Who Were Gladiators: Gladiators were combatants who fought against each other, condemned criminals and wild animals during the time of Roman Republic and Roman Empire. They were armed with deadly weapons and in most cases fought till either one of them accepted defeat or was killed fighting. Gladiators fought for the entertainment of Rome’s rich and mighty and also for public. People thronged the arenas to watch gladiator games and it may sound appalling to a modern man, but gladiator fighting was a popular sport in Rome, just like soccer is today. Roman people enjoyed sight of blood and carnage. They built amphitheaters like ‘The Colosseum’, where gladiator games were held regularly and were witnessed by excited crowds who cheered for their favorite fighters just like we cheer our favorite sportsmen and teams today.
Origin: While historians are not really sure about the exact time of origin of gladiator games, it is widely believed that they were first held in late fourth century BC. Many believe that the sport was in fact, a foreign import, most probably Etruscan. The early gladiator games were a part of war victory celebrations. They gained popularity and by third century BC, were the most popular public pastime. The games soon became a ritual and a part of commemorative service (Munus) offered in honor of a dead individual, arranged by his descendants.
Importance of Gladiator Games in Roman Society: Gladiator games were not only a source of entertainment for people but were also used by sponsors to gain political favors. Gladiator owners and sponsors of such games arranged extravagant gladiator fights in honor of dead citizens to gain favors from their powerful and rich descendants. In 65 and 63 BC, anti corruption laws were passed by senate to curb the custom of gaining political favors through gladiator games. The effort, however; did not succeed.
Peak of Popularity: Gladiator games reached the peak of their popularity in the last days of Roman Republic. Julius Caesar, splurged a huge amount of wealth on such games. During this period, these games provided the most popular and cheap entertainment to public and was a useful method of garnering support during election times. Romans seeking political patronage used gladiator fights as a tool to please powerful senators and consuls.
Decline: In third century AD, Roman Empire faced existential challenges. This meant more spending on wars and less on gladiatorial games and rituals. The rise of Christianity as the official religion of Roman Empire resulted in banning of all pagan rituals and festivals like Munus. With a decline in official patronage, gladiator fights gradually ceased to take place.
Gladiators: Gladiators were recruited from different sources. Some were slaves bought from different lands under Roman control, some were prisoners of war and most of the others were volunteers who at a time accounted for half of all the gladiators. These volunteer combatants were paid for their services and were generally skilled fighters. Most of the gladiators were Thracians, Gauls and Africans. There is evidence to suggest that females also participated in gladiatorial sports. Interestingly certain emperors like Caligula, Commodus, Titus and Claudius also participated in such sports. However, the fights involving emperors were designed to pose minimal risk to them.
The ethnicity of gladiators was also evident from the way they were dressed and armed. Gladiators used swords, spears, short javelins and shields as weapons and wore helmets and body armor for protection. They were well fed and looked after by their owners and were rewarded after they won fights. Public also admired famous and successful gladiators and respected those who died courageously in arena.