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But the first stone amphitheatre at Rome appears at the same time as Augustus imposed his control over public shows; it was built by another of his trusted commanders, C. Statilius Taurus in 29 BC. Modern estimates show that it could hold an audience of 40—45, seated, plus 5, standing, though ancient sources exaggeratedly suggest 80— 90, Once the Colosseum had been built, it became the prototype for all later amphitheatres.

There can have been few more successful attempts at giving munificence a permanent form. Domitian may have been responsible for reorganising them after the completion of the Flavian amphitheatre. One half of the remains of a building which appears to have been the ludus magnus was excavated in the s on the north side in the Via S. Giovanni in Laterano to the north-east of the Colosseum. The centre of the rectangular building consisted of an elliptical training ground, with underground passages leading directly to the Colosseum. Greek cities had a financial advantage here, in that they already had public theatres suitable for such spectacles, and only minor architectural alterations for safety reasons were required; and in the Celtic north-west of the empire, both the availability of funds and local experience with massive earthworks meant that earthen rather than masonry structures were preferred.

Reliable lists are now available of sites known to have possessed such buildings; Golvin lists certain, and another 86 probable, purpose-built amphitheatres. The form of the building is circular and it consists of fifty surviving vaults.

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Emperors & Gladiators

Above each vault there are five rows of arches, one rising above the other, all of the same form and size, made out of blocks of stone of the type called Kaddzan, of incomparable beauty. Above each row of arches, there is a circuit of panels, on which there are various reliefs and strange figures of persons, animals and ships, made with incredible skill. In antiquity, so far as we can tell, this building was used for games and public spectacles. If members of the elite, from emperors to provincial worthies, were prepared to invest such enormous resources in gladiatorial displays as a means of winning favour with the people, then that implied that such shows were indeed popular with at least considerable sections of the population throughout the Roman empire.

The evidence for that is overwhelming. Games were a stock subject of conversation among the elite. Unfortunately no comprehensive list of such mosaics appears to have been compiled to date. Some of these mosaics were placed in dining rooms, reminding us of the statement by the Augustan writer Nicolaus of Damascus reported by Athenaeus that some Romans liked to watch gladiators fighting while they feasted. Other mosaics may have been placed in the reception rooms in which important Romans received their clients at the morning salutatio; this is likely to have been the context of the Augst mosaic, whose panels are intended to be seen by persons standing around the walls of a room with an open, colonnaded entrance, rather than reclining in the middle as they would in a dining room.

As we have seen, some mosaics record the names of individual gladiators, and it seems likely that these were not fictitious, but real persons, an attempt to give permanence to a particular munus paid for by the owner of the house. Some of the most striking of these representations have been found in North Africa; the Flavian one from Zliten has already been mentioned, with its representations not just of gladiators in combat and fights between wild animals a bull and bear , but also of the execution of criminals by being left to the attentions of wild beasts see p.

Not all mosaics including representations of gladiatorial duels as well as venationes are early: the famous Borghese mosaic is thought to date to ca. AD 3 It was discovered in the atrium of a villa near Tusculum in , and was transported to the Villa Borghese at Rome, where it is on display, considerably restored. It is But the fashion seems to have been particularly popular in Gallia Belgica covering the modern Benelux countries, the Rhineland, and much of Switzerland and north-eastern France , where it may be associated with the predilection for visual representations of scenes from daily life, e.

Representations of gladiators appear on mosaics from both urban and rural sites in this province, especially in the late second and early third centuries AD. But otherwise the many fine mosaics from the late third century onwards eschew gladiators and concentrate on scenes of chariot racing and venationes, including the hunting and capture of wild beasts which was a prerequisite of their display in the circus: examples of such scenes occur throughout the empire, with famous examples of a chariot race in Barcelona and of venationes in the baths of Caracalla at Rome and at Piazza Armerina in Sicily.

A mosaic found at Cologne in and claimed as a fourth-century representation of a gladiatorial contest was far too heavily restored to have any evidential value, and may in fact have represented something quite different, for instance an imperial adventus. There is much other if less spectacular artistic evidence from Roman Britain for interest in gladiators, including several terra sigillata beakers found at Colchester see figure 12 for one with a retiarius fighting a secutor.

No fewer than eighteen fragments of glass cups with representations of gladiators have been found from different sites in Britain, including two produced from the same mould from Hartlip, Kent, and Southwark ; others were found at London, Colchester, Wroxeter, Dorchester, Kingsholm Glos. This suggests that interest in munera was more marked among soldiers and colonists than amongst wealthy members of local elites keen to emphasise their incorporation into Roman culture and political structures. Thracians were a favourite symbol of manliness because much of their body was left visible to the audience.

Augustus restricted women, other than the six Vestal Virgins, to watching gladiators from the rearmost rows of seats. 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.


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Like pimps and prostitutes, public performers such as actors and gladiators sold their bodies for the delectation of others, if only visually. There were anxieties about maintaining control over the gladiators themselves. When Caesar invaded Italy in 49 BC, his opponents were particularly concerned about the five thousand gladiators owned by him whom he kept at or near Capua. Cornelius Lentulus considered promising them their freedom from Caesar, their owner if they fought on the Pompeian side.

Gladiators continued to be involved in violent uprisings in the early empire.


