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Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott) falls into a long line of films featuring gladiatorial combat. From older films like Spartacus to more recent works like Pompeii and the Spartacus tv series, Western audiences are quite familiar with the idea of gladiators. But every cinematic depiction of gladiators I’ve ever seen has gotten some key facts about gladiators and gladiatorial combat wrong.

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First, most films about gladiators fail to realize that the term ‘gladiator’ covered a wide range of fighters, each with specifically-defined equipment. For example the thraex (“Thracian”) wore a high-crested helmet, greaves (shin guards), and a manica (arm guard) for his sword arm and shoulder, and he carried a small shield and a short, curved knife. The murmillo wore a helmet with a fish crest, a manica, and short greaves, and carried a gladius (a short sword, hence the term gladiator) and a tall, oblong shield. The retarius (“net fighter”) wore a manica that covered part of his chest but no other actual armor, and carried a trident and a net. The secutor was much like a murmillo, but wore a different style of helmet that was smooth, so that a net could not catch on it. A hoplomachus (“hoplite warrior”) wore quilted trousers, greaves, and a manica, and used a gladius, a small shield, and a javelin. There were a number of other, less common styles, and some of the styles evolved over time. None wore any chest armor other than the retarius’ large manica.

A thraex fighting a murmillo

A thraex fighting a murmillo. Note that both are wearing a manica on their right arms.

But if you look at the most familiar shot of Maximus (Russell Crowe), he doesn’t fit any of those weapon sets. He’s wearing a breastplate with a leather skirt covering his groin, a sort of manica that covers one shoulder but not the arm, hand-wraps, and, early in his career as a gladiator, a face mask. He carries a round shield and uses a gladius. The use of a breastplate and lack of a real manica right away sets him off from all the styles I’ve mentioned. No gladiator that I know of would have worn a real breastplate, and most styles wore a manica. Most, though not all, wore a helmet of some type. So he’s not any type of standard gladiator.

Maximus in his third fight

Maximus in his third fight

There were rules about which types of gladiators fought which types. The thraex usually fought the murmillo or the hiplomachus, while the retarius was normally pitted against a murmillo or a secutor. Romans debated which type of fighter was best against particular types, the way that modern sports fans debate the nuances of football and baseball, and while a clever host might occasionally do something unusual in the way he paired off gladiators, too much deviation from the traditional rules and weapon sets would probably have upset the audience.

So when Maximus walks out wearing a breastplate and without a helmet, imagine the response modern American football fans would have to seeing a quarterback walk out without his helmet and wearing hockey gear. Maximus’ breastplate is essentially cheating, because it provides him way more protection than he’s supposed to have. I suppose we could say that Proximo has balanced out the breastplate by taking away the manica and helmet, but it would basically have been breaking the rules.

From a film-making standpoint, the lack of a helmet is clearly about helping the audience keep track of Maximus and allowing them to see his emotions during the fight, but there’s really no good reason for getting the rest of the gear wrong, especially since Scott made a point of claiming that the film was historically accurate.

The Bigger Mistake

More importantly, however, Gladiator, like other similar films, misunderstands what happened in the gladiatorial arena in a fairly fundamental way. Not all games had a full program of events, but those that did had three major sections that happened in a fairly rigid order. By the end of the Republic, the morning of a game was given over to the venationes, the animal hunts. Animals would be made to fight each other, or animals fought a specific type of fighter called a bestiarius, who was specifically not a gladiator. A more sophisticated type of animal fighter was the venator, who “hunted” animals in the arena (not always dangerous animals, but also creatures like deer, camels, and rabbits), and who sometimes performed tricks comparable to those done by modern lion-tamers and similar circus performers. The descriptions of these hunts make clear that in the largest games, thousands of animals might be slaughtered. The purpose of such hunts was to demonstrate Roman superiority over the natural world and over non-Romans, who could be viewed as ‘savage beasts’ metaphorically.

Around lunch-time, there was a break, and many spectators left the arena to escape the heat and the spectacle of the next element, namely the executions. Romans conducted many forms of public executions, including crucifixion, burning at the stake, and damnatio ad bestiae (being ‘thrown’ to the animals). Crucifixion took too long to conduct this way, but many of the faster methods were performed in the arena. Lower class Romans (never Roman elites) might be condemned to being exposed to hungry animals, or tied to a wild horse or bull and dragged around the arena or trampled. Some were tortured in various ways before being killed, for example by being castrated. Execution was meant to be humiliating, so it sometimes involved theatrical scenarios in which the condemned was dressed up as an unfortunate figure from mythology (for example, as Actaeon, a hunter who accidentally saw the goddess Diana bathing; she turned him into a stag and let his dogs tear him apart). The Roman audiences wanted to see criminals suffer, they wanted to see criminals experience fear and degradation, and they wanted to see criminals begging for a fast and merciful death. The purpose of such harsh executions was to deter crime and to teach people that the Roman state triumphed over the forces of criminality and disorder.

The afternoon component was the gladiatorial games proper (generally termed a munus). Pairs and groups of gladiators fought each other, sometimes simply as gladiators and sometimes as ‘re-enactors’ of mythical or historical battles. The purpose of such fights was to give the audience a show of Roman bravery and skill, and courage in the face of death. As a purpose, that goal clashes dramatically with the goals of the executions and the beast hunts. So it’s important to realize that these three phases of a game were completely different and distinct events.

What cinematic depictions of gladiatorial games get wrong is that they generally conflate the three phases carelessly. Maximus is shown having to fight wild tigers during his second game, despite the fact that he was a gladiator, not a bestiarius. Actual gladiators never fought animals; it would have been beneath them. Although he is an elite man, the film shows him being sold as a gladiator, which would have been a shocking violation of his rights, and probably one that would have led to conspiracies and rebellions against Commodus, since if Commodus could strip a powerful man like Maximus of his legal rights, he could do the same to any other senator or general.

