The Rise of Gladiatorial Combat in Rome


Gladiatorial contests (munera gladitoria), hold a central place in our
perception of Roman behavior. They were also a big influence on how Romans
themselves ordered their lives. Attending the games was one of the practices
that went with being a Roman. The Etruscans who introduced this type of
contest in the sixth century BC, are credited with its development but its the
Romans who made it famous. A surviving feature of the Roman games was when a
gladiator fell he was hauled out of the arena by a slave dressed as the Etruscan
death-demon Charun. The slave would carry a hammer which was the demon's
attribute. Moreover, the Latin term for a trainer-manager of gladiators
(lanista), was believed to be an Etruscan word. (4:50) Gladiators of Ancient
Rome lived their lives to the absolute fullest.
Gladiatorial duels had originated from funeral games given in order to
satisfy the dead man's need for blood, and for centuries their principle
occasions were funerals. The first gladiatorial combats therefore, took place
at the graves of those being honored, but once they became public spectacles
they moved into amphitheaters. (2:83) As for the gladiators themselves, an aura
of religious sacrifice continued to hang about their combats. Obviously most
spectators just enjoyed the massacre without any remorseful reflections. Even
ancient writers felt no pity, they were aware that gladiators had originated
from these holocausts in honor of the dead. What was offered to appease the
dead was counted as a funeral rite. It is called munus (a service) from being a
service due. The ancients thought that by this sort of spectacle they rendered
a service to the dead, after they had made it a more cultured form of cruelty.
The belief was that the souls of the dead are appeased with human blood, they
use to sacrifice captives or slaves of poor quality at funerals. Afterwards it
seemed good to obscure their impiety by making it a pleasure. (6:170) So after
the acquired person had been trained to fight as best they can, their training
was to learn to be killed! For such reasons gladiators were sometimes known as
bustuarii or funeral men. Throughout many centuries of Roman history, these
commemorations of the dead were still among the principle occasions for such
combats. Men writing their wills often made provisions for gladiatorial duels
in connection with their funerals. Early in the first century AD, the people of
Pollentia forcibly prevented the burial of an official, until his heirs had been
compelled to provide money for a gladiators' show. (1:174)
It was in Campania and Lucania that the gladiatorial games came to their
full development and took on their classical form. In these new surroundings
they took root and flourished, as can be seen in fourth century BC, tomb
paintings. These pictures show helmeted gladiators carrying shields and lances,
covered with wounds and dripping with blood. (2:84) For Rome a decisive moment
in gladiatorial history was reached in 246 BC, the year when the first Punic War
began. At the funeral of Brutus Pera, his two sons for the first time exhibited,
in the cattle market, three simultaneous gladiatorial combats. By 216 BC the
number of fights given on a single occasion had risen to twenty two.(14:16) In
105 BC the two consuls of the year made gladiatorial games official. There
were no doubts of religious tendency, but the purpose of Roman spectacles, were
a public display of power, that power was primarily military, and also to
compensate the soft Greek culture which now was abroad. (8:98)

The Gladiators

Those compelled to fight gladiator duels included prisoners of war,
slaves and condemned criminals. Among them were numerous followers of the new
Christian faith. During this time persecution fell heavily on their faith, many
won immortal fame as martyrs. Fighting in the arena was one of the sentences
earned by the sacrilege accused against members of the Christian religion
because of their refusal to sacrifice to the emperor. It was written that these
Christians were forced, as gladiatorial novices to run the gauntlet. At other
times they were thrown to the wild beasts. Criminals that were used had
committed crimes that carried a death sentence or harsh manual labor. The
crimes which led to the arena were murder, treason, robbery and arson.
Criminals sentenced to forced labor were often obliged to serve as gladiators,
and were sentenced to three years of combat and two years in the schools.
Sometimes penalties were differentiated according to social class, thus for
certain crimes which in the case of slaves would involve execution, free men or
freedmen