The Rise of Gladiatorial Combat in Rome

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  • Topic: Gladiator, Roman Empire, Colosseum
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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The Rise of Gladiatorial Combat in Rome

Gladiatorial contests (munera gladitoria), hold a central place in our perception of Roman behavior. They were also a big influence on how Romans themselves ordered their lives. Attending the games was one of the practices that went with being a Roman. The Etruscans who introduced this type of contest in the sixth century BC, are credited with its development but its the Romans who made it famous. A surviving feature of the Roman games was when a gladiator fell he was hauled out of the arena by a slave dressed as the Etruscan death-demon Charun. The slave would carry a hammer which was the demon's attribute. Moreover, the Latin term for a trainer-manager of gladiators (lanista), was believed to be an Etruscan word. (4:50) Gladiators of Ancient Rome lived their lives to the absolute fullest.

Gladiatorial duels had originated from funeral games given in order to satisfy the dead man's need for blood, and for centuries their principle occasions were funerals. The first gladiatorial combats therefore, took place at the graves of those being honored, but once they became public spectacles they moved into amphitheaters. (2:83) As for the gladiators themselves, an aura of religious sacrifice continued to hang about their combats. Obviously most spectators just enjoyed the massacre without any remorseful reflections. Even ancient writers felt no pity, they were aware that gladiators had originated from these holocausts in honor of the dead. What was offered to appease the dead was counted as a funeral rite. It is called munus (a service) from being a service due. The ancients thought that by this sort of spectacle they rendered a service to the dead, after they had made it a more cultured form of cruelty. The belief was that the souls of the dead are appeased with human blood, they use to sacrifice captives or slaves of poor quality at funerals. Afterwards it seemed good to obscure their impiety by making it a pleasure. (6:170) So after the acquired person had been trained to fight as best they can, their training was to learn to be killed! For such reasons gladiators were sometimes known as bustuarii or funeral men. Throughout many centuries of Roman history, these commemorations of the dead were still among the principle occasions for such combats. Men writing their wills often made provisions for gladiatorial duels in connection with their funerals. Early in the first century AD, the people of Pollentia forcibly prevented the burial of an official, until his heirs had been compelled to provide money for a gladiators' show. (1:174)

It was in Campania and Lucania that the gladiatorial games came to their full development and took on their classical form. In these new surroundings they took root and flourished, as can be seen in fourth century BC, tomb paintings. These pictures show helmeted gladiators carrying shields and lances, covered with wounds and dripping with blood. (2:84) For Rome a decisive moment in gladiatorial history was reached in 246 BC, the year when the first Punic War began. At the funeral of Brutus Pera, his two sons for the first time exhibited, in the cattle market, three simultaneous gladiatorial combats. By 216 BC the number of fights given on a single occasion had risen to twenty two.(14:16) In 105 BC the two consuls of the year made gladiatorial games official. There were no doubts of religious tendency, but the purpose of Roman spectacles, were a public display of power, that power was primarily military, and also to compensate the soft Greek culture which now was abroad. (8:98)

The Gladiators

Those compelled to fight gladiator duels included prisoners of war, slaves and condemned criminals. Among them were numerous followers of the new Christian faith. During this time persecution fell heavily on their faith, many won immortal fame as martyrs. Fighting in the arena was one of the sentences earned by the...
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