Every time I watch the movie Gladiator I cringe. Not because I don`t like that kind of movie, I actually love them, but because of the extremely bad choice of how gladiators are represented. While the movie Gladiator presents a wide variety of different gladiators with different types of weapons who all fight in mass fights against whoever they feel like fighting, that has nothing to do with the reality of Gladiator fights!
Upon arrival at the gladiator school every man was assigned to a type of Gladiator. That assignment to a gladiator type decided what equipment, fighting style, and opponent he would have. The 6 most important types of Gladiators were the Murmillo, the Secutor, the Thraex, the Hoplomachus, the Provocator, and the Retiarius.
Now having said that, let’s find out more about the actual types of Gladiators! It is also important to state that I will focus on the gladiator types of the time of the roman empire.
There were also other types of gladiators during the time of the roman republic.
How many types of Gladiators were there?
Historians are still struggling to surly identify the different types of Gladiators.
Only 6 types, the Murmillo, the Secutor, the Provocator, the Thraex, the Hoplomachus, and the Retiarius can be unequivocally identified.
Apart from these 6 main types, there might have been countless other types. But their existence, their equipment, and fighting style can not be securely identified.
For example the famous Dimachaerus:
While Dimachaerus literally means two-handed, historians don`t know if the Dimacheraeus was a separate type of gladiator or if it was just a modification of an already existing type.
For example a Murmillo who, instead of having one shield and one sword would be equipped with two swords.
Other gladiators like the Laquearius, a man fighting with a club and a lasso, seem quite bizarre.
And the roman Historian Tacitus reports about a rebellion in Gaul where the rebels used local gladiators.
Tacitus claims that these gladiators were completely covered in metal armor that was so strong that the usual weapons of a legionary could not harm them. The Legionaries had to exchange their gladii for their pickaxes and basically hack their way through the enemy’s armor.
That truly must have been some heavy armor if roman weapons could not do any harm against them.
It is not clear how accurate the source is. The fact that gladiators are described who are completely covered in metal armor seems interesting because it is the opposite of what the well-known types show.
As you see, even a field that is as popular as the gladiators still leaves a lot of room for discoveries and surprises.
But let’s go back to the types of Gladiators of which we have secure knowledge.
6 main types of Gladiators
The Murmillo is probably the most iconic type of gladiator.
Armored with the scutum, a big rectangular shield that would cover him from the chin to his knees, a short sword (gladius), a shin guard on his left chin, a padded sleeve (Manica) on the right arm, and the iconic helmet the Murmillos` apperance loosely resembled a roman soldier.
Due to his equipment, it is easy to spot a Murmillo, especially if you look at the helmet.
The Murmillo carried a helmet with a vertically towering crest (similar to the back fin of a fish) while types like the Thraex and the Hoplomachus had a more edged crest.
His fighting style also resembled a roman soldier. Please check out my article here where I go into depth on how the Murmillo fought!
Since the equipment of a Murmillo would weigh a total of up to 44 pounds he had a more static style of fighting. Just like a roman soldier he would take cover behind his shield and would wait for an opportunity to stab his opponent.
He would usually fight against the Thraex. More on how the enemy of a gladiator type was decided here in my article.
The Secutor is a type of gladiator that is almost identical to the Murmillo. There is only one exception:
While the Murmillo has a helmet that is covered in decorations and a feather crust the Secutors helmet is completely smooth and only has two small openings for the eyes.
Both of these weapons could easily catch in the decorations of the Murmillos` helmet. That gave the Murmillo an unfair disadvantage.
The Roman solution was to create a type of gladiator that was based on the Murmillo but with a helmet that no longer had the Murmillos` disadvantages.
The name Secutor (Pursuer) probably reflects the aggressive fighting style that that Type of gladiator used.
The almost completely closed helmet did not only have advantages. Sure, a trident could hardly find enough support on the smooth surface of the helmet for transferring enough energy into a blow that would harm the Secutor. And the chance that one of the tridents` tips would find its way through the small eye holes was also slim.
But the lack of a visor made it extremely hard to breathe. Remember, just like the Murmillo the Secutor was also carrying up to 44 pounds of equipment. And in contrast to the Murmillo the Secutor did not have a visor for better ventilation.
While his lightly armored opponent, the retiarius, would profit from a longer fight the Secutor needed to end the fight before the weight of his equipment and the limited breathing weakened him too much.
To end the fight as fast as possible he would try to close in on the Retiarius as fast as possible. That had another advantage:
The Trident, the main weapon of the retiarius, was only dangerous as long the Secutor was in front of the tips. As soon as he was close enough the tips would not be able to harm him anymore.
Once again it shows that the combination of gladiators was not done by accident. It was a well-reasoned system of advantages and disadvantages.
And my article here for more information on how a Secutor fought.
The Provocator, literally translated meaning challenger, is based on old italic and Samnite traditions.
That is the reason for a very special piece of armor: The breastplate.
That breastplate was also used in the military of the early roman republic.
It is interesting to see that the Provocator was the only one of the 6 gladiator types who had an armored chest.
Just like the Murmillo and the Secutor the Provocator is also equipped with a gladius, a scutum, a shin guard on his left shin, and the manica (the padded sleeve that covered the sword arm from the shoulder to the fingers).
