How Did Gladiatorial Games Evolve in Ancient Rome?

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Mosaic Depicting Gladiators Fighting and a Referee

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The gladiatorial games of ancient Rome are well-known today due to the numerous films produced over the last few decades where they play a role. The fictional accounts of the gladiators do in fact show a lot of truthful elements of the games, but often mix different events from various periods of Roman history.

The reality is that the gladiatorial games played a major role in Roman culture from the early days of the Republic well into the days of decline in the Empire. Archaeological, art historical, and textual evidence have allowed modern scholars to trace the evolution of the gladiatorial games from small private occasions that were associated with religion and rituals to the major events most people think of, which were for the most part designed to keep the people content and to eliminate enemies of the state.

Gladiatorial Games Defined

Mosaic of a Beast Hunt or Venatio

When one thinks of gladiatorial events today, images of men fighting each other with nets and tridents often first come to mind, but for many, images of men fighting ferocious big cats and other animals is also evoked. Actually, gladiatorial games and beast hunts were two different events, but they were both known as munera, which translated from Latin means “blood sports.” Blood sports became a hallmark of Roman culture from an early point, but another trademark of Roman culture was the tendency to categorize things, which the Romans did with their blood sports. The blood sport of hunting and killing animals for crowds, known as venation, is known from the Roman Republic era (509-first century BC), often playing a prominent role in military triumphs and public shows.

Although the Romans made beast hunting into a public event, its origins can be traced back to the Near East, where the kings of Egypt, Assyria and other kingdoms killed lions to demonstrate their power and virility. [1] The first public beast hunt to be held in Rome took place in 186 BC and from that point on they became a regular occurrence in the amphitheaters around the city. The men hunting and killing the animals were usually free and professionals, but part of the entertainer class so they were low on the Roman social scale. [2] The development of the gladiatorial games is a bit harder to trace, although they also became a part of Roman culture at an early point.

The earliest depictions of gladiatorial combat in Italy are the so-called Campanian gladiator frescoes, which are dated to the fourth century BC. Although there is no text that accompanies the frescoes, it is believed that they show part of a funeral game probably fought by volunteers to the first bloodshed. Many other early gladiators were probably prisoners of war forced to fight in funeral games, which then evolved into skilled, professional fighters. The name “gladiator” is derived from the name of the sword many of the early gladiators used in the names, the gladius, indicating the martial background of the activity. [3]

Gladiator Games in the Roman Republic

The first gladiatorial games recorded in Rome took place in 264 BC, when the sons of Decimus Junius Brutus organized an event for their recently deceased father. [4] After those games, there are no more records of gladiatorial events in Rome until 216 BC, probably because the Romans were too preoccupied with the increasingly tenuous geo-political situation with Carthage, which eventually led to the Second Punic War (218-202 BC). Interestingly, the historian Livy wrote that the Carthaginian general Hannibal conducted his own type of blood sports when he invaded Rome in 218 BC. He wrote:

“He formed his troops into a circle, and had some prisoners, whom he had captured in the mountains, brought into the middle of it in chains. Gallic weapons were laid on the ground in front of them, and an interpreter was told to ask if any of them would be willing to fight in single combat if he were released from his chains and offered a horse, together with the weapons, as the prize of victory.” [5]

It is unknown how much Hannibal’s “games” had on the Roman blood sports, but it cannot be discounted since the Roman blood sports were quite eclectic in their origins. By the late Republic gladiatorial games were highly institutionalized – the gladiators were well-trained and valuable prisoners of war, who fought in distinct styles. All gladiators were dressed as and fought in the style of one of Rome’s three early enemies: Samnite, Thracian, and Gaul. These three designations were introduced at an early point but were retained as long as gladiators fought in Rome. [6]

Gladiator Games and Beast Hunts in the Early Empire

During the Civil Wars of the second half of the last century BC and in the early years of the Roman Empire, gladiator games and beast hunts went from being minor events to big business. Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), ever the astute and pragmatic politician, saw the potential for using the games for political advantage. In his efforts to combine Roman blood sports and politics, Caesar ended the tradition of only holding gladiatorial games for funerals and introduced naumachias, staged sea battles, into amphitheaters. Caesar also became known for sparing particularly skilled and popular gladiators. [7] The first century AD Roman biographer Suetonius noted this abrupt transition.

