Public spectacles were put on in a variety of different contexts in Rome. Games or competitions were the defining feature of the religious festivals (also called ludi) of the Roman state that were held on a regular cycle according to the Roman religious calendar. These traditionally included several days of stage-shows (ludi scaenici) of many varieties tragedies, comedies, musical competitions and, from the late Republic onwards, the highly popular mimes and pantomimes and normally culminated in a day or more of chariot-races (ludi circenses), held in the Circus Maximus. As Greek culture came to penetrate Roman spectacle from the second century B.C. onwards, athletic and gymnastic competitions were sometimes added to the festal programs. For the stage-shows, temporary wooden theaters were erected for each particular festival and then dismantled, until stone theaters finally became available in Rome: from 55 B.C. onwards the Theatre of Pompey, from 17 B.C. the Theatre of Marcellus , and from 13 B.C. the Theatre of Balbus. Gladiatorial presentations (munera gladiatoria), on the other hand, were special events, much less common, offerings or gifts (which is the underlying sense of the term munus) made periodically to their fellow-citizens by members of the Roman elite. Initially in the Republic they were put on by senatorial families as part of the funeral of a distinguished family member. Later their main sponsors were Roman emperors, keen to celebrate a military victory, the dedication of a major building in the city of Rome or an important dynastic event such as the coming-of-age, marriage or death of a key member of the imperial family. Sometimes Roman magistrates added gladiatorial combats or venationes (wild-beast hunts) to the regular program of ludi scaenici or ludi circenses that they were required to sponsor during their year in office, but this was increasingly kept in check by the emperors.
Public spectacles helped to define and reinforce existing social relations in a number of other ways. Since the elite played an important role in funding the games and gladiatorial presentations, this was an ideal opportunity for them to publicize their financial generosity towards the community and to solidify their honored position in Roman society. The fact that gladiatorial presentations were termed munera, offerings or gifts, suggests that the Romans conceived of these events as major acts of patronage on the part of the elite. By accepting such gifts, the plebs were ipso facto accepting that the existing social relationship between themselves and the elite would remain in force. And they often expressed their joy in accepting such gifts in very vocal terms, by rhythmically acclaiming their generous benefactor and in so doing, enhancing his social authority considerably.
The sheer magnificence of the gladiatorial presentations sponsored by the emperors (or by members of his family) took this a stage further. The increase in the number and variety of gladiators, the development of wild beast hunts (venationes) to include more and more exotic beasts and the breathtaking stage-effects of some of the public executions that filled up the program around noon underlined the widening social gap between the highest members of the Roman elite (the domus Caesaris) and the Roman plebs. It would be virtually impossible for anyone else in Roman society, even the highest-ranking senator, to outdo such magnificence. It simply confirmed the emperor as the greatest benefactor of all.
Such very public acts of generosity were interwoven into a complex sequence of ritual acts, whereby a reciprocal dialogue developed between elite and plebs. This dialogue helped to reinforce the existing relationship between each social group and did much to entrench the elite in their position of social ascendancy.
The Roman elite could also enhance its prestige by providing the funds to construct buildings in which public spectacles could take place. During the Republic each year in Rome the magistrates responsible for the ludi or the noble families who offered gladiatorial munera to the people had to construct temporary wooden theaters or amphitheaters for their spectacles. Some of these were famous for their lavishness and technological ingenuity.
Eventually permanent spectacle buildings started to appear in the urban landscape, and these were funded by dominant political leaders such as Pompey.
Thereafter, it was exclusively the emperor himself who erected such building: for example the Flavian Amphitheater.
Actors, gladiators and charioteers.
Public games also forced Romans to confront the social values of the community as they sat watching the performers at their work. For the performers were drawn from a range of different social backgrounds and were themselves ranked hierarchically. The largest percentage of actors, gladiators and charioteers were slaves. As a result, these professions came to be thought of as servile well below the dignity of respectable Romans. The freeborn members of the audience, therefore, even those low in the social hierarchy, would draw satisfaction from the fact that they were being entertained by slaves even lower in class than themselves and without any civic rights.
However, this seemingly natural equation of public performance on the stage or arena with slavery was occasionally shattered when free-born Romans decided to take up careers as actors, gladiators or charioteers. As soon as they chose to perform for pay in the public arena, they sacrificed any social standing that they had ever possessed. In the eyes of Roman law, they became infames, persons of whom one should not speak. Just like prostitutes, with whom they were often conceptually connected, they had sold their bodies to others (either to the owner of a theatrical troupe or to a gladiatorial trainer, lanista) and were no longer able to act of their own free will. The wording of the oath, the auctoramentum, that all gladiators had to swear to their lanista made this dramatically clear. For they swore to endure burning, bondage, flogging, death by the sword, or anything else that the lanista ordered . Gladiators and actors were also denied burial in the same cemeteries as the respectable on the assumption that their remains would pollute the other tombs.