Most importantly, what every depiction of gladiatorial games gets wrong is that actual gladiators did not inevitably fight to the death. Most fights allowed for the possibility of missio, (roughly, ‘surrender’), unless they were explicitly billed as sine missione matches, (basically, fights to the death). A typical gladiatorial fight lasted until one fighter was too exhausted to fight, or if he suffered an injury or accident that prevented him from continuing. At that point, he held up two fingers as a gesture of surrender, indicating that he was conceding defeat. The host of the game (termed the editor) then had the option of sparing the gladiator or ordering the winner to kill him. But the editor (influenced by the crowd) would have made his choice based on how good a show he felt he had gotten for his money and how well he felt the loser had fought. Death was not the normal outcome of a gladiatorial fight.

The Romans did not go to a gladiatorial game to see gladiators die, any more than modern Americans go to NASCAR races to see flaming car wrecks; in both cases what the audience was seeking was a show of skill, daring, and courage. Both sports are dangerous and men certainly died during them; that risk made things more exciting, but it wasn’t the main purpose of the event. The notion that half of all gladiators died confuses gladiators with criminals to be executed, when those were entirely distinct things. The bravery that audiences wanted from gladiators was at odds with the humiliation and fear they wanted from criminals.

Films like Gladiator envision a system in which half of all the participants in any given combat will die. But the economics of this scenario doesn’t actually make sense. Gladiators were supplied to the editors by a man called a lanista, who trained, housed, and fed gladiators, and then rented them out to an editor for a show. In Gladiator, the lanista is Proximo (Oliver Reed). While slaves could, at many points in Roman history, be purchased rather cheaply, the expenses of training them were considerable. If a lanista lost half his gladiators at every fight, it’s very hard to see how he could possibly have gotten a return on his investment.

So contrary to films like Gladiator, gladiatorial combat was not usually a fight to the death. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a dangerous sport. It was quite dangerous. Clearly gladiators died when they received inoperable wounds, or if they bled out from an arterial wound. Some died when they slipped and fell onto their opponent’s weapon. And some were executed because the editor was dissatisfied with the fight. But it wasn’t the non-stop slaughter Ridley Scott offers us in the film.

So Why Show Us Constant Slaughter?

If gladiatorial combat wasn’t as lethal as the movies present it, why do the movies always show it this way? To some extent, it might just be what audiences expect from the genre. And in some cases perhaps it’s ignorance of what a real gladiatorial game was like, but Ridley Scott consulted with historians who were quite familiar with gladiatorial combat, so he probably knew better.

One thing that most depictions of gladiatorial combat have in common is that they spend some time dwelling on the bloodthirsty barbarity of the Romans who enjoy watching the slaughter. The people in the audience are usually shown eagerly awaiting the death blow, cheering or shouting for blood, and sometimes being spattered with blood. This allows the film to implicitly critique the Roman audience for being so bloodthirsty, and it allows the film to flatter its audience by demonstrating the modern audience’s moral superiority; we know that killing people for entertainment is wrong, even if the Roman audience doesn’t know it.

What has always bothered me about this is that it’s false flattery. Films like Gladiator try to eat their cake and have it too. They draw us in with promises of cinematic bloodshed shown in a theoretically realistic style (although with far more body parts getting lopped off than is likely the case in actual combat), while at the same time telling the audience that we’re better than the Romans because we don’t like actual bloodshed, just fake bloodshed designed to look real.

Scott’s film is particularly egregious in the way it plays this game. Most gladiator films leave the moralizing to the camera and let the viewer draw his or her own conclusion, but Scott actually includes a scene specifically designed to make the moral point. Early in his fighting career, Maximus fights alone against a large number of gladiators and defeats them all easily. Then he turns to the crowd and shouts “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?” before spitting in disgust and throwing down his sword. The film explicitly condemns the Roman audience for its bloodthirstiness, but fails to acknowledge that the modern audience is just as culpable in the slaughter as the Romans are. After all, we’re going to see Gladiator because we want to see Russell Crowe kill people.

If Maximus is disgusted by all the killing he’s doing, he has a choice. He can stop fighting and choose to die instead; after all, that will reunite him with his dead family, which is what he spends half the film wanting. But that would violate one of the basic rules of Hollywood action films, which is that, contrary to what we’re taught in school and church and everywhere else, violence does indeed solve problems. In fact, in action films, violence is the only thing that ever solves problems. Bad guys must be killed because they cannot be reasoned or negotiated with or shamed into relenting. Violence is consistently depicted as the morally acceptable way to fix problems. Maximus’ slaughter is good because he’s fighting to save his life. Commodus is evil mostly because he’s just evil, and he won’t allow Maximus to not fight. And, of course, Maximus has a healthy dose of manpain because Commodus has had his wife and son killed and is threatening Lucilla and her boy. And that means that violence is the only option, and if Maximus is violent enough, if he can be more violent than his opponents, everything will be made better and society will be saved. This is the same narrative that every other Hollywood action film offers us, just with a different setting and characters.

Remind me again which morally corrupt society enjoys watching slaughter?

Want to Know More?

Gladiatoris available at Amazon.

There are a lot of good recent books on Gladiatorial Combat that you could look at. David Potter and Garrett Mattingly’s collection of essays, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empirehas an excellent chapter on “Entertainers in the Roman World,” that does a very good job in a short space of explaining the issues. If you want something more substantial, try Thomas Wiedeman’s Emperors and Gladiators. Alison Futrell’s The Roman Games: A Sourcebook is a collection of primary sources related to Roman sports, including gladiatorial combat.



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