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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

To Live and Die by the Sword

A portion of Gerome's 1872 painting "Pollice Verso"
The celebrated gladiator—all at once a brand of fighters considered barbarian, tough, and fierce, but also honorable. The very word conjures images and expectations. Gladiators served as entertainment to crowds all over the Roman Empire. A day at the games was like being live at the NFL, NHL, WWF, and FIFA all rolled into one—when there was an all out brawl. And the fans were just as, well, fanatical, which fueled the games and gladiators' existence for almost a thousand years. In every colonial city, every regional capital, and even in the frontier hamlets, fights were held in many forms. Spectacles included the execution of prisoners, title bouts between crowd favorites, and sometimes brave patricians acting as gladiators, wanting to hear the hordes cheer for them. As a staple of Roman entertainment, the greatest monument to gladiators and their games remains today with the Colosseum. But something so grand and so timeless started with something very small—the gladius.

The gladius is a sword, just a small handheld blade about the length of your arm. And the word is the root for "gladiator." Romans adapted the gladius from something they encountered when conquering ancient Hispania. But as Romans always had, they made it their own. Gladii were used to jab and slash in close quarter combat. Given the nature of Roman military tactics, meaning that soldiers wound up in a lot of hand-to-hand battles, the gladius became the weapon of issue for legions that spread across the whole of the ancient western world, from Hispania to Gaul to Sicily to the borders of Babylonia and to Egypt. So it should be no surprise that the gladiator would use such a blade, and for the gladiator, it was the symbol of who he was.

There's not a lot of alignment between historians on an origin story for the games. Livy, however, makes the best case and comes with more evidence. Like all things Roman, gladiator games were borrowed. In this case they came from an early Greek colonial peoples called the Campanians, although some think they go back further to the Etruscans. Nevertheless, Campanians kicked butt over Samnium, a competing region in Southern Italy, and celebrated in 310 BC with reenactments using live "performers." Also according to Livy, the first recorded Roman game occurred about fifty years later during what was called a munus—which is defined as sort of a commemorative obligation for a dead ancestor. In this case, the event took place during Rome's First Punic War with Carthage—there were three Punic Wars, but that is another story (see Hannibal kicked butt). This is around 264 or 265 BC. To honor his father having died in battle, a Roman had three-gladiator pairs fight to the death in a cattle market forum.

Classic gladiators depicted in a 2nd century mosaic.
The look and feel of those early combatants was very rudimentary, each man armed with only a sica and a small shield. But while the First Punic War may have given rise to Roman adaptations of the games, it was Hannibal's rampage through the Italian peninsula during the Second Punic War that gave the classic look we so easily identify as "gladiator." Again, Samnium comes into play. Samnium was one of the regions of southern Italy in which the people sided with Hannibal. Their warriors wore particular styled helmets and armor while carrying the gladius and rectangular shield. Their fighting style and armor became a standard for gladiators as we picture them—probably because when Rome "reclaimed" the area, many of the Samnites were sold into slavery, and consequently, into gladiator schools.

It was also during the Second Punic War that the games grew in size and spectacle. Let's face it, the Romans got their tails handed to them by Hannibal, so there were a lot of fallen Roman nobles who needed munera to honor them. Many of those munera events pitted fighters against each other. In one there were twenty-two pairs—some were volunteers, such as nobles or high-status non-Romans. Others were war prisoners, such as Samnites. Years later the munera games were lasting for days, and one went through 120 gladiators. It was also in this developmental period that game sponsorships evolved. Yep, event sponsorships way, way predate modern corporate sponsorships of sporting events. All of this took shape as the sun set on the "Republic" years of Rome—that is, the years when Julius Caesar was coming to power as an emperor. Such events were extravagantly expensive but, as modern marketers know, they are effective opportunities for self-promotion via exciting entertainment to a wide audience. The same held true in ancient Rome, perhaps even more so. Those "fans" were the target for politicians or others interested in public awareness of them or their enterprise.

Some of the entertainments offered at the games
Along with the evolution of the gladiators and associated events, a big business of training and ownership grew. Rome's military provided a deep well, supplying gladiator candidates. If soldier-prisoners weren't used for work in state mines or quarries, they were sold on the open market. But being sold into a gladiator school didn't mean automatic training. If one was deemed unworthy, then they became live targets for whatever need they could fulfill in the arenas. They may have just been fed to fierce beasts as entertainment before a title fight. For others, for prisoners of war, their surrender or capture and enslavement meant that their life was now worthless. But in the arena as a gladiator, they could redeem their honor.
Additional supplies of gladiators came from slaves condemned to the arena, to gladiator schools or games as punishment for crimes—essentially a method for state execution. Interestingly, however, poor Roman citizens, or even non-citizens might volunteer to join up. After all, gladiator school offered training, food, housing, and a shot at fame and fortune. You read that right, fame and fortune. 

