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Gladiators: Who they were?

Gladiators: Who they were?
Here some great information about the Gladiators from the Brooklyn Classic Department Gladiators were trained at special schools originally owned by private citizens, but later taken over by the imperial state to prevent the build up of a private army. Gladiators trained like true athletes, much like professional athletes do today. They received medical attention and three meals a day. Their training included learning how to use various weapons, including the war chain, net, trident, dagger, and lasso. Gladiators were usually recruited from criminals, slaves (especially captured fugitives), and prisoners of war. Because criminals had lost their citizen rights while slaves and prisoners of war had none, they had no choice about becoming a gladiator, if they had the physical and emotional make-up necessary for the profession. Some free-born men, however, although they had not lost their citizen rights, voluntarily chose the profession and bound themselves body and soul to the owner of a gladiatorial troupe (lanista) by swearing an oath "to endure branding, chains, flogging or death by the sword" and to do whatever the master ordered (Petronius Sat. 117.5). It has been estimated that by the end of the Republic, about half of the gladiators were volunteers.

But why would a free man want to become a gladiator? When he took the gladiatorís oath, he agreed to be treated as a slave and suffered the ultimate social disgrace (infamia). Seneca describes the oath as "most shameful" (Ep. 37.1-2). As unattractive as this may sound to us, there were advantages. The candidate's life took on new meaning. He became a member of a cohesive group that was known for its courage, good morale, and absolute fidelity to its master to the point of death. His life became a model of military discipline and through courageous behavior he was also now capable of achieving honor similar to that enjoyed by Roman soldiers on the battlefield. There were other advantages. For example, an aristocrat who had suffered a great financial setback in a lawsuit or who had squandered his inheritance would find it extremely difficult to make a living. After all, he had spent his life living on inherited wealth and was not used to working for a living. He could enter the army or become a school teacher, or take up a life of crime as a bandit. In comparison with these occupations, a career as a gladiator might become more attractive. As a gladiator, he would not fight more than 2 or 3 times a year and would have a chance at fame and wealth, employing those military skills that were appropriate to the citizen-soldier. In the arena, the volunteer gladiator could indulge his fantasy of military glory and fame before an admiring crowd. As a gladiator, he could achieve the kind of public adulation that modern athletes enjoy today. Two famous Roman gladiators were an aptly-named Triumphus and Fidus Annaeus (Sen. Prov. 4.4; NQ 4A, Praef. 8).

The gladiator was often the object of female adoration. This is clear in the following graffiti from Pompeii (CIL 4.4397 and 4356):

Celadus the Thracian1, three times victor and three times crowned, adored by young girls.

Crescens the nocturnal netter (retiarius) of young girls.

Apparently aristocratic matrons also found gladiators especially attractive. Juvenal tells us of a senatorís wife named Eppia, who ran off with her gladiator lover to Egypt (6.82 ff.). Of course, the free man would have to weigh these advantages with the risk of an early, violent death and the status of a slave. But perhaps that would have been better than becoming a schoolteacher! Even women fought as gladiators, although rarely. Aristocratic women and men fought as an entertainment for Nero in 63 AD. Domitian had women fight by torchlight and on another occasion had women fight with dwarves. Romans loved these exotic gladiatorial combats. In Petronius one character looks forward to the appearance of a female gladiator who fought on a British war chariot (essedaria) (Sat. 45.7.2). The banning of female gladiators by Septimius Severus (late second, early 3rd cent. AD) suggests that women were taking up this occupation in alarming numbers.

It should also be noted that some emperors were swept away by gladiator mania, such as Caligula and Commodus (late second century AD). Both of these emperors actually appeared in the arena as gladiators, no doubt with opponents who were careful to inflict no harm. Both of these emperors were mentally unstable and apparently felt no inhibitions in indulging their gladiatorial fantasies. But gladiator mania affected not only the mentally unbalanced. At least seven other emperors of sound mind (including Titus and Hadrian) either practiced as gladiators or fought in gladiatorial contests.

Gladiators were owned by a person called a lanista and were trained in the lanistaís school. Gladiatorial combat was as much a science as modern boxing (Sen. Ep. 22.1). Training involved the learning of a series of figures, which were broken down into various phases. Sometimes fans complained that a gladiator fought too mechanically, according to the numbers. In the early Empire there were four major gladiatorial schools, but by this time, the training of gladiators had been taken over by the state. No doubt it was thought too dangerous to allow private citizens to own and train gladiators, who could be easily turned into a private army for revolutionary purposes. Therefore, with very few exceptions, gladiators were under the control and ownership of the emperor. The lanista made a profit by renting or selling the troupe. This was a very lucrative business, but on the other hand, he was viewed as among the lowest of the low on the social scale. The objection was that these men derived their whole income from treating human beings like animals. Auguet writes2:

In the eyes of the Romans he was regarded as both a butcher and a pimp. He played the role of scapegoat; it was upon him that society cast all the scorn and contempt aroused by an institution which reduced men to the status of merchandise or cattle.

But by a rather tortured rationalization an upper-class citizen could own and maintain his own troupe and even hire them out without suffering the scorn of his fellow aristocrats. The saving factor was that the citizen was a dabbler and not a professional: his main source of income did not derive from his ownership of gladiators.