Morituri te Salutant

28/01/2023 11:07

There were basically two types of shows that filled with public Roman amphitheatres: those where couples or groups of fighters fought each other, known as munera, and those where protagonists were wild beasts facing their hunters or fighting among themselves. These were called venationes.

These last ones had their origin in the celebrations organized by General Marcus Fulvius Nobilor when he returned from his campaigns in Ethiopia in the 2nd century BC. Nobilor brought lions and panthers to the circus, unknown animals in an unusual spectacle for the great Roman public. Success determined its continuity, wild animals were imported from the limits of the Empire, crocodiles from Egypt, bears and boars from Central Europe and Gaul, lions and leopards from Asia and rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses and elephants from Africa. In the year 46 BC, Julius Caesar did not hesitate to offer games that lasted five days and in which four hundred lions and forty elephants were send to the arena. When Titus inaugurated the Colosseum, he took the call for some games to an exaggeration. This lasted one hundred days and nine thousand animals were sacrificed. An exaggeration that Trajan surpassed when, in the year 107, he organized games that lasted for one hundred and twenty three days to celebrate his victories on the Danube; ten thousand gladiators participated and eleven thousand beasts were slaughtered. Sometimes people sentenced to death were send to the amphitheatre to face, unarmed, the beasts. A practice that, in times of persecution of Christians, led them to be martyred in the arena. The last known venatio was held in 523 during the reign of Theodoric.

By the other hand, the origin of the duels between gladiators goes back to the funeral games organized in honour of a deceased hero. The song XXIII of the Iliad describes those organized by Achilles, after the death of Patroclus, in which chariot races, boxing and wrestling competitions were held. This ancient Greek custom would lead to the periodic celebration of Panhellenic games in Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia. Transferred to the colonies of Magna Graecia, south of the Italian peninsula, were adopted by the Oscan and Samnite tribes. Romans must have known these rituals in Campania and, already in the year 264 BC, the sons of Decimus June Brutus Pera, celebrated games in the Boarius forum in Rome to honour their father. In 216 BC twenty two pairs of fighters met at the funeral of a Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and, as early as 183 BC, sixty pairs of gladiators fought at the funeral of a Publius Licinius.

Games with fighters were called munera, which means a gift, something offered by someone, and often were magistrates or wealthy Roman citizens who offered the shows. Generally for propaganda purposes or to gain the favour of the population, particularly in election eve, although they were also used to be offered by the emperors to celebrate a victory in a military campaign.

The word gladiator specifically designates a type of combatant, one armed with a short sword called gladius. Nets, tridents, helmets, shields and other protections completed a remarkable variety of equipment for fighting. The most common combination pitted the retiarius, armed with a net, trident and dagger, against the secutor, provocator or mirmillion, equipped with a sword, shield and helmet. The hoplomachus wielded a medium-length spear and the arbelas or scissor a hilt ending in a crescent-shaped blade fashioned against the retiarius' web. The murmillo or mirmillion protected himself with a helmet with a crest and a large visor and defended himself with a rectangular shield and a gladius. The Thracians carried a small shield and a short curved sword called sica, the most famous of these was Spartacus, who waged a three-year rebellion in Capua.

Fighters came from any corner of the empire, they used to be recruited before they were twenty years old among prisoners of war, slaves or condemned, there were even cases of free men who participated in duels in search of fame and glory. A businessman, the negotiator or familiae gladiatoriae, although he was commonly called lanista or, more prosaically, a butcher, was in charge of hiring and training the fighters. The lanista trained them in the ludus gladiatorium, the fighting schools. There were fees according to the quality or category of the men who were brought to the arena and the beginning of the combats was dressed in a studied liturgy that began with pomp, the parade participants made at entering the amphitheatre in a similar way to the one that bullfighters and their crews continue to do at the beginning of each bullfight. Fights were regulated in detail. Just like in boxing today, one or two referees closely followed the matchup. Obviously, the death of a gladiator meant the victory of his opponent, but it was not the most common outcome. Usually, when one of the fighters, wounded or exhausted, surrendered, he raised a palm up high asking for mercy. The referees looked at the tiers to ask for the opinion of the public.

Despite the violence of the confrontations, not more than ten percent of the gladiators lost their lives in the arena, they were costly in terms of training and training time and, therefore, they did not fight more than twice a year in the arena. Even so, few surpassed twenty victories. Some were famous, well known by the public of their time, such as Maximus, from the Capua ludus, who won the victory in thirty six fights, Flamma, who lost his life after having won thirty four times or Generosus, with twenty seven victories. Some had families, wives and children, and led relatively normal lives. Numerous tombstones with inscriptions referring to their condition have been preserved. Sometimes, in addition to their names, their age, victories and other details appear, such as those exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Nimes. Thus we know that neither the mirmillions Columbus Serenianus, Calistus, nor the Thracians Quintus Vettius Gracilis, Orpheus nor the rhetian Lucius Pompeius were over twenty five years old. Their wives, Sperata, Optata and Julia Fusca, paid three of them. Or the case of Urbicus, a young gladiator who fought in the amphitheatre of Mediolanum when the city was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. He must have been skilled and loved, especially loved, because his wife and admirers paid for one of these few funerary steles dedicated to a gladiator. His was discovered in the church of St Anthony, between Via Sforza and Corso di Porta Romana, in Milan. Urbicus usually fought as a secutor, paired with a retiarii. It is known that he came from Florence, that he participated in thirteen combats and that he was victorious in the first twelve. He lost the last one at the age of twenty two, leaving behind a wife named Lauricia with whom he shared the last seven years of his life, an older daughter named Fortune, and another just five months old, Olimpia.

© J.L.Nicolas


See more pictures