Gladiators: Types and Training | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (2024)

Most representations of gladiators in Roman art depict scenes of combat in the arena and include a pair of combatants fighting for the entertainment of a crowd. However, there is more than meets the eye to these moments of action and gore. While gladiatorial fights were grounded in physical violence, they were not just two men pitted against one another until death decided the outcome. Rather, Roman enthusiasm for strategy and the desire for entertainment compelled organizers (editores, or sponsors) to produce competitive, dynamic, and exciting shows. Gladiatorial fights required extensive organization by sponsors and preparation on the part of the fighters.

Across the regions of the empire, gladiators and their preparation for fights were depicted through various media, including terracotta oil lamps, figurines, glass vessels, pottery, and relief sculpture. These images offer insight into gladiatorial armaments and training and the structure of the fights in the amphitheater.

Armament Types

Gladiators were grouped according to the types of weaponry and armor (armaturae) they used, each requiring its own strategy and fighting style. In the broadest terms, gladiators were either lightly armored or heavily armed, the former requiring speed and agility, the latter relying on skill and precision. Different gladiatorial types were matched accordingly, with heavily armored gladiators facing those bearing lighter armor.

Gladiator armor and weaponry originally took inspiration from Rome's various enemy tribes and nations. For example, the samnis type of gladiator seen on two terracotta oil lamps (74.51.2026, 74.51.1850) was derived from armor worn by the Samnite soldiers of south-central Italy. A samnis gladiator wore a highly decorated helmet with plumes and protective coverings for the weapon arm (manica) and one leg (ocrea). He carried a large rectangular shield (scutum) that covered the entire body and fought with a short sword (gladius) held in the right hand. Gladiator types evolved over the course of the Republican and Imperial periods as Rome’s political alliances changed. (It would have been considered inappropriate for a new ally of Rome to continue fighting in the arena.) Accordingly, the samnisnomenclature was phased out in the early first century C.E. as the tribe was integrated into the empire.

A terracotta oil lamp (24.219) has been formed into the shape of amurmillogladiator type. The murmillo evolved from the samnis, thus their appearance and weaponry are often indistinguishable. Amurmillowore a helmet with a grille over the face that severely limited his peripheral vision and restricted his air flow. Murmillo is a Latinized version of the Greek word μόρμυλος (mormylos)for a type of saltwater fish, which is reflected in their helmet decoration and ornament.

Another Cypriot terracotta oil lamp (74.51.2022) depicts a thrax, a type derived from the armor worn by the soldiers of Thrace, an area encompassing the southeastern Balkan peninsula, including northeast Greece, southern Bulgaria, and western Turkey. Viewed as barbarians, Thracians were a major enemy of Rome. The most infamous was Spartacus, leader of the largest—albeit ultimately unsuccessful—revolt of enslaved people against Rome during the later Republican period. This type of gladiator carried a small square shield (parma) and a sword with curved blade (sica) that facilitated agile angled attacks against more heavily protected opponents. A fragment of a terracotta bowl (29.158.494), said to have been found in the capital of Roman Britain, Londinium (modern London), depicts a murmillo fighting a thrax—a common pairing in the arena.

Another regular opponent of the murmillo was the retiarius, outfitted to resemble a fisherman, trying to “catch”his murmillo opponent in a weighted net (iaculum) before attacking. The retiarius was lightly armed, bearinga trident (tridens)and a dagger (pugio), and wore no helmet or body armor except for a cover on his left arm (manica) and shoulder (galerus). In the second half of the first century C.E., the retiarius was increasingly paired with the secutor type of gladiator in order to create a more competitive fight. Depicted in a terracotta statuette (10.210.78), the secutor—Latin for “chaser” or “pursuer”—was more agile and active than the murmillo, causing the retiarius to be on defense rather than offense. He wore a plain helmet that covered his whole head with large holes for the eyes. While little air flow or sound could permeate the helmet, it protected shoulders from jabs by the trident of a retiarius. A marble relief fragment dating from the first to third century C.E. (57.11.7) shows action between a retiarius on the left and a secutor on the right. The fragment was found outside Rome and is likely from a funerary monument.

Training

Gladiators lived and trained in schools called ludus gladiatorius. These were part of the larger supporting infrastructure that produced gladiatorial fights called munera—Latin for “duty” or “obligation,” as gladiatorial fights originated as funerary offerings to the gods on behalf of the deceased. Other related buildings or areas included armories, hospitals, and storage areas for staging equipment and scenery. Depending on the size of the amphitheater, some of this could have been underneath the arena rather than in a separate building.

