The usual style of gladiatorial combat that is shown in movies reminds me more of modern-day fencing than of any sort of real roman fighting.
Not only do these movies ignore how gladiators actually fought, but they also fail to show how the fighting style of a gladiator was influenced by his opponent.
Gladiators did not fence! The sword was mostly used for stabbing while the shields would be used both defensively and offensively. Generally, gladiator fights were 5-15 minutes long and shaped by explosive attacks.
But let`s find out more about how the different types of gladiators fought.
General information on how Gladiators fought
It is important to emphasize that gladiators were neither armored nor combined by chance!
There were clearly defined types of gladiators. If you want to find out more about the different types of gladiators I would like to invite you to read my article here.
Every one of these Gladiator types had a set type that it would fight! More details on what types of gladiators fought each other here in my article.
It is also important to know that gladiators were not just ordinary men that were sent into the arena to die.
Even though some of them were criminals, more on the social background of the gladiators here in my article, these men were perfectly trained!
You can find more information on how gladiators trained in my article here.
That kind of training, their equipment, and the strict rules of the gladiatorial fights (more on the rules of gladiator fights here in my article) kept the mortality rate much lower than one might think.
Do you wonder what chances a gladiator had to survive his fight? You can find the answer here in my article.
But enough with this general information.
Let`s dive into how the different types of gladiators fought!
How did Gladiators fight?
Murmillo VS. Thraex
For multiple reasons, the combination Murmillo -Thraex was quite popular.
The Murmillo resembled the roman soldier both in appearance and fighting style while the Thraex loosely resembled a fighting style that a former enemy of Rome had used.
While the Murmillo was carrying the large scutum the Thraex carried a smaller parma. These different shields formed the fight between the two types of gladiators.
The scutum protected the Murmillo from head to knee making him almost invulnerable if attacked heads on. Because of that, the Murmillo would try his best to always keep his front facing the Thraex so that the Thraex could not attack his vulnerable sides.
That well-protected platform then gave the Murmillo room to wait and explosively attack as soon as the Thraex came to close.
The Thraex with his smaller shield, more on the equipment of the Thraex here, was way more vulnerable than the Murmillo. Even the padded pants that he wore could not balance the disadvantage of a smaller shield.
But the smaller shield made the Thraex much more mobile!
While attacking the Murmillo heads on was risky attacking his less protected sides was a good strategy.
Actually, the sword of the Thraex, the edged sica, is perfect to bypass the large scutum of the Murmillo!
The duel between familiar and exotic equipment and fighting style must have been quite interesting.
Murmillo VS. Hoplomachus
Just like the combination Murmillo – Thraex the combination Murmillo – Hoplomachus represented familiar and exotic equipment and fighting style.
The Hoplomachus reminded the roman viewer of a Greek Hoplite and satisfied the feeling of roman superiority.
The satisfaction of feeling superior was one of the reasons why gladiator fights were so popular. Find out more about the other reason why gladiator fights were so popular here in my article!
But how did the Murmillo fight against the Hoplomachus?
We already established that the Murmillo fought in a more static style with explosive attacks whenever his opponent came to close. But how did the Hoplomachus fight?
The Hoplomachus was armored similarly to the Thraex, more on the equipment of the Hoplomachus here. The main difference was his weapon!
While the Thraex only had a sica the Hoplomachus had a thrusting lance as his primary and a gladius as his secondary weapon.
By the way, check out the reason why the gladius was responsible for the surprisingly low mortality rate of gladiators here.
The thrusting lance obviously suited a more distanced fighting style.
Even more than the Thraex the Hoplomachus would keep a safe distance to his opponent and use his mobility to find gaps in the Murmillos` defense. For example by trying to get into the back or sides of the Murmillo.
The Murmillo on the other hand would try to prevent that by closing the distance to the Hoplomachus.
Since the tip of the lance was the most dangerous part the Murmillo would have an advantage over the Hoplomachus if he was able to either destroy the lance or get past the tip into close combat.
