a necklace set with emeralds. Occasionally, women's attachment to gladiatorial combat went further. They fought in the arena themselves. In the storeroom of the British Museum, for example, there is a small stone relief, depicting two female gladiators, one with breast bare, called Amazon and Achillia. Some of these female gladiators were free women of high status.

Behind the brave facade and the hope of glory, there lurked the fear of death. 'Those about to die salute you, Emperor'. Only one account survives of what it was like from the gladiator's point of view. It is from a rhetorical exercise. The story is told by a rich young man who had been captured by pirates and was then sold on as a slave to a gladiatorial trainer:

And so the day arrived. Already the populace had gathered for the spectacle of our punishment, and the bodies of those about to die had their own death-parade across the arena. The presenter of the shows, who hoped to gain favour with our blood, took his seat. Although no one knew my birth, my fortune, my family, one fact made some people pity me I seemed unfairly matched. I was destined to be a certain victim in the sand. All around I could hear the instruments of death: a sword being sharpened, iron plates being heated in a fire [to stop fighters retreating and to prove that they were not faking death], birch-rods and whips were prepared. One would have imagined that these were the pirates. The trumpets sounded their foreboding notes stretchers for the dead were brought on, a funeral parade before death. Everywhere I could see wounds, groans, blood, danger.

He went on to describe his thoughts, his memories in the moments when he faced death, before he was dramatically and conveniently rescued by a friend. That was fiction. In real life gladiators died.

Why did Romans popularise fights to the death between armed gladiators? Why did they encourage the public slaughter of unarmed criminals? What was it which transformed men who were timid and peaceable enough in private, as Tertullian put it, and made them shout gleefully for the merciless destruction of their fellow men? Part of the answer may lie in the simple development of a tradition, which fed on itself and its own success. Men liked blood and cried out for more. Part of the answer may also lie in the social psychology of the crowd, which relieved individuals of responsibility for their actions, and in the psychological mechanisms by which some spectators identified more easily with the victory of the aggressor than with the sufferings of the vanquished. Slavery and the steep stratification of society must also have contributed. Slaves were at the mercy of their owners. Those who were destroyed for public edification and entertainment were considered worthless, as non-persons or, like Christian martyrs, they were considered social outcasts, and tortured as one Christian martyr put it 'as if we no longer existed'. The brutalisation of the spectators fed on the dehumanisation of the victims.

Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. The state had no legal monopoly of capital punishment until the second century AD. Before then, a master could crucify his slaves publicly if he wished. Seneca recorded from his own observations the various ways in which crucifixions were carried out, in order to increase pain. At private dinner-parties, rich Romans regularly presented two or three pairs of gladiators: 'when they have finished dining and are filled with drink', wrote a critic in the time of Augustus, 'they call in the gladiators. As soon as one has his throat cut, the diners applaud with delight'. It is worth stressing that we are dealing here not with individual sadistic psycho-pathology, but with a deep cultural difference. Roman commitment to cruelty presents us with a cultural gap which it is difficult to cross.

Popular gladiatorial shows were a by-product of war, discipline and death. For centuries, Rome had been devoted to war and to the mass participation of citizens in battle. They won their huge empire by discipline and control. Public executions were a gruesome reminder to non-combatants, citizens, subjects and slaves, that vengeance would be exacted if they rebelled or betrayed their country. The arena provided a living enactment of the hell portrayed by Christian preachers. Public punishment ritually re-established the moral and political order. The power of the state was dramatically reconfirmed.

When long-term peace came to the heartlands of the empire, after 31 BC, militaristic traditions were preserved at Rome in the domesticated battlefield of the amphitheatre. War had been converted into a game, a drama repeatedly replayed, of cruelty, violence, blood and death. But order still needed to be preserved. The fear of death still had to be assuaged by ritual. In a city as large as Rome, with a population of close on a million by the end of the last century BC, without an adequate police force, disorder always threatened.

Gladiatorial shows and public executions reaffirmed the moral order, by the sacrifice of human victims – slaves, gladiators, condemned criminals or impious Christians. Enthusiastic participation, by spectators rich and poor, raised and then released collective tensions, in a society which traditionally idealised impassivity. Gladiatorial shows provided a psychic and political safety valve for the metropolitan population. Politically, emperors risked occasional conflict, but the populace could usually be diverted or fobbed off. The crowd lacked the coherence of a rebellious political ideology. By and large, it found its satisfaction in cheering its support of established order. At the psychological level, gladiatorial shows provided a stage for shared violence and tragedy. Each show reassured spectators that they had yet again survived disaster. Whatever happened in the arena, the spectators were on the winning side. 'They found comfort for death' wrote Tertullian with typical insight, 'in murder'.