These freeborn volunteers surrendered all of the theoretical protections that Roman citizenship brought: in particular, they were now liable to suffer corporal punishment at the hands of Roman magistrates. Indeed actors who stepped out of line often received very dramatic punishment, sometimes even being flogged successively at each of the three theaters of Rome. Even the lowest-ranking members of the Roman plebs were safeguarded, in theory at least, by their Roman citizenship from such indignities until the mid-second century A.D. when it had already started to lose some of its protective force. Charioteers, it seems, were held in higher regard and, if freeborn, do not appear to have suffered infamy, but even they were debarred from rising to the equestrian or senatorial orders, from serving on local town-councils and from holding local magistracies.
Gladiators … were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly.
The Mosaic of the Gladiator, an early 4th-century work of art currently on display in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, lists the names of a series of fighters meant to go down in history: Astacius, Astivus, Rodan, Belleronfons, Cupido, Aurius, Alumnus, Serpeniius, Meliio, Mazicinus and many more…
Next to the sprawled and bloodied bodies of those who were killed, there is a small sign that looks like a zero but actually is the “Theta nigrum”, likely the initial of the Greek word “thanatos”, meaning “death”.
Alumnus is portrayed in victory: he was one of the “retiarii”, the fast and agile gladiators who fought without covering their face, equipped with nets, tridents and daggers, winning over an adoring public and entering the secret dreams of countless women.
At his feet, Mazicinus lies in his own blood: he was a “secutor”, that is a “chaser” gladiator who fought with a helmet, shield and a short, curved sword known as “sica”.
Cicero once wrote, What gladiator of moderate reputation ever groaned, or lost countenance, or showed himself a coward, as he stood in combat, or even as he lay down to die? Or what one of them, when he had lain down and was ordered to receive the fatal stroke, ever drew his neck back? (from “Tuscolanae disputationes”).
Then there’s Serpenius, a “bestiarius” gladiator, using his spear to strike a panther – one of the many wild animals that filled the amphitheater, the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus for the people’s entertainment.
As Juvenal noted, “Here is a patrician specialized in hunting wild beasts. For these noblemen, reaching old age has become a miracle since Nero began forcing them to prove their bravery to the people by performing in the circus” (from “Saturae”).
Gladiators were even more hierarchically organized. They were classified according to a series of ranks: beginners (tirones) and then numbered ranks, culminating in the most successful and most honored (and most highly paid): the primi pali. Gladiatorial statistics were also widely promulgated with the number of fights, victories, victory crowns and victory palms all meticulously recorded. Those at the upper end of this hierarchy were much higher in status in the eyes of the public, and their fights more eagerly awaited.
Today, the idea of gladiators fighting to the death, and of an amphitheater where this could take place watched by an enthusiastic audience, epitomizes the depths to which the Roman Empire was capable of sinking. Yet, to the Romans themselves, the institution of the arena was one of the defining features of their civilization.
Hardly any contemporary voices questioned the morality of staging gladiatorial combat. And the gladiators’ own epitaphs mention their profession without shame, apology, or resentment.
Most gladiators were slaves. They were subjected to a rigorous training, fed on a high-energy diet, and given expert medical attention. Hence they were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly.
For a gladiator who died in combat the trainer (lanista) might charge the sponsor of the fatal spectacle up to a hundred times the cost of a gladiator who survived. Hence it was very much more costly for sponsors to supply the bloodshed that audiences often demanded, although if they did allow a gladiator to be slain it was seen as an indication of their generosity.
Regardless of their status, gladiators might command an extensive following, as shown by graffiti in Pompeii, where walls are marked with comments such as Celadus, suspirium puellarum (‘Celadus makes the girls swoon’).
Indeed, apart from the tombstones of the gladiators, the informal cartoons with accompanying headings, scratched on plastered walls and giving a tally of individual gladiators’ records, are the most detailed sources that modern historians have for the careers of these ancient fighters.
Sometimes these graffiti even form a sequence. One instance records the spectacular start to the career of a certain Marcus Attilius (evidently, from his name, a free-born volunteer). As a mere rookie (tiro) he defeated an old hand, Hilarus, from the troupe owned by the emperor Nero, even though Hilarus had won the special distinction of a wreath no fewer than 13 times.
