Rome: Gladiators of the Colosseum

Pollice Verso ("With a Turned Thumb"), an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Pollice Verso (“With a Turned Thumb”), an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

They came, they saw… but not all of them conquered. The gladiator battles at the Colosseum were the main attraction when the massive Flavian amphitheater opened for business in 80 C.E. under Emperor Titus; the gladiators’ bloody, often desperate clashes captured the imagination of the people of Ancient Rome, and ensured the Colosseum became the staging ground for some famous – and notorious – incidents in the history of the Roman Empire. Today’s post examines how the spectacle of gladiators fighting each other to death has ensured the Colosseum remains, even today, a potent symbol of Rome’s past.

From the moment of its conception, the Colosseum was intended to be a venue for gladiators to fight each other to the death, as well as to battle wild animals. In fact, when Emperor Vespasian initiated the amphitheater in about 70 C.E., gladiator battles had already been taking place for nearly four centuries. These battles began as a means of celebrating a wealthy man’s honor at his funeral, then developed to become a form of entertainment. By the time of Julius Caesar’s reign, gladiatorial fights were used as a means of diffusing the pent-up aggression of the Roman mobs.

Many gladiators were drawn from villages conquered by the Roman Empire; once a settlement had been invaded, the men were taken to Rome as slaves where – during the early stages of the Colosseum’s construction – they were put to work mining rock from quarries. Strong slaves were sometimes selected for gladiator training; although the life of a gladiator wasn’t to be envied, there’s no doubt it was preferential to being a slave. Gladiators were regarded as romantic figures – graffiti on a wall in Pompeii suggests that a Thracian gladiator named Celadus was ‘the man the girls sigh for’.

The ruins of the ancient Colosseum remain one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world today.

The ruins of the ancient Colosseum remain one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world today.

In 70 C.E., Emperor Vespasian, eager to leave a legacy that would ensure his popularity among the Roman people, put his plans for the Colosseum into action. The structure was initially called the Flavian amphitheater, but it came to be known as the Colosseum owing to a massive gilded bronze statue of Emperor Nero – the Colossus of Nero – that was located near the Colosseum. Vespasian died in 79 C.E., before the Colosseum was completed, and was succeeded by his son, Titus, who made it his mission to complete his father’s ambitious project.

Circumstances didn’t favor Titus at the start of his reign; the city of Pompeii was buried in ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August 79 C.E., and in 80 C.E. a conflagration raged through Rome, burning swathes of the ‘Eternal City’. These catastrophes led many Romans to believe the gods had cursed their emperor, so he pinned all his hopes on the Colosseum. The structure was completed in 80 C.E., and Titus marked the occasion with 100 days of games and spectacles, the highlight of which was several gladiator battles.

Although many gladiators were slaves (others were volunteers who needed to pay off large debts), their quality of life was rather good for the period. They lived and trained in special schools where they were primed for battles against their peers; not every fight ended in a gladiator’s death, and if one was wounded, he could count on the best medical treatment Rome had to offer. The reason for this benevolence was that, as slaves, gladiators represented great value to their owners. The ultimate incentive for victory for a gladiator was that winning meant he’d be granted his freedom.

On the opening day of Titus’s games at the Colosseum, several wild animals were brought into the arena to fight each other, face huntsmen in a mock hunt, or devour unarmed criminals who’d been gathered together for the occasion. It is said that as many as 5,000 wild beasts died on the first day alone. Predators such as lions and tigers had been fed human flesh in the days and weeks leading up to the opening day, ensuring they didn’t recoil from making a meal of their victims.

Later that day, however, the spectators crammed into the Colosseum witnessed a gladiatorial spectacle that has gone down in history as one of the most closely fought battles in the history of Ancient Rome. Certainly, the account of the battle, as recorded by the poet Martial, is the only detailed description of an ancient gladiatorial fight that survives today. The combatants were Priscus and Verus, both of unknown origin; their confrontation was so impressive that Titus was moved to declare both men victors, granting them their freedom. The emperor’s magnanimous gesture was exceptionally unusual and gives some indication of the titanic nature of the fight.

Not all gladiators were as fortunate as Priscus and Verus, however; if one was wounded during a fight, he could raise his finger as a sign of surrender. The emperor didn’t make a decision about the loser’s fate until he’d listened to the crowd’s reaction. If the loser had fought bravely enough, he was spared; if not, the spectators roared their disapproval by jabbing their thumbs downwards, sealing the gladiator’s fate.

It’s pertinent to note that only 5% of gladiatorial fights ended in the death of one of the combatants. In addition, the Romans were particularly unambiguous in their attitudes towards gladiators – many were reviled for their low social status, while others were celebrated for their bravery.

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