The Provocators` equipment would weigh between 26 and 33 pounds making him one of the lighter types of Gladiators.
The Provocator would only fight against another Provocator.
That is also a heritage from its origin during the Samnite Wars.
The roman historian Livy claimes that in 310 BC after Rome had won a decisive victory over the Samnites, POWs would be forced to fight each other in the kind of armor that they would have used during a battle.
Over the following centuries, the Samnite gladiators would develop into Provocatores. But they would keep their typical armor and the tradition of only fighting against each other.
Do you want to find out if it was usual for POWs to be transferred to gladiator schools? You can find the answer here in my article.
The Thraex is one of the older types of gladiators. Just like the Murmillo he was already mentioned by Cicero.
And although his name means Thracian his affiliation to the gladiatorial type of Thraex was not bound to a Thracian descent.
The reason why the Thraex (Thracian) is called Thracian is that the type was created at the end of the second century BC when roman troops came in touch with Thracian warriors.
Unlike the Murmillo the Thraex is armored with a small rectangular shield, the so-called parma. You can clearly see the difference in the helmet and the shield size between Murmillo and Thraex in the following video.
To balance the disadvantage of a small shield the Thraex would wear padded pants with longer shin guards on both legs and the pattened sleeve on his right arm.
The Thraex would also wear a helmet that completely covered the head.
The base of the helmet was quite similar to the helmet of the Murmillo. But while the Murmillo carried a helmet with a vertically towering crest (similar to the back fin of a fish) the Thraex` helmet had a more curved crest with the head of a griffin at the end.
The big difference was his weapon.
While the Murmillo carried a short straight blade (the so-called gladius) the Thraex would use a curved blade, the so-called sica.
During the time of the roman emperors, the curved blade of the sica would develop into a double-edged blade with a 45° kink at about half of the blades` length.
In contrary to the gladius the sica was not only designed for stabbing but also for striking. The curved blade was also ideal to bypass the scutum of the Murmillo, his main opponent.
More on how the different types of gladiators fought each other and a video of combat between a Murmillo and a Thraex here in my article!
Although the shield was much smaller and lighter than the scutum the Thraex would still carry 39 to 44 pounds of equipment. That placed him among the heavy types of gladiators, just like the Murmillo.
The Hoplomachus was designed as a toned-down Greek hoplite. Here you find my article with more information on the Hoplites and why they were such feared warriors.
By the way, the similarity between the Hoplomachus and the greek hoplite made that type of gladiator quite unpopular in the eastern, more greek influenced, part of the roman empire.
The Hoplomachus had a thrusting lance as his primary weapon. He also carried a short sword and was equipped with a helmet, padded trousers, shin guards on both of his legs that went above the knee, and a small, round shield (the parma).
This small shield is one of the differences between the Hoplomachii and the hoplites.
While a hoplite carried the hoplon, a round shield that covered big parts of his body, the parma was much smaller and had a much more concaved form.
The helmet of the Hoplomachus is almost identical to the helmet of the Thraex. The small difference is that in contrary to the Thraex the Hopomachus did not have the head of a griffin at the end of his curved crest.
The Hoplomachus was also one of the heavier types carrying between 39 and 44 pounds of equipment.
The retiarius is a unique type of Gladiator. He was the only type that would neither wear a helmet nor a shield.
The retiarius only had the manica on his right arm and the shoulder guard (also on his right shoulder) as protection.
Apart from that, he had to rely on his mobility to keep a safe distance from his opponent, the Secutor.
The Retiarius was armed with a large-meshed net, a trident, and a short sword. He would usually throw his net in an attempt to catch the heavily armored Secutor and to limit his mobility even further.
The Retiarius was not only the type of gladiator that carried the lightest type of equipment with only 13 to 18 pounds of equipment, because of that he was also the most vulnerable gladiator!
Some Historians believe that the reason why the Retiarius did not wear a helmet was his low status among the different types of Gladiators.
But that doesn`t really seem to be the case since the Retiarius was one of the most popular types of Gladiators. In addition to that, some mosaics show a Retiarius who is wearing a tunica.
Now that might not sound overly important but the nudity of the gladiators was of extreme importance for, amongst other things, showing the difference between the nude gladiator and the tunica-wearing roman citizens.
A type of Gladiator that was occasionally fighting while wearing a tunica could hardly have the lowest reputation among the different types of Gladiators.
What types of Gladiators fought each other?
While movies usually portray the gladiator fights like a wild carnage without rules the opposite is true!
Gladiator fights had strict rules! Click here for more information about the little-known rules of gladiator fights.
And just like gladiators, against popular belief, did not fight wild animals, more on that here in my article, they would also not just fight any opponent!
Every type of gladiator had an assigned type of gladiator that he would fight.
For Example, a Secutor would only fight a Retiarius, not a Thraex.
Do you want to find out the little-known truth about what type of gladiators fought each other? You can find the answer here in my article!
Every gladiator was assigned to a type of Gladiator that decided what equipment, fighting style, and enemy he would have. The 6 most important types of Gladiators are the Murmillo, the Secutor, the Thraex, the Hoplomachus, the Provocator, and the Retiarius.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the world of the gladiators.
If you want more information on how gladiators trained you can check out my article here.
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).