Keith Hopkins is Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Brunel University and the author of Conquerors and Slaves (CUP, 1978).

Gladiators in ancient Rome: how did they live and die?

In 1993 Austrian archaeologists working at the Roman city of Ephesus in Turkey made a spectacular discovery – a cemetery marked by the tombstones of gladiators. The stones gave the names of the men and showed their equipment – helmets, shields, the palm fronds of victory.

With the tombstones were the skeletal remains of the fighters themselves, many of which bore the marks of healed wounds as well as the injuries that caused their deaths. Perhaps the most spectacular find was a skull pierced with three neat, evenly spaced holes. This man had been slain with the barbed trident wielded by a type of gladiator called a retiarius, who also fought with a weighted net.

The gladiator has long been an iconic symbol of ancient Rome, and a popular element in any Roman epic movie, but what do we really know about the lives and deaths of these men?

Until the discovery of the cities of Vesuvius in the 18th century, virtually everything we knew about gladiators came from references in ancient texts, from random finds of stone sculptures and inscriptions, and the impressive structures of the amphitheatres dotted about all over the Roman empire.

It is difficult now to quite comprehend the impact that the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum (both in the 18th century) had on the classically educated of Europe, who suddenly saw the reality of Roman lives in a bewildering array of objects, graffiti and paintings.

The reality could be spectacular, and in some cases seemed to confirm the more lurid stories in the sources. In 1764 the temple of Isis at Pompeii confirmed the practise of mysterious and esoteric eastern religions. Two years later, in rooms around the courtyard of the theatre, a number of skeletons were found together with a large quantity of gladiatorial armour, identifying the rooms as a gladiator barracks. Among the dead was a woman adorned with bracelets, rings and an emerald necklace.

Ever since, this discovery has become part of the mythology not only of Pompeii, but of the arena. At the time, it seemed to confirm scandalous stories in ancient sources of wealthy and aristocratic women having sexual adventures with brawny gladiators – though we now see the 18 skeletons in this room as a group of frightened fugitives sheltering from the disaster of the volcanic eruption.

From the point of view of reconstructing the gladiator, the most important discovery was the bronze gladiatorial armour and weaponry. This included 15 helmets richly ornamented with mythological scenes, and six of the curious shoulder guards known as galerus.

Gladiators were divided into categories – each armed and attired in a characteristic manner – and were then pitched against one another in pairings designed to show a variety of forms of combat. Each different type of equipment provided varying levels of protection to the body, deliberately giving the opponent the opportunity to aim for specific points of vulnerability.

All gladiator categories wore a basic subligaculm and balteus (a loincloth and broad belt). Among the most heavily armed gladiators were the thraex (Thracian) and the hoplomachus (inspired by Greek hoplite soldiers). Both wore padded leg-guards with bronze greaves (a form of armour) strapped over them on their legs (14 of such greaves were found in Pompeii).

Each carried a small shield: rectangular for the thraex, who was armed with a short, curved sword round for the hoplomachus, who carried a spear and short sword. Both wore a padded arm-guard or manica, but only on the sword/spear arm. The shield arm was unprotected, as was the torso.

The thraex and hoplomachus wore heavy bronze helmets of the type found in Pompeii. These had broad brims, high crests and face guards. Visibility was limited to what he could see through a pair of bronze grilles.

As gladiatorial re-enactors have discovered, breathing in these helmets isn’t easy, as the wearer is forced to inhale the air trapped in the face guard. Factor in fear and exertion – which would inevitably shorten the breath anyway – and you’ve got the makings of a lung-busting experience.

Another type of gladiator to wear a large helmet and carry a short sword was the murmillo. He was also armed with a large rectangular shield, which he used to defend his legs. He only wore armour on one leg – though the leg on the shield side was protected with padding and greave.

Two other gladiators – the provocator and secutor – also fought with one vulnerable leg, and only carried a manica on the weapon arm. While they also carried a short sword and large shield, they wore lighter helmets than the thraex, hoplomachus and murmillo.

