Last of the Mohicans
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Types of Gladiator
The origins of Imperial Rome’s infamous blood-sports has been a source of debate for historians – many are currently of the opinion that gladiatorial combat was a bloated perversion of an Etruscan funerary ritual. But no one could deny that, by the lifetime of Julius Caesar, staged fights between armed slaves and prisoners of war had become the most popular form of entertainment in the Roman world, and one of the most expensive.
Contrary to Hollywood depictions, there was much more to a gladiator than some lone, swashbuckling hero armed with nothing but a sword and perhaps a shield. His body was built by training and brutal exercise routines that made him muscular to the point of deformity, and he lived in a world of psychological stress few people alive today could comprehend. Every trained gladiator was a specialist, belonging to a particular “school” of combat. Matched against men whose training was just as intense, but limited, as his own, often times before the eyes of thousands of fickle spectators, the gladiator’s existence was a fragile thing that depended very largely on how fast of a learner he was, and how relentlessly brutal he was prepared to be.
What follows is a brief examination of weapons, tactics, and (when applicable) inspirations for the known types of gladiator.
The retiarius, armed with a trident and a modified fishing net, was one of the most iconic types of gladiator between the 1st and 4th Centuries. They also appear to have been amongst the most expendable of gladiators. Retiarii were usually young men, probably “recruited” in their late teens and invariably retired (assuming they survived) by their mid-twenties. Because they fought bare-headed and almost naked, many gladiatorial lanistas may have also made a point of selecting the most handsome and well-built of men for this style of fighting. By all accounts, retiarii were very popular with the ladies – several crude graffitis in Pompeii attest to this fact.
The retiarius was usually pitted against a secutor, or some other form of heavy swordsman. His objective – indeed, his only faint hope for success – was to trip or ensnare his opponent with his net, and then use his trident and/or secondary weapon to kill or enforce the surrender of the conquered man. Modern experiments have shown that a skilled retiarius could have cast his net over a target as far as thirty feet away; of course this feat would require a level of concentration a man fighting for his life before an enormous crowd is not likely to enjoy. Contemporary depictions of successful retiarii show them wielding their three-pronged trident with both hands, stabbing an opponent’s belly or groin after tripping or ensnaring him. The retiarius also carried a dagger underneath his belt, presumably for finishing off a wounded opponent, or if he needed to cut through his net under some desperate circumstance.
Most depictions of retiarii show the fighter wearing only a subligaculum (loincloth) secured at the waist with a leather belt. His only armor was the galerus, a bronze plate protecting his left shoulder. Well-known retiarii often had large and richly decorated galerii. Some also appear to have worn padded armor over the rest of their left arm.
A rare and unpopular variant of the retiarius was the laquearius, who was equipped with a lasso rather than a net. The inspiration for this type of fighter may have been the Sarmatian tribes, who used lassos to trip up their enemies.
The secutor, or “chaser”, received his name because his traditional role was as the opponent of retiarius – thus his experience of arena combat often consisted of chasing a younger and more lightly-equipped man around the arena, and anticipating the latter’s well-judged casting of his net. Like the retiarius himself, the secutor was effectively naked aside from a loincloth, but his armor was more substantial – it included greaves, an egg-shaped helmet, and at least sometimes some form of scale or padded manica (armor for the sword arm).
The secutor was armed with a gladius, presumably similar or identical in design to the legionary sword. In his left hand he carried a rectangular, concave shield that effectively resembled a miniature version of a legionary shield. It is believed that the secutor usually – not always, but very often – triumphed in his stereotypical duel with the retiarius.
Early gladiators in the 2nd and 1st Centuries BCE were often prisoners of war, and were armed in their native fashion. Such was the case with the gladiator type known as the “Gaul”, which appears to have died out in the 1st Century CE (by which point there would have been no more Gaulish prisoners of war being shipped to Rome, for obvious reasons). Gladiators of this type were equipped with medium length swords – whether these were Roman stabbing swords or Celtic slashing swords is unsure – and they would have had oval or rectangular shields. At least one depiction of this style of gladiator shows the fighters clad in scalemail and wearing helmets that look more Eastern-Iranian than Celtic in style. The murmillo evolved from the Gaul.
The murmillo was originally inspired by Gaulish fighters in the arena, but the end result of this gladiator’s evolution bears more resemblance to a Roman legionary. His armor was limited to greaves and padded manicae, but he defended himself with a concave rectangular body shield identical to that used by the military, and likely of higher quality. It was probably both the largest, and potentially most cumbersome shield one could see in the arena. His weapon was a thrusting gladius.
