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The first gladiatorial contest at Rome took place in 264 BC as part of aristocratic funerary ritual, a munus or funeral gift for the dead. Decimus Junius Brutus put on a gladiatorial combat in honor of his deceased father with three pairs of slaves serving as gladiators in the Forum Boarium (a commercial area that was named after the Roman cattle market) . The Romans called a gladiatorial contest a munus, that is, 'a duty' paid by descendants to a dead ancestor. The munus served the purpose of keeping alive the memory of an important individual after death. Munera were held some time after the funeral and were often repeated at annual or five-year intervals. Festus, a second century AD scholar, suggests that gladiatorial combat was a substitution for an original sacrifice of prisoners on the tombs of great warriors. There is an interesting parallel for this in the Iliad. Achilles sacrificed twelve Trojan boys on Patroclus’ tomb (23.175-76).1 This practice is perhaps based on the idea that blood could restore life to the dead. One thinks of the ghosts in the Odyssey who come up out of the depths, attracted by the animal blood of animals slaughtered by Odysseus (12.95-96). Tertullian, a second century AD Christian writer, claimed that gladiatorial combat was a human sacrifice to the manes or spirits of the dead (De Spect. 12.2-3). Ville supports this view of gladiatorial combat as a substitute for a human sacrifice that nourishes the honored dead with blood. He calls gladiatorial contests an amelioration of human sacrifice that permits at least the winner to survive the ritual (and sometimes even the loser)
Brooklyn Classic Department