The secutor’s helmet fitted close to his head. Visibility was restricted to two small eye-holes, and there was no decoration. The helmet was shaped like the head of a fish – for the simple reason that the secutor’s opponent, the retiarius, was equipped as a fisherman.

Gladiators in Britain

Compared with most other provinces of the Roman empire, Roman Britain has surprisingly little evidence for gladiators. The differences between Britain’s amphitheatres may help to explain this. Those sited at the legionary fortresses of Chester and Caerleon were built in the AD 70s to serve legionaries – the citizen-soldiers of Rome. Drawn from all over the empire, they would have expected to be provided with an amphitheatre – both for entertainment and to enact games on festivals associated with the imperial cult.

The legionary amphitheatres were stone-built like many across the empire. However, at the British tribal capitals the Romans built earthwork amphitheatres. There is evidence to show that these were infrequently used, and it appears that the native population didn’t wholly embrace the Mediterranean concept of the Roman games.

Despite this, there is evidence for the presence of gladiators. In 1738, a stone relief was found near Chester amphitheatre showing a left-handed retiarius – the only such depiction from the empire. And at Caerleon, a graffito on a stone shows the trident and galerus of a retiarius flanked by victory palms. These are the only references to gladiators from any British amphitheatre, and both are from the legionary sites.

In Britain there is but a single gladiator wall painting. Of the three gladiator mosaics left to us, the best is a frieze of cupid-gladiators at the villa of Bignor in Sussex. This features a secutor, a retiarius, and the summa rudis (referee) in a comic strip of an arena event.

Knife handles in bone and bronze are also found in the form of gladiators. An evocative piece is a potsherd discovered in Leicester in 1851, on which was scratched the words “VERECVNDA LVDIA : LVCIVS GLADIATOR”, or “Verecunda the actress, Lucius the gladiator”. This love token may relate to a couple in Britain but there is ambiguity. The pottery is of a type imported from Italy, and the graffito may have been made there as well.

The retiarius is perhaps the most extraordinary of all the gladiator classes, and his equipment shows most clearly the carefully choreographed balance between strength and vulnerability that ensured a degree of fairness and balance in gladiatorial combat.

The retiarius was almost wholly unprotected. If he was right-handed, his left arm would be protected by a padded manica, and on his left shoulder would be strapped a high shoulder-guard, the galerus. An example of a galerus was found in the Pompeii barracks, decorated with a dolphin and a trident, a crab and the anchor and rudder of a ship.

The retiarius wore no helmet, but he was armed with a long-handled trident, a short knife and a lead-weighted net or rete, after which he was named. The net could be used as a flail, but it is clear that the job of the retiarius was to throw the net over his opponent, catching the fish-like secutor, and then dispatching him with the trident.

Once he’d thrown the net the retiarius could use the trident as a pole arm. This is when the galerus comes into play: when using the trident two-handed, the left shoulder would be forward, and the galerus would prove an effective head-guard.

One tomb relief of a retiarius from Romania shows him holding what seems to be a four-bladed knife. The identity of this weapon remained a mystery until archaeologists discovered a femur at the Ephesus cemetery. This showed a healed wound just above the knee consisting of four punctures in the pattern of a four on dice.

The effectiveness of the retiarius is gruesomely revealed by the punctured skull discovered in Ephesus, but he did not always get his own way. A mosaic from Rome, now in Madrid, shows two scenes from a fight between a secutor named Astanax and the retiarius Kalendio. Kalendio threw his net over Astanax, but when he caught his trident in the folds of the net, Astanax could cut his way out and defeat Kalendio, who was then killed.

The same mosaic features another figure – an unarmed man in a tunic carrying a light wand. He is the summa rudis, the referee, reminding us that this was not a free-for-all, but a fight that must be carried out within a framework of rules and rituals. These rules would clearly be understood by the audience, who would have been at least as appreciative of the fighters’ skills as excited by pure blood-lust.

The audience would also have been fully aware who was putting on such entertainment for them. Gladiatorial shows were almost always staged by leading citizens – often to enhance their political careers by currying favour with the electorate. Thus the walls of Pompeii are daubed with painted election notices, alongside advertisements for gladiatorial spectacles.

One of many examples, found near the forum, reads: “The gladiatorial troupe of Aulus Suettius Certus will fight at Pompeii on 31 May. There will be a hunt and awnings. Good fortune to all Neronian games.”