The murmillo wore a heavy helmet often with a fish or some oceanic symbol for a decoration, this is why they were often called “fish men” or “fish gladiators”. This also led to an assortment of tasteless puns whenever a murmillo was paired with a retiarius “net man” in the arena, though more common opponents for the murmillo included the hoplomachus, the Thracian, and the provocator.
Rome’s Ludus Gallicus was a school devoted to training the finest murmillones in the Empire. Their discipline and skill with their shields was even respected in the military – Ammianus Marcellinus once admiringly commented of Sassanid infantry, that they “fought like murmillones” – implying that they marched in formation and used excellent technique with their shields.
It is perhaps ironic that a gladiator type descended from the impetuous warriors of ancient Gaul earned such a reputation for being conservative and well-disciplined.
Like the Gaul, the Thracian was originally modeled on the preferred equipment of Thracian captives who found their way into the arena. Whether the famous gladiator Spartacus was a Thracian by birth, or a Thracian by his arsenal – or both – is a mystery. Also like the Gaul, the Thracian appears to have died out under the early Empire; they were still prevalent enough in the Flavian era, however, for Domitian to execute a man for claiming a certain Thracian was better than his favorite gladiator.
The Thracian’s arms were a small rectangular shield, something of a miniature version of the legionary shield, and a small curved sword or dagger called a sica – the sica was known to the Romans as the favorite weapon of Thracian warriors as well as Jewish rebels in the 1st Century. He was lightly protected by greaves, perhaps a padded manica, and a particularly heavy and distinctive helmet that was traditionally decorated with a griffin. The Thracian appears to have been regarded as a particularly light and swashbuckling form of gladiator and enjoyed great popularity.
An entire school in Rome herself – the Ludus Dacicus – was dedicated to training Thracian gladiators. Many of the “recruits” into this school in the 1st and 2nd Centuries were from Dacia – whether or not the school, or indeed Thracian gladiators themselves, were still in existence by the 3rd Century is unknown.
The hoplomachus was deliberately given his Greek name because his equipment was supposedly an imitation (more like a parody) of the arsenal of a Greek hoplite. Unlike most “heavy” gladiators, the hoplomachus used a medium-length thrusting spear as his primary weapon, using it in conjunction with a round bronze shield that was a miniature version of the Greek hoplon. He was equipped with a very short sword as a secondary weapon. A heavy helmet, greaves, and fabric manicae were his usual armor.
The hoplomachus was usually paired up with a heavy swordsman – especially a murmillo – and surviving Roman artwork suggests that they were particularly prone to losing these bouts.
The provocator’s name is self-explanatory. He was one of the most heavily armored gladiators, but was trained to be a highly aggressive swordsman. In many respects he was only a slight variation of the murmillo, and also bore great resemblance to a legionary in terms of weaponry and training. A small scutum similar to that of a legionary but smaller, and a dagger or particularly short sword were his crucial equipment. Armor included the usual greaves, fabric manicae, and heavy helmet.
The rather puny size of his weapon meant that the provocator was the ultimate close-combat fighter in the arena. He seems to have been paired with gladiators of any other type, relying on his high-quality shield before getting close enough to put his little sword to use.
The provocator and his weapon were fabulous proof that it’s not how big your gladius is, it’s how you use it.
Scissores were a very rare and poorly documented breed of gladiator, alternatively known as the dimachaerus. Equipped with the usual helmet, greaves, and arm-padding, his distinction was being equipped with two swords, or a sword and dagger, with no shield. Only the fastest, most foolhardy, or most supremely skilled of gladiators would fight foregoing a shield; if successful such a man would be a definite crowd-pleaser.
Archery duels are known to have taken place in the arena, between men equipped with composite bows (and thus termed saggitarii). Whether these were venatores (beast-hunters), or proper gladiatores, is a mystery, as is the degree of damage (to each other and to the audience!) these bowmen were intended to do with their projectiles.
The essendarius was probably unarmored or lightly armored, and equipped with javelins and a sword, though more typical gladiator equipment is not impossible. His distinction is that he drove and may have fought from a Celtic-style chariot. This gladiator-type was extremely popular in Rome herself in the second half of the 1st Century CE; at least one female essendarius achieved celebrity status in the arena. From the 2nd Century onwards, however, chariots virtually disappeared from the arena – likely a testimony to the fact that Rome now seldom encountered enemies who used them.
The eques was a form of historical reconstruction, of a Greek cavalryman of previous centuries. Wearing a Boeotian-style brimmed helmet along with the usual manicae and greaves, he defended himself with a round shield (parma) and fought with a thrusting spear (hasta) and gladius. Equites were apparently paired against one another in a form of primitive jousting.