Attilius then capped this stunning initial engagement (for which he himself won a wreath) by going on to defeat a fellow-volunteer, Lucius Raecius Felix, who had 12 wreaths to his name. Both Hilarus and Raecius must have fought admirably against Attilius, since each of them was granted a reprieve (missio).
It was the prerogative of the sponsor, acting upon the wishes of the spectators, to decide whether to reprieve the defeated gladiator or consign him to the victor to be polished off. Mosaics from around the Roman empire depict the critical moment when the victor is standing over his floored opponent, poised to inflict the fatal blow, his hand stayed (at least temporarily) by the umpire.
The figure of the umpire is frequently depicted in the background of an engagement, sometimes accompanied by an assistant. The minutiae of the rules governing gladiatorial combat are lost to modern historians, but the presence of these arbiters suggests that the regulations were complex, and their enforcement potentially contentious.
The rules were probably specific to different styles of combat. Gladiators were individually armed in various combinations, each combination imposing its own fighting-style. Gladiators who were paired against an opponent in the same style were relatively uncommon.
One such type was that of the equites, literally ‘horsemen’, so called because they entered the arena on horseback, although for the crucial stage of the combat they dismounted to fight on foot.
Some of the most popular pairings pitted contrasting advantages and disadvantages against one another. Combat between the murmillo (‘fish-fighter’, so called from the logo on his helmet) and the thraex or hoplomachus was a standard favorite.
The murmillo had a large, oblong shield that covered his body from shoulder to calf; it afforded stout protection, but was very unwieldy. The thraex, on the other hand, carried a small square shield that covered only his torso, and the hoplomachus carried an even smaller round one.
Instead of calf-length greaves, both these types wore leg-protectors that came well above the knee. So the murmillo and his opponent were comparably protected, but the size and weight of their shields would have called for different fighting techniques, contributing to the interest and suspense of the engagement.
The most vulnerable of all gladiators was the net-fighter (retiarius), who had only a shoulder-guard (galerus) on his left arm to protect him. Being relatively unencumbered, however, he could move nimbly to inflict a blow from his trident at relatively long range, cast his net over his opponent, and then close in with his short dagger for the face-off.
He customarily fought the heavily-armed secutor who, although virtually impregnable, lumbered under the weight of his armour. As the retiarius advanced, leading with his left shoulder and wielding the trident in his right hand, his shoulder-guard prevented his opponent from striking the vulnerable area of his neck and face.
Not that all gladiators were right-handed. A disconcerting advantage accrued to the left-handed; they were trained to fight right-handers, but their opponents, unaccustomed to being approached from this angle, could be thrown off-balance by a left-handed attack. Left-handedness is hence a quality advertised in graffiti and epitaphs alike.
Originally the different fighting-styles must have evolved from types of combat that the Romans met among the peoples whom they fought and conquered – thraex literally means an inhabitant of Thrace, the inhospitable land bordered on the north by the Danube and on the east by the notorious Black Sea.
Subsequently, as the fighting-styles became stereotyped and formalized, a gladiator might be trained in an ‘ethnic’ style quite different from his actual place of origin.
It also became politically incorrect to persist in naming styles after peoples who had by now been comfortably assimilated into the empire, and granted privileged relationships with Rome. Hence by the Augustan period the term murmillo replaced the old term samnis, designating a people south of Rome who had long since been subjugated by the Romans and absorbed into their culture.
Blood and death
Despite the death that surrounded their lives, either from battle or as part of religious sacrifices, ancient Romans also viewed the shedding of human blood as entertainment. For example, gladiatorial combats originated as part of wealthy citizen‟s funeral ceremonies to symbolize the human struggle to avoid death, but eventually developed into widespread, popular spectacles of bloodshed in Roman society.
Spectacles of death were not only relatively normal events in ancient Rome, but were looked forward to by both the peasant and aristocratic classes and men and women alike. Death as sport was a common occurrence and in fact, Romans of all classes attended, accepted, and enjoyed the games. Throughout the arenas and amphitheaters of Rome, spectacles of death included gladiatorial combats, ritualized executions and animal hunts and these served the purpose of entertaining, punishing the people, serving as an example to other citizens, promoting interactions between the emperor and the ruled and even providing meals and meat rations to Roman citizens. Therefore, it is clear that the spectacle of bloodshed served a practical and significant purpose in Roman society. Blood shows, known as munera, became a spectator sport in ancient Rome, and the main purpose for holding such an event was to entertain the crowds. These spectacles played a major role in the festivals, social life, and public interactions of ancient Roman citizens for over a millennium.
The events were popular, and Romans of all classes found something redeeming or entertaining about the shows.