There is little doubt about the popularity of the combats. Even tombs are covered with scratched graffiti showing the results of particular fights. A cartoon of two gladiators fighting in neighbouring Nola is captioned “Marcus Attius, novice, victor Hilarius, Neronian, fought 14, 12 victories, reprieved.”

This says a lot. Attius unexpectedly beat a veteran, but, like most of the combats recorded at Pompeii, the loser was spared. Being a gladiator was not an automatic sentence of violent death. The person funding the games (the editor) would commission a troupe (familia) of gladiators run by a proprietor/trainer (lanista). One such lanista, recorded in Pompeian graffiti,was Marcus Mesonius. He would acquire gladiators from the slave market. Legally, gladiators were the lowest of the low in Roman society, but a trained gladiator was a valuable commodity to a lanista, representing a considerable investment of time and money, and it would be in his interest to keep his stable well and to minimise the death rate.

Commodus: the emperor who loved to fight

The relationship between the emperor and the arena was complex. Emperors could get a bad reputation for showing too much enthusiasm for spectacles of death. Claudius, for example, was reputed to have keenly watched the faces of gladiators as they died, favouring the killing of the helmetless retiarii. For a member of the elite to fight in the arena was shameful – which was why Caligula, Nero and Commodus forced well-born Romans to do so.

Special contempt was reserved for those emperors who chose to fight as gladiators in the arena. Caligula liked to appear as a thraex. Commodus, however, was the most notorious for his arena appearances. He fought as a secutor, and was a scaeva – a left hander. According to Cassius Dio he substituted the head of the Colossus by the Colosseum with his own, gave it a club and bronze lion to make it look like Hercules (with whom he identified himself). He inscribed his own titles upon it, ending “champion of secutores – the only left-handed gladiator to conquer 12 times one thousand men”.

Interestingly, Aurelius Victor relates a story of Commodus refusing to fight a gladiator in the arena. The gladiator’s name was Scaeva. Perhaps Commodus was afraid to lose his usual natural advantage in fighting a fellow southpaw.

In AD 192, intending to assume the consulship of Rome in gladiatorial guise, he was strangled by an athlete. Thus he died in shame without the opportunity to take the coup de grâce with dignity like a true gladiator.

What were the survival rates of gladiators in ancient Rome?

A graffito now in Naples Museum gives the results of a show put on by Mesonius. Of 18 gladiators who fought, we know of eight victors, five defeated and reprieved, and three killed. This kind of ratio may be typical given the records in graffiti and on tombstones. There were veterans an unnamed retiarius on a tombstone in Rome boasted 14 victories, but few survived more than a dozen fights.

The painstaking forensic work on the Ephesus gladiator skeletons has provided startling and intimate insights into the way these men lived and died. Of the 68 bodies found, 66 were of adult males in their 20s. A rigorous training programme was attested by the enlarged muscle attachments of arms and legs. These were strong, athletic men, whose diet was dominated by grains and pulses, exactly as reported in classical texts. Yet as well as muscle and stamina, gladiators needed a good layer of fat to protect them from cuts.

The Ephesus skeletons also provided evidence for good medical treatment. Many well-healed wounds were found on the bodies, including 11 head wounds, a well-set broken arm and a professional leg amputation. On the other hand, 39 individuals exhibited single wounds sustained at or around the time of death. This suggests that these men did not die from multiple injuries but a lone wound. This provides further evidence for the enforcement of strict rules in the arena, and the delivery of a coup de grâce.

At the end of a bout a defeated gladiator was required to wait for the life or death decision of the editor of the games. If the vote was for death, he was expected to accept it unflinchingly and calmly. It would be delivered as swiftly and effectively as possible. Cicero speaks of this: “What even mediocre gladiator ever groans, ever alters the expression on his face. And which of them, even when he does succumb, ever contracts his neck when ordered to receive the blow?”

As we have seen, gladiators were at the bottom of the heap in Roman society. This remained the case no matter how much they were feted by the people. Above most qualities, the Romans valued ‘virtus’, which meant, first and foremost, acting in a brave and soldierly fashion. In the manner of his fighting, and above all in his quiet and courageous acceptance of death, even a gladiator, a despised slave, could display this.

Tony Wilmott is a senior archaeologist and Roman specialist with English Heritage. He was joint director of the Chester Amphitheatre excavations, and is the author of The Roman Amphitheatre in Britain.

Watch the video: Gladiators - fighting to entertain the mob (August 2022).