Not unlike modern professional athletes, gladiators kept their prize money and any gifts they received, which could be significant. It's recorded that Tiberius paid some retired gladiators the equivalent of $500,000 each to return to the arena. Other emperors gave property. But all that came behind an oath "to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword." Just to drive home a point, the average gladiator lifespan was almost non-existent. Few survived more than 10 fights or lived past the age of 30. Perhaps that is why at the start of the games, the words uttered by gladiators to the emperor or game promotoer were, "we who are about to die, salute you."

Even when the games evolved to where the outcome of combat did not include killing the losing gladiator, accidents happened; and to lose a good fighter could be expensive. Gladiators cost money to house, feed, train and transport. The managers of these gladiators didn't like losing really good ones. As the games evolved to a point where a gladiator would signal his defeat, instead of death he left the arena in disgrace ... until the next match. If a gladiator died from an afore mentioned accident, there were rules and regulations governing compensation. Even when the games demanded that the outcome of combat be death, it was the promoter of that event who had final word on the fate of a gladiator—somewhat, because as the games grew in popularity, so did the opinion of the crowds.

Promotional poster 
There is a scene in the 2000 film, Gladiator with Russell Crow. In it, Maximus (Crowe) defeated another gladiator and the decision to let him live or die was at hand. The crowd chanted, "kill ... kill!" Emperor Commodus, who actually backed the defeated gladiator, complied with the crow and gave the thumbs down, meaning death. Normally it would have been the fight promoter or even sponsor, but for the film and dramatic impact, it was Commodus. Regardless of whose thumb was signaling the action, rarely did a decision go against the crowd. However, equally representative was the fact that some gladiators really controlled the fandom of the crowds. If they fell behind a particular favorite, that favorite could do no wrong in the arena.

Much of our impressions about gladiators come from Hollywood. Watching cable shows like Spartacus or movies like Pompeii, the idea of pimping gladiators to Rome's more randy women of society is postulated. There is not a lot of evidence for this, but historian Thomas Weidermann addressed it in his work, Emperors and Gladiators:
Women as well as men found gladiatorial contests, and gladiators, attractive. Some much-quoted epigraphic evidence suggests that this attraction might be sexual: at Pompeii, the retarius Crescens was known as 'the netter of girls by night' and 'the girls' darling'. Thracians were a favourite symbol of manliness because much of their body was left visible to the audience. This obviously constituted a potential danger to the Roman male's control over his womenfolk. Augustus restricted women, other than the six Vestal Virgins, to watching gladiators from the rearmost rows of seats. It proved impossible to put a stop to stories about sexual associations between gladiators and women of the elite, even including empresses. The wife of Marcus Aurelius, Faustina, was suspected of having had affairs with gladiators; only this could explain why her son Commodus was so interested in the sport. ... Roman anxieties about the sexual attractions of gladiators are given expression by the fact that they are classified together with prostitutes in Roman legislation, and that grammatical texts associate the Latin word for the gladiator's trainer (lanista) with that for a pimp (leno). Like pimps and prostitutes, public performers such as actors and gladiators sold their bodies for the delectation of others, if only visually.
This doesn't really eliminate the possibility that clandestine sexual transgression by high-caste spectators and their heroes of the arena. But what it illustrates is the low regard for gladiators outside the context of the games. Thus a woman of status cavorting with a gladiator was very inappropriate, and as wildly wicked as Romans could be in private, their public personas were immensely important to them so if something like an affair with a gladiator got out—it was bad. Donald Kyle cited just such situation in his book, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome.
What was the youthful charm that so fired Eppia? What hooked her? What did she see in him to make her put up with being called "the gladiator's moll"? Her poppet, her Sergius, was no chicken, with a dud arm that prompted hope of early retirement. Besides his face looked a proper mess, helmet-scarred, a great wart on his nose, an unpleasant discharge always trickling from one eye. But he was a gladiator. That word makes the whole breed seem handsome, and made her prefer him to her children and country, her sister, her husband. Steel is what they fall in love with.
Apparently Miss Eppia was a senator's wife. She hooked up with Sergius, a gladiator, however he left her after they eloped and ran off to Egypt. She had abandoned her whole life and really her country for a failed affair.

What is fascinating is that as much as Rome loved its gladiators, they loathed them in society. The gladiators were segregated and despised; and, yet, they were so admired as illustrated by this quote from Cicero:
Gladiatorial game memorabilia:
Imagine buying these from
street vendors at the Colosseum.
"Even when [gladiators] have been felled, let alone when they are standing and fighting, they never disgrace themselves. And suppose a gladiator has been brought to the ground, when do you ever see one twist his neck away after he has been ordered to extend it for the death blow?"
Equally intriguing is that even for those in the empire who abhorred violence, and yes, they did exist, saw in gladiators certain virtues. Unconditional obedience to their master and to fate, and a steeled cool in the face of death—they held neither hope nor illusions of hope. In daily life, they met death face-to-face, and always at the pleasure of a crowd. The public saw brand attributes in the gladiator that were simultaneously redeeming qualities—courage, dignity and loyalty. So strong were these that while Roman society openly shunned the gladiator in public, secretly in the Roman heart beat the desire to be like the gladiator—the noble gladiator.

Therefore, submitted for your approval:
Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant