The first Roman gladiatorial games were held in 246 BCE by Marcus and Decimus Brutus in honor of their father, Junius Brutus, as a funeral gift for the dead. It was a relatively small affair that included the combat of three pairs of slaves in the Forum Boarium (a cattle market). But gradually the gladiatorial spectacle became separated from the funeral context, and was staged by the wealthy as a way to show their power and influence the local community. Most gladiators were slaves, prisoners of war or criminals, but about half of the men were volunteers and took on the status of a slave (gladiator) for an agreed period of time. But why would a free man want to become a gladiator?
A man who became gladiator felt that his life took a new meaning. He became a member of a group that was known for its courage, good morale, and absolute loyalty to its master in to the very end of death. His life became a model of military discipline and through courageous behavior he was also now capable of achieving honor similar to what was “enjoyed” by Roman soldiers on the battlefield. In the arena, the volunteer gladiator could feel his fantasy of military glory and fame in front of an admiring crowd, the same fame that modern athletes enjoy today. Even emperors like Commodus who ruled from 180-192, had a passion for gladiatorial games and participated in over 1,000 fights. But the emperors games didn’t end as horrible as it maybe would, Commodus always won, since his opponents always had to submit their emperor. Politicians and emperors often participated just to win political favor and gain popularity among the people.
Although the games were very bloody and extremely brutal, often killing many men and animals, the Romans enjoyed the thing of life and death being very near. The most popular fights were against a heavily armed and shielded man against a fighter with only a net and a small dagger. Watching men fight and eventually die a dreadful death, is what fascinated the Roman population as the games were one of their favorite ways to spend their time. The gladiators would be forced to fight the wild beasts unarmed, and many times the beast would be victorious. Beasts were also made to fight other beasts. One could watch bears fighting buffaloes, buffaloes against elephants, elephants against tigers.
As the popularity of these bloody events grew with both the common people and political leaders, there was a need for a special meeting place of this entertainment. And The Colosseum was built around 80 AD during the ruling of Vespian and his son Titus. It was to be one of the greatest architectural masses ever built. The building held more than 50,000 people. The huge size of the building and its central location in the city shows to the importance of this sport in the Roman Empire. For almost four centuries, this bloody sport was entertainment for the masses. In Rome entry to the games was free. It was a citizens right to see the games, not a luxury. Although often there would not be enough room in the circuses, leading to angry scuffles outside. People would in fact begin to queue throughout the night to make sure of a place in the arena. For people of our modern age, it is difficult to understand what could have motivated the Romans to watch the cruel spectacle of men fighting each other to the death. But to most Romans the games will have been more than pure bloodlust. There was a certain magic about the games which their society appeared to understand and enjoy. Much like in modern day sports events, there is more to the game than just the event itself, there is the characters involved, the personal drama as well as technical skill and determination. Just as soccer fans today do not just go to see 22 men kick a ball, so did the Romans not just sit and watch people being killed. It is difficult for us to understand today, but attending at gladiatorial games in the arenas was an essential part of being a Roman. Rome was a warrior state that had achieved its large empire by military violence. Violence was a big part of roman peoples culture, but it was not seen as only violence, the games was seen as a sport, as culture and a symbol for Rome as a big empire. The games served a purpose beyond entertainment, it was political and social. Today’s sports isn’t that different from the gladiatorial ones, it is human nature to want to belong to something. The games does reveal something about the Romans, it reveals that they weren’t that different, they weren’t bloodthirsty and cruel, they were only a part of a big culture, they were only humans of that time.
The movie “Gladiator” from 2000