Andabatae are condemned criminals sentenced to die in the arena. As is often the case with such poor wretches, death will only come as a sweet release after agonizing and frustrating hours or days of humiliation, pain, and terror. This particular flavor of criminal is likely a man who has some general experience with handling weapons – perhaps an assassin or a soldier who has deserted or otherwise been disgraced. He is equipped with the usual gladiatorial gear but is given a helmet that has no eyeholes. He is thus made to fight his opponent blindly, though often times his opponent may be a fellow andabata. As a result, the mob will amuse themselves by watching two blind men trying to find one another with wild, sweeping blows of their clumsily-wielded swords. Only the Romans could manage to make an execution so childishly amusing.
Paegniarii were usually young male slaves, who were owned by a gladiatorial school and tasked with cleanup and maintenance duties during a show. This could include tending to wounded or dead gladiators, helping a gladiator put on his armor, spreading fresh sand in a bloodied arena, and serving as a teaser before or between actual combats. When operating in this final role, paegniarii fought duels equipped with wooden swords (the rudis that was also awarded to a gladiator who lived long enough to retire) and small round shields, with padding on their limbs. Such combats were not meant to be fatal or damaging, and may very well have been more fun for the participants than for the audience (whose more bloodthirsty members were certainly crying to see some real action).
Noxii were simply random people who had been sentenced to die in the arena. They could range from disgraced military officers to slave girls charged with converting to one of those nasty Eastern cults like Christianity. Many would be female, or above or below the typical age of gladiators, and even those young men in their ranks did not necessarily have a shred of fighting experience. As such noxii were more likely to simply be thrown to the beasts, or unceremoniously hacked to pieces by gladiators, than they were to actually be given a chance to fight for their miserable lives.
The most typical pose for a noxus, in fact, was to be tied to stake, naked or nearly so, and left for a hyena or leopard to maul at its pleasure. Several mosaics throughout the Roman world depict victims suffering this miserable fate. One terracotta figurine depicts a naked woman tied to a bull being eaten by a leopard – undoubtedly a souvenir inspired by an actual event.
Noxii were also used to brutally reenact scenes from Greek mythology – as a result some were burned alive, others crucified, others eaten by any one of a number of animals, and still others sodomized by animals or people dressed like them. Nero is said to have had a pet cannibalistic madmen, noxii were sometimes fed to him in the same spirit that they would be fed to lions or leopards.
It was a powerful testimony to how far human morals have (at least nominally) come in the past two thousand years, that the fate of the noxii seldom garnered any pity from the crowd, unless perhaps a victim showed particularly conspicuous bravery.
Domitian is said to have had a bizarre hobby in the form of pitting midgets against female fighters – exactly what made such combats so thrilling is unclear. He was not the only Roman emperor to display a disturbing fascination with the vertically challenged, or with those ladies who bitterly resented their traditional, bloodless role in society. Commodus is said to have taken random cripples and homeless people off the streets of Rome and forced them into the arena, where he beat them to death with a club while pretending to be Hercules.
Female gladiators were not common, but they were not noticeable rare, either. By the 1st Century CE it had apparently become something of a trend for fashionable upper-class ladies to secretly train in the gladiatorial arts, even if only a tiny number of them actually had the courage (and total lack of decency and scruples) to fight for her life in the arena. If a woman pursued a career as a gladiator, her gender would automatically put her at a disadvantage, though it was a disadvantage she could certainly turn around in the face of her peers if she learned and healed from her bruises fast enough. Her sex would never cease to haunt her, however, and if she proved to be better than her male peers, it would perhaps become more of a curse than ever.
There are several artistic representations of female gladiators that have been found in the Roman world, and a number of literary references to them. The gladiator’s social status as an infames (an “untouchable” of sorts), as well as his (or her) secondary role as a prostitute meant that only a very desperate woman would voluntarily become a gladiator. As with men, most female gladiators were certainly forced into their new profession, likely after falling into the hands of the Roman army. Such was probably the case of the British woman who won fame fighting from her chariot in the Flavian Amphitheater at the end of the 1st Century CE.
Our few contemporary visual sources for female gladiators make them look scarcely different than their male counterparts – equipped with a gladius and scutum, wearing a heavy helmet, and otherwise clad only in greaves, fabric manicae, and a loincloth – whether any modesty was provided for the chest is unclear, and perhaps unlikely (the arena not being an environment that protected the chastity of its female visitors, particularly those who probably wouldn’t live to see the end of the festivities).