“During his aedileship, Caesar filled the Comitium, the Forum, its adjacent basilicas and the Capitol itself with a display of the material which he meant to use in his public shows, building temporary colonnades for the purpose. He exhibited wild-beast hunts and stage plays, some at his own expense. . . Caesar also put on a gladiatorial show, but had collected so immense a troop of combatants that his terrified political opponents rushed through a bill limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome.” [8]

After another round of Civil War following the assassination of Caesar, Octavian, the nephew and adopted son of Caesar, took the mantle of emperor and changed his name to Augustus Caesar. Known more for his erudition and ability to read people, both enemies and allies, Augustus followed Caesar’s footsteps by using a variety of different games to placate the people.

“No one before had ever provided so many, so different, or such splendid public shows. He records the presentation of four games in his own name and twenty-three in the names of other magistrates who were either absent or could not afford the expense. Sometimes plays were shown in all the various city districts and on several stages, the actors speaking a variety of languages; and gladiators fought not only in the Forum or the amphitheatre, but in the Circus and Saepta as well.” [9]

Julius Caesar and Augustus truly set the precedent for how the later emperors would use blood sports – they would continue to grow in size and scope, truly becoming the “bread and circuses” of which they are known today.

Blood Sports and the Later Emperors

The Colosseum of Rome

As Rome’s political, social, and economic problems continued to increase, succeeding emperors increased the number and frequency of the games. For example, under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled AD 161-180), often thought of as one of the most enlightened emperors, state funded games comprised 135 days of the 230 day festival schedule. [10] The games became so big that even some emperors, Caligula and Commodus for example, personally took part. Although those two are among the least popular, corrupt, and ineffective of Rome’s emperors, their involvement demonstrates the increasing cultural importance of the blood sports. And as the games became more popular, they also became more complex in some ways.

By the early Roman Empire, the compartmentalized thinking of the Romans was on full display in their scheduling of blood sports, which usually followed a regular, day long schedule. The events would usually begin in the morning with a beast hunt, or mass execution via animals. The violent spectacles would be interrupted by dancing or athletic competitions at lunch, which was then followed by the main event of gladiatorial combat. Group battles, which were usually fought by condemned criminals who were not true gladiators, were conducted just before the gladiator battles if there were any scheduled for the day. [11] These events could be held in any of the thousands of amphitheaters in Roman territory, but the most visible stadium was of course the Colosseum in Rome.

Construction on the Colosseum first began under the rule of the Emperor Vespasian (reigned AD 69-79) and was completed in AD 80 by his successor and son, Titus (ruled AD 79-81). The famous stadium was a state of the art facility, with the capacity to hold 50,000 fans. It had seventy-six entrances and 160 passages to make movement easier and on hot and sunny days there was an adjustable canvass awning that covered the stands. [12]

The size of the Colosseum allowed for a seemingly endless line of blood sports to take place. Thousands of gladiators fought on its soil and even more animals were killed for the amusement of cheering fans. In the year 107 alone, during the reign of the Emperor Trajan (ruled AD 98-117), it is estimated that as many as 11,000 animals were killed in hunts and various other games. [13] Truly, by the second century AD Roman blood sports had evolved into a major industry that was an important part of the culture.

Conclusion

Blood sports are perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Roman culture to many modern people. The idea of men fighting to the death for the entertainment of others may be difficult to understand, but an examination of the primary sources reveals that it was a logical evolution. From small, modest events, gladiatorial games and beast hunts were an occasional past time during the Roman Republic but became a major industry when the early emperors realized that they could be used to keep the people content. Truly, the idea of “bread and circuses” did not happen overnight in Rome but was part of a long and sometimes well-thought out process.

  1. Kyle, Donald G. Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2007), p. 264
  2. Kyle, pgs. 268-9
  3. Kyle, p. 271
  4. Kyle, p. 273
  5. Livy. The War with Hannibal: Books XXI-XXX of The History of Rome form its Foundation. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 1972), XXI, 42
  6. Kyle, p. 281
  7. Kyle, p. 287
  8. Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. (London: Penguin, 1972), Divus Julius, X
  9. Suetonius, Divus Augustus, XLIII
  10. Kyle, p. 301
  11. Kyle, pgs. 312-14
  12. Scarre, Chris. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 83
  13. Scarre, p. 82
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