|BATRM 1981.5.a.1 Samian piece depicting gladiators on display at the Roman Baths Museum|
Such stigma did not necessarily entail shame though: there is plenty of evidence from tombstones that shows gladiators declared their profession proudly. They seem to have been something of an enigma even to the Romans, who were fascinated by them, and believed the blood of a gladiator could be used as a remedy against impotence!
‘Healing blood’ sounds like something we might associate with the divine, so perhaps their heroic status was more powerful than their ‘infamia’. This would go some way to explaining the decoration on fragments of Samian ware which we hold here at The Roman Baths. On one fragment gladiators are thought to appear alongside Hercules, a very well-known hero of the ancient world.
|Remains of the gladiator school at Pompeii, where the body of a rich lady was found amongst the fighters|
Roman women were clearly not put off by the gladiator’s status either. The excavations at Pompeii have revealed some fascinating evidence of this, including graffiti which refers to gladiator Celadus, who ‘makes the girls swoon’. They’ve also uncovered a Pompeian woman in amongst a group of gladiators – all preserved by Vesuvius’ eruption – suggesting there was mingling, or perhaps even a love affair, taking place at the time.
The Emperor Commodus took part in gladiatorial games. An avid supporter, he trained in combat and appeared in the arena in AD 193 dressed as Hercules, but his stunt did not go down well with dismayed contemporaries who considered it undignified.
|The Emperor Commodus as Hercules’|
The aim was not gore at all but an impressive contest of control and skill, and a demonstration of excellent swordsmanship. Hence the use of strict rules and a referee - if, for example, armour fell off unprovoked (i.e. unfairly), the referee could pause proceedings. A fair fight was essential: there was no honour in beating a weaker opponent. So contests for criminals charged to execution were generally held at lunchtime, when the audience was at its thinnest. Such fights were not entertaining as the gladiator had a major advantage over the convict.
Entertainment lay in the ability of the two fighters, evenly matched, to out-fight each other. Exceptional skill was important, as, if the audience were impressed enough, they could call for the loser’s life to be spared. On the other hand, those condemned to death were expected to master the moment – welcoming it by kneeling before their opponent.
The Emperor Honorius formally banned gladiatorial games in AD 404, but they have continued to be a source of wonder and entertainment for us ever since.
Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome, ed. Kohne, E., and Ewigleben, C., London 2000