You’re probably way too young to remember that catchphrase but for a while in a 90’s kid’s life, it was Saturday Tv Gold. Watching super athletic men and women called Laser and Blazer and probably Taser do battle in the arena was a heart pumping experience. This trip down nostalgia lane got me to thinking though… it must have been similar in Roman times.
Roman Gladiator Types
Different gladiators specialized in different weapons and tactics. The following illustrates these various styles and equipment. Of these,Thracians, Mirmillones, Retiarii, and Secutores were four of the most common.
Andabatae: (1st cent. BC) Clad in chainmail like eastern cavalry (cataphracti), wore visored helmets without eye holes. They charged blindly at one another on horseback as an ancient precursor to the medieval joust.
Bestiarii: (beast fighters) originally armed with a spear or knife, these gladiators were condemned to fight beasts with a high probability of death. In later times, the Bestiarii were highly trained, specializing in various types of exotic, imported beasts.
Dimachaeri: Used two-swords, one in each hand.
Equites: Fought on horseback with a spear and gladius, dressed in a full tunic, with a manica (arm-guard). Generally, the Eques only fought gladiators of his own type.
Essedari: Celtic style charioteers, likely first brought to Rome from Britain by Caesar.
Hoplomachi (heavily armed) or Samnite: Fully armored, and based on Greek hoplites. They wore a helmet with a stylized griffin on the crest, woollen quilted leg wrappings, and shin-guards. They carried a spear in the Hoplite style with a small round shield. They were paired against Mirmillones or Thraces.
Laquerii: Laqueatores used a rope and noose.
Mirmillones (or murmillones): Wore a helmet with a stylized fish on the crest (the mormylos or sea fish), as well as an arm guard (manica). They carried a gladius and an oblong shield in the Gallic style. They were paired with Hoplomachi or Thraces.
Provocatores(challengers): Paired against the Samnites but their armament is unknown and may have been variable depending on the games.
Retiarii: Carried a trident, a dagger, and a net, a larger manica extending to the shoulder and left side of the chest. They commonly fought secutores or mirmillones. Occasionally a metal shoulder shield, or galerus, was added to protect the neck and lower face.
Saggitarii: Mounted bowman armed with reflex bows capable of propelling an arrow a great distance.
Samnites: see Hoplomachi.
Secutores: Had the same armour as a murmillo, including oblong shield and a gladius. They were the usual opponents of retiarii.
Scissores (carvers): Little is known about this ominous sounding gladiator.
Thraces: The Thracian was equipped with a broad-rimmed helmet that enclosed the entire head, a small round or square-shaped shield, and two thigh-length greaves. His weapon was the Thracian curved sword, or the sica. They commonly fought mirmillones or hoplomachi.
Velites: Fought on foot, each holding a spear with attached thong in strap for throwing. Named for the early Republican army units of the same name.
Venatores: Specialized in wild animal hunts. Technically not gladiators but still a part of the games.
One more type deserving mention is the Praegenarii who were used as an ancient opening act to get the crowd in the mood. They used a rudis (wooden sword) and wore wrappings around body. As they fought, they were accompanied by music (cymbals, trumpets, and hydraulis water organ)
Some Very Famous Gladiators
Spiculus, another renowned gladiator of the First Century AD, enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the (reportedly) evil Emperor Nero. Following Spiculus’ numerous victories, Nero awarded him with palaces, slaves, and riches beyond imagination. When Nero was overthrown in AD 68, he urged his aides to find Spiculus, as he wanted to die at the hands of the famous gladiator. But Spiculus couldn’t be found, and Nero was forced to take his own life.
Though a Roman citizen by birth, Attilius chose to enter gladiator school in an attempt to absolve the heavy debts he had incurred during his life. In his first battle he defeated Hilarus, a gladiator owned by Nero, who had won thirteen times in a row. Attilius then went on to defeat Raecius Felix, who had won twelve battles in a row. His feats were narrated in mosaics and graffiti discovered in 2007.
While other gladiators on this list are known for their hand-to-hand combat against other humans, Carpophores was a famed Bestiarius. These gladiators fought exclusively against wild animals, and as such had very short-lived careers. Fighting at the initiation of the Flavian Amphitheatre, Carpophores famously defeated a bear, lion, and leopard in a single battle. In another battle that day, he slaughtered a rhinoceros with a spear. In total, it is said that he killed twenty wild animals that day alone, leading fans and fellow gladiators to compare Carpophorus to Hercules himself.
Flamma, a Syrian slave, died at the age of thirty—having fought thirty-four times and having won twenty-one of those bouts. Nine battles ended in a draw, and he was defeated just four times. Most notably, Flamma was awarded the rudis a total of four times. When the rudis was given to a gladiator, he was usually freed from his shackles, and allowed to live normally among the Roman citizens. But Flamma refused the rudis, opting instead to continue fighting.
Famously played by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film Gladiator, Commodus was an Emperor who enjoyed battling gladiators as often as possible. A narcissistic egomaniac, Commodus saw himself as the greatest and most important man in the world. He believed himself to be Hercules—even going so far as to don a leopard skin like that famously worn by the mythological hero. But in the arena, Commodus usually fought against gladiators who were armed with wooden swords, and slaughtered wild animals that were tethered or injured.
As you could guess, most Romans therefore did not support Commodus. His antics in the arena were seen as disrespectful, and his predictable victories made for a poor show. In some instances, he captured disabled Roman citizens, and slaughtered them in the arena. As a testament to his narcissism, Commodus charged one million sesterces for every appearance—although he was never exactly “invited” to appear in the arena. Commodus was assassinated in AD 192, and it is believed that his actions as a “gladiator” encouraged his inner-circle to carry out the assassination.
By far the most famous gladiator in history, Spartacus was a Thracian soldier who had been captured and sold into slavery. Lentulus Batiatus of Capua must have recognized his potential, for he purchased him with the intention of turning him into a gladiator. But a warrior’s fierce independence is not easily given up: in 73 BC, Spartacus persuaded seventy of his fellow gladiators to rebel against Batiatus. This revolt left their former owner murdered in the process, and the gladiators escaped to the slopes of nearby Mount Vesuvius. While in transit, the group set free many other slaves—thereby amassing a large and powerful following.
The gladiators spent the winter of 72 BC training the newly freed slaves in preparation for what is now known as the Third Serville War, as their ranks swelled to as many as 70,000 individuals. Whole legions were sent to kill Spartacus, but these were easily defeated by the fighting spirit and experience of the gladiators. In 71 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus amassed 50,000 well-trained Roman soldiers to pursue and defeat Spartacus. Crassus trapped Spartacus in Southern Italy, routing his forces, and killing Spartacus in the process. Six thousand of his followers were captured and crucified, their bodies made to line the road from Capua to Rome.
So that’s how a gladiator should fight!! The Monty Python’s crew saw it a little bit different! 😀
Here is a great article on why Gladiators fought, be a good gladiator and head on over here:
You can also check out more blogs about Romans from the 1st Year Menu