If the two types of gladiators were in close combat the Hoplomachus, just like the Murmillo, would have to rely on his gladius.
But since the Hoplomachus only carried a small round shield the Murmillo with his large scutum (cover from chin to knee) had a massive advantage!
Secutor VS. Retiarius
The duel between Secutor and Retiarius was the most extreme example of two opposing styles of equipment and fighting style.
Please click here for more information about the different types of Gladiators!
While the Secutor was quite similar to the Murmillo there was one major difference.
While the helmet of the Murmillo was lavishly decorated and had a visor the helmet of the Secutor was completely smooth and only had two small holes instead of a visor.
The idea was that the helmet of a Murmillo, more on the 3 different reasons why Gladiators wore helmets here, would have offered the trident of the Retiarius too much opportunity to find a grip. Just think about it. A two-handed thrust with the trident against the helmet of a Murmillo would have struck the Murmillo down.
In contrary to the Murmillos` helmet the trident would have just slid off the smooth surface of the Secutors` helmet. The only way for the trident to be successful was that one of the tips would find its way through one of the two holes.
To minimize that risk the two holes (they were necessary for the sight of the Secutor) had a maximal diameter of a little over an inch.
The downside of that kind of closed Secutor-helmet was that both ventilation and sight were extremely limited.
And that shaped the fighting style of the Secutor.
Apart from the helmet, the Secutor was armored like the already mentioned Murmillo. But while the ventilation of the Murmillos` helmet was really good (thanks to the visor) the Secutor had to finish the fight before he ran out of air.
So the Secutor profited from a fight that was as short as possible. That also shows in the name Secutor meaning pursuer.
That was increased by the armor of the retiarius (or better the lack of armor).
While the Secutor was heavily armored and well protected the retiarius fought almost naked and didn`t have any helmet. More on the unusual equipment of the retiarius here.
Because of his lack of armor, the retiarius would try to keep a safe distance, throw his net, but would try to not get into close combat with the Secutor.
The retiarius knew that time was his ally and that he would win if the Secutor ran out of air. More on the 5 different ways a Gladiator fight could end in my article here.
So while the Secutor would try to get as close to the retiarius as possible the retiarius would try to keep a distance from which he could attack his enemy with his trident or catch him in his net.
Getting caught in the net would limit the mobility of the Secutor even more and would make it even more exhausting to defend against the thrusts with the trident.
In addition, the net could also be used to bring the Secutor out of balance.
Provocator VS. Provocator
The duel between two Provocatores did not necessarily interest the Romans because of its exotic equipment.
The origins of the Provocator are rooted in early roman history.
Click here to read more in my article about the different types of Gladiators and their equipment.
The appeal of the duel between two Provocatores was that the two opponents were armored exactly the same. With that kind of similarity and knowledge about the strength and weakness of both the own and the opponents` armor, the duels demanded an extremely high level of skill!
What Type of Gladiator had the best chance of winning?
Thanks to a sophisticated system of protection and exposure every type of gladiator had a similar chance of victory!
Throughout the article, I tried to emphasize that the equipment of the opponents was chosen in a way to provide as much equality as possible.
A good example is the armor of the Murmillo and the Thraex. While the Murmillo has a large shield that covers him from chin to knee he does only have one short shin guard and no protection for the thigh.
The Thraex on the other hand has a much smaller shield which in itself is a disadvantage.
But that disadvantage is balanced by the Thraexs` padded pants and the two long shin guards. More on the balanced equipment of the other gladiator types in my article here.
But just because both gladiators had a similar chance of success didn`t mean that both gladiators survived. Check out my article here to learn more about the mortality rate of gladiators and why the mortality rate increased over the centuries.
And if you wonder how the bodies of fallen gladiators were treated then you can find the answer here in my article.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating world of the gladiators.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
K. Nossov; Gladiator: The complete Guide to Ancient Rome`s Bloody fighters (2011).
F. Meijer; Gladiatoren. Das Spiel um Leben und Tod (Amsterdam 2003).
M. Junkelmann, Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren (Mainz am Rhein 2000).