The warriors of the Roman Empire
We all loved the movie, The Gladiator — even those of us who don’t love history found the movie absolutely riveting. Today, we will delve a little deeper into the fascinating tale of these tragic fighters who risked their lives to entertain the rulers and the commoners of ancient Rome.
The gladiator was an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Empire in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals or condemned criminals. These were no harmless fights and were fought till death, either of the gladiator or his hapless adversary, animal or human. Some gladiators were even volunteers who risked their lives in the arena. Most were slaves who were despised and socially marginalised and trained for these bloody battles in harsh conditions. These slaves were segregated even in death.
However, despite their harsh treatment and irrespective of their origin, the gladiators offered their audiences an example of the martial ethics of Rome. Thus, by fighting and dying honourably, they inspired admiration of the commoners and the rulers. They were glorified and celebrated in art and their value as entertainers was commemorated in precious and even ordinary objects of art all over the Roman Empire.
The popularity of these games reached their zenith between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE and it was only when Christianity was adopted as the state religion in the 390s, that these games began to be frowned upon and they finally declined. However, the beast hunts or the fights between the men and wild animals still continued into the 6th century.
In the later years of the Roman Empire, the gladiator games provided their sponsors with extravagantly expensive but effective opportunities for self-promotion and also offered cheap, exciting entertainment to their clients. Gladiators became big business for trainers and owners, for rising politicians and also those who had reached the top.
The trade in gladiators took place across the Empire and was subject to official supervision. Rome’s military success produced an influx of soldier-prisoners who were redistributed for use in state mines or amphitheatres and for sale on the open market. For example, in the aftermath of the Jewish Revolt, the gladiator schools received an influx of Jews. The granting of the slave status to soldiers who had surrendered or allowed their own capture was regarded as a gift of life and gladiator training was an opportunity for them to regain their lost honour.
Two other sources of gladiators were slaves condemned to the arena, to gladiator schools or games as punishment for crimes, and paid volunteers who by the late Republic may have comprised approximately half of all gladiators. For those who were poor or non-citizens, the gladiator schools offered a trade, regular food, housing of sorts and a fighting chance of fame and fortune. Gladiators customarily kept their prize money and any gifts they received.
Some female gladiators were also used at times and in 66 CE, Nero had Ethiopian women, men and children fight to impress King Tiridates I of Armenia. Female gladiators were probably submitted to same regulations and training as their male counterparts. Roman morality required that all gladiators be of the lowest social classes, and emperors who failed to respect this distinction earned the scorn of posterity.