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These stories were created by hostile sources, but it is not unlikely that, during the violent political conflicts of the last generation of the republic, public figures should wish to be accompanied and protected by slaves who had had some training in fighting. During the civil wars of AD 69, imperial gladiators are again mentioned as being used in the fighting; and again, such stories are likely to be based on fact as well as embellished by hostile reporting. Notwithstanding the widespread popularity of munera, to call someone either a lanista or a gladiator is a standard term of abuse in classical invective, literary attacks denigrating an opponent.

He knew all the gladiators by name and knew all the details of their previous contests and their wounds. He even went through a training course under the supervision of a professional gladiator, although he came from a good family. The ultimate disgrace was for a free citizen to fight as a gladiator.

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What would Cato the Elder have thought! The contrast between the fame of individual gladiators and the infamia with which gladiators as a group were stigmatised is striking. Infamia as a concept in Roman law was not so much an impediment imposed by the law, as a recognition by judicial officials and increasingly by legislators and jurists of the fact that certain individuals were not thought trustworthy by society at large, for example because they had committed a crime or had failed to manage their property to the point of declaring bankruptcy.

But, from the late second century BC, it seems that anyone who had at any time fought as a gladiator was tainted with infamia, whatever their personal standing. The provisions of the Gracchan Lex Acilia de repetundis BC for the selection of juries to try cases of extortion by provincial governors survive; they may well repeat earlier regulations.

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Lanistae and gladiators are classified along with actors and pimps in the very detailed regulations about who could and who could not appear on the stage and in the arena in a decree of AD 19 of which a copy was found at Larinum in central Italy. He assimilates gladiators, even if they are free, to prostitutes and to those suicides who have hanged themselves, i.

Emperors and gladiators

Some were said to be unusual in learning to fight left-handed in order to frighten their opponents; examples are attested by historical and rhetorical writers, on an inscription, and on visual representations on mosaics, reliefs and pottery. One widely held explanation, first formulated by W.

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Henzen in , was in terms of the historical origins of gladiatorial contests: they were not Roman at all, but borrowed from the Etruscans. This theory was based on a statement by the Augustan writer Nicolaos of Damascus, quoted by Athenaeus, explicitly asserting that the Romans took the custom over from the Etruscans. A number of Etruscan tomb paintings from the sixth and fifth centuries BC contain representations of funeral games, but none of them includes pictures of gladiators.

On the other hand a considerable number of south Italian vases of the second half of the fourth century BC bear representations of men engaged in single combat; and a Lucanian tomb at Paestum includes such combats among the scenes of funeral games in honour of the deceased. As Georges Ville persuasively argued, it was in Campania, not Etruria, that the Romans encountered gladiators fighting at funeral games. If we seek crosscultural parallels, there are many examples of young men, especially in pastoral mountain societies, engaging in more or less ritualised combat in order to define a ranking order; sometimes they consist of unarmed wrestling matches—as among Swiss herdsmen—but fights with weapons, often resulting in bloodshed, are not unheard of.

It is interesting that Procopius, centuries later, mentions fighting games amongst Samnite shepherd lads.

An Etruscan origin appealed to those who shared the widespread nineteenth-century belief that there was a link between morality and race: the morally superior Indo-European Romans had been tainted by contact with the morally decadent Etruscans. The story that the Etruscans reached Italy after having been forced to leave Lydia because of a famine is first found in Herodotus.

Speculations about the functional origins of munera have as little value as those about their geographical origins. Whatever the functions of reciprocal killing may have been in their original Campanian or Etruscan context, they will not necessarily have applied to the republican Roman society which thought them worth borrowing; and Augustus and his successors, and the Italian and provincial elites of the imperial period, will have had other reasons again for seeing munera as meaningful.

The latter period is the focus of this book, but arguments about the original role and context of gladiatorial combats deserve a brief discussion. The theory that they originated in human sacrifices looks to the accusations by Tertullian and other Christian writers that the gladiator was being sacrificed to the ghosts manes of the deceased; and Roman munera were clearly originally associated with funerals.

Herodotus ascribes human sacrifices at funerals to the Etruscans; when Octavian sacked Perugia in a civil war in 40 BC, he slaughtered captives on the pretext that such killings had once been an Etruscan tradition. Whatever the Etruscans were reported by hostile sources as having done, there is no evidence that gladiators were sacrificed in this way, whether or not they were associated with Etruscan funerals; and there is no evidence at all that the Romans at any period thought that any such human sacrifices were appropriate in connection with funerals.

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The evidence for scapegoat-type killings in the Roman empire is slim, and in any case not relevant to gladiators: there is a story about a Christian called Dasius who was martyred at Durostorum on the Danube in the reign of Maximian and Diocletian for refusing to play the suicidal role of Cronos in a midwinter festival.

From the time when gladiators first fought at Rome at the funeral of Junius Brutus Pera in BC until the time of Augustus, they appeared only on occasions which whatever the real reasons why their editores put them on were overtly supposed to commemorate an individual who had recently died. Instead of seeing a gladiatorial combat as a public display of killing, it might be useful to see it as a demonstration of the power to overcome death. The victorious gladiator overcame death by showing that he was a better fighter than his opponent.

But the loser, too, might win back his life by satisfying the audience that he had fought courageously and skilfully. If he did not prove this, he would be killed by the opponent with whom he had shared his gladiatorial training.