The gladiatorial school embodied the entirety of gladiator life. It was managed by the lanista, often a former gladiator, who oversaw the daily activities and operations. Assisting him were enslaved people and other support staff. Gladiators could be prisoners of war, enslaved people and those freed from bondage, or volunteers (auctoritas) from society’s lower classes. They were occasionally joined by former aristocrats, who enrolled on their volition after losing their fortunes and in need of other means of income. However, this practice was heavily stigmatized and often prompted laws forbidding it. Regardless of origin, all gladiators became “infames”: dishonorable or shameful, void of legal and social status and protections. (Other groups stigmatized by infamia included actors and prostitutes.) They were stripped of any personhood, viewed as bodies at the mercy of trainers, show sponsors, politicians, and spectators.

Training was essential to ensure that the gladiators became properly equipped fighters, worthy opponents, and unflinching losers. Each gladiator type had its armament and thus its own instructors, called doctores, usually former gladiators. During the first stage of training, gladiators often practiced with wooden weapons to avoid unnecessary injuries and to build stamina, as they were blunted and heavier than their metal counterparts. In the same stage, gladiators drilled against thepalus, a wooden stake set in the ground that stood about six Roman feet tall (just two inches short of our six feet). This pole functioned as an opponent before facing another gladiator. A terracotta oil lamp from Cyprus (74.51.2030) shows this sort of training: A hoplomachus gladiator, named for Greek hoplite infantry soldiers, holds a round shield and short daggerand lunges toward the palus. The hoplomachus also often fought with a spear (hasta), which is not seen in this image.

The Arena

Once gladiators proved their skill and stamina, they were rented to producers of games to fight before the public in the amphitheaters. Sponsors, in coordination with the lanista, paired gladiators strategically to ensure that each fight did not end too quickly and that the opponents were equally matched in competence and skill.

Two glass cups show moments of arena action. On a molded green-yellow glass cup (81.10.245), names in Latin encircle the upper register, which may refer to popular gladiators from the Julio-Claudian dynasty (27 B.C.E.–C.E. 68); if so, this cup could have been made for a specific event featuring recognizable fighters. The middle register shows eight gladiators, two pairings per section. In a clever use of decoration, vertical palm fronds cover the vertical seams where the halves of the cup are joined.

Fragments of a glass beaker said to be from Egypt (22.2.36, .37) have a painted decoration. While the top register is almost entirely lost, three gladiators are discernible in the middle register. At left, a figure in blue stands victorious over a figure in red falling backward, both with round shields. A third gladiator stands to the side, holding an oblong shield. The bottom register shows an animal hunt, with two large cats, two deer, and some patches of vegetation. This combination of humans and beasts reflects the program of a day at the arena: animal hunts in the morning and the main event of gladiatorial fights after lunch.

A common misconception is that gladiators always fought to the death: the winner survived, and the loser died. Very rarely—and usually with special dispensation from the emperor—would there be sine missio battles, which automatically meant death for the loser, with no chance of being spared. More commonly, a gladiator who lost a fight would be granted mercy—missio—and was allowed to leave the arena alive. Saving a gladiator from death in the arena may seem anticlimactic or unfair to the winner, but gladiators were a significant financial investment. If a gladiator were to die in a fight, his owner could charge the show’s editor as much as fifty times the rental price to compensate for his loss. In fact, several attempts were made to regulate the costs associated with sponsoring gladiatorial contests, most notably under the emperors Antoninus Pius (r. C.E. 138–161) and Marcus Aurelius (r. C.E. 161–180).

The moment of reprieve is represented on several pieces. On one terracotta oil lamp (74.51.1938), the victorious gladiator holds his sword to the neck of the defeated, who looks away. A lamp from Cyprus (74.51.1845) depicts a victorious murmillo towering over a defeated hoplomachus, whose round shield lays on the ground. The murmillo’s big shield and protective armor allowed him to fend off attacks from the hoplomachus’s spear while attacking his opponent’s exposed torso and thighs.

Gladiator fights and other spectacles captured not only the attention but also but the imagination of spectators and fans. Depictions and imagery of gladiators made this distinctively Roman phenomenon tangible and personal. Even now, these objects continue to convey the brutality and thrill of the amphitheater arena to entirely new audiences. Moreover, they connect us to the people behind the armor who were trained to fight—and hoped to live to fight again.

Citation

Miller, Marlee. “Gladiators: Types and Training.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gdtr/hd_gdtr.htm (August 2023)

Further Reading

Carter, M. J. “Gladiatorial Combat: The Rules of Engagement.” The Classical Journal 102, no. 2 (2007): 97–114.

Coleman, Kathleen. Bonds of Danger: Communal Life in the Gladiatorial Barracks of Ancient Rome. Sydney: University of Sydney, Department of Classics and Ancient History, 2005.

Dunbabin, Katherine M. D. Theater and Spectacle in the Art of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

Dunkle, Roger. Gladiators: Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome. Oxfordshire and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Edwards, Catherine. “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by P. J. Hallet and B. M. Skinner, 66–95. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Jacobelli, Luciana. Gladiators at Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.

Lightfoot, Christopher S. The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art: Terracotta Oil Lamps. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021.

Gladiators: Types and Training | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (2024)

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