Many of these spectators saw the bloodshed and death of the gladiators as fun and even relaxing. Romans flocked to the arenas in the thousands. The popularity of these shows can be explained by the Roman love and desire for violence. To exemplify these Roman values, in the spectacles of the Roman amphitheater the death of the gladiator was not trivial but, instead, was often the entertainment‟s climax. Gladiators often died in these sports and if, by chance, their lives were spared, it was only because the provider of the games wished to spare him.
Seneca: not everyone thought that these shows were entertaining.
Seneca, who once arrived at the amphitheater in the middle of the day, between the wild beast shows that occurred in the morning and the gladiatorial shows presented in the afternoon, protested this lunch-time slaughter of common criminals.
“The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain….There is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death….The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty” (Epistle VII).
Seneca wrote these Moral Letters to reflect philosophical discourse on Stoic doctrines. It is clear that Seneca did not enjoy the severity and violence of the shows.
Spectacles as punishments
Besides providing entertainment, these spectacles of blood also served as punishments for Roman citizens, mostly in the form of execution. Like the gladiatorial games, these punishments too served as entertainment for the average citizen. Criminals were often executed in humiliating and excruciating ways: crucifixion, burning, death by wild beasts or in pre-determined battle re-enactments were all common methods. These spectacles of bloodshed were carried out in public often to exhibit the power of the state and to deter potentially disobedient citizens.Therefore, the punitive nature of bloodshed was twofold in purpose: to entertain and to convey a political message.
Animals and Food
Through such punishments or in the gladiatorial games, a large number of animals, from elephants to ostriches, were killed. The citizens who attended these combats and beast hunts “became players in a communal sporting drama.” By way of wild beast spectacles, emperors were also able to feed and entertain their people, something that citizens demanded of them.
Cicero thought the practice appealed to the worst parts of human nature. In a letter, the orator describes one venatio (organized by the famous general Pompey the Great) that was so brutal not even Rome’s typically bloodthirsty rabble could enjoy it.
The last day was that of the elephants, on which there was a great deal of astonishment on the part of the vulgar crowd, but no pleasure whatever. Nay, there was even a certain feeling of compassion aroused by it, and a kind of belief created that that animal has something in common with mankind.
The later writer Pliny the Elder describes the same sad spectacle.
When [the elephants] had lost all hope of escape, they tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey.
Pompey’s elephant-hunt spectacle, which took place close to the end of the Roman Republic, provoked an emotional response from the crowds—but it by no means marked the end of venationes. In fact, over the course of the early Roman Empire, animal shows reached staggering new scales. In his autobiographical Res Gestae, Augustus claims that he had 3500 African animals killed in 26 venationes over the course of his reign. The better part of a century later, the emperor Titus inaugurated the Colosseum with a hundred days of spectacle in which 5000 wild beasts were killed. And in public games held from 108 to 109 C.E., the emperor Trajan arranged for 11,000 animals to fight in the arena.
Capturing and transporting live animals from distant lands was a lucrative cottage industry in the Roman provinces. Several ancient texts describe the methods used by the suppliers of wild beasts. In his Satyricon, the late 1st century C.E. novelist Petronius waxed poetic about the business of procuring exotic animals for sport.
The wild beast is searched out in the woods at a great price, and men trouble [the god] Hammon deep in Africa to supply the beast whose teeth make him precious for slaying men; strange ravening creatures freight the fleets, and the padding tiger is wheeled in a gilded palace to drink the blood of men while the crowd applauds.
Other texts give more technical details. Pliny tells us how African hunters captured live elephants, which continued to be used occasionally in venationes despite the shame felt by the audience of Pompey’s elephant hunt. Men on horseback would chase the elephants into pits, where the animals would be left without food or water until they were physically depleted enough to be transported without too much trouble.
The bloody combats: a sport that provided entertainment to the population
It is clear that in ancient Rome, the spectacle of bloodshed served many functions. Gladiatorial combats were viewed as a sport, which provided entertainment for the citizens of Rome. The fulfillment of punishments was carried out through ritualized executions for all of Rome to witness, which not only entertained the crowds but also discouraged citizens. Likewise, animal hunts and the slaying of beasts as spectacles served the purpose of entertaining and also provided food for the malnourished populace of Rome. All of these events and elements brought the common masses into contact with the current ruler of Rome, which increased interactions between them. Altogether, “Romans confronted the limits of the human versus the natural world in beast combats, the limits of morality, law, and social order in executions, and the limits of human mortality in the gladiatorial games.”
Given the nature of these blood spectacles, it is no surprise that the enduring image of Rome, which persists to this day, will forever be marked by the bloodshed of the arena. Therefore, it is evident that the gladiatorial games and other spectacles of death served many purposes beyond sheer brutality.