Gladiator fights are some of the most popular aspects of antiquity. And yet their origins are not finally determined. While there are several possible origins historians know that Gladiator fights did not originate in Rome but that Rome adopted the tradition of having Gladiator fights.
The tradition of Gladiator fights originated in greek influenced Campania. It was later adopted by the Etruscans after they had stretched their influence to Campania (700-500 BC). The Etruscans would then bring the tradition of Gladiators to Rome, where the first Gladiator fight was held in 264 BC.
Let`s go into more detail.
Where did Gladiator fights originate?
Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear where Gladiator fights originated. But historians were able to narrow it down to two possibilities.
The Gladiator fights originated either from an area that was controlled by the Etruscans (north of Rome, modern-day Tuscany) or from the area of Campania (south of Rome). It wasn`t until 264 BC that Gladiator fights were held in Rome.
The most logical theory indicates that Gladiator fights were first held by the Greeks in southern Italy. When Campania, a part of southern Italy, fell under Etruscan influence between 700 and 500 BC the Etruscans would also get to know the tradition of Gladiator fights. And they would then bring that tradition to Rome since until 510 BC Rome was also under Etruscan dominance.
Now we have a Roman source that deals with the origin of the Gladiator fights. The problem is, that that source was written in the 3. Century AD and quotes a source that was written during the time of the emperor Augustus who ruled from 29 BC to 14 AD.
So in other words: The source quotes a source that was written about events that took place 500 years prior. You see the problem…
That source, written by Athenaeus, describes Gladiator fights as a rite that was adopted from the Etruscans. According to him the Etruscans did not only have Gladiator fights at funerals like the Romans, more on why Gladiators fought at funerals here in my article.
The Etruscans also had Gladiator fights at feasts.
The problem is, that another source written by Livy claims that the inhabitants of Campania also had Gladiator fights at feasts.
Livy writes that after the inhabitants of Campania, who were Roman allies, had defeated a Samnite army in 308 BC the Samnite POWs were forced to fight for the entertainment of the victorious army.
By the way, later when Gladiator fights had reached Rome and spread all over the Roman empire POWs remained an important source for new Gladiators.
For more information on how POWs became Gladiators and the social status of the Gladiators in general you might want to check out my article here.
So to sum up the problem: We have two sources. One claimes the Etruscans as the origin of the Gladiator fights and the other one claims Campania.
Let`s check out both to find out which of the two seems more reasonable.
Etruria as the origin of Gladiator fights
Before Rome became the dominant power in Italy the Etruscans controlled most of northern Italy and for some time even an area that stretched to Campania.
During that time the early settlements that would later become known as Rome were under Etruscan control.
It wasn`t until 510 BC that the Romans overthrew their Etruscan kings and established the roman republic.
Do you want to learn more (both myth & reality) on what made the Romans overthrow their kings? You can find the answer here in my article.
And if you want to learn more about how Rome was founded (once again, both myth & reality) you might want to check out my article here.
But let`s leave Rome and head to Etruria.
The Roman idea that Etruscans „invented“ the Gladiator fights is closely connected to how the Romans saw the Etruscans.
The Romans thought of the Etruscans as cruel, scary, and sinister people. The idea that these people developed archaic human sacrifices into Gladiator fights seemed reasonable to the Romans.
Human sacrifices were actually widespread throughout the archaic (Greek) time!
During the Trojan war the mythical Greek hero Achilles, for example, killed 12 Troyan noblemen at the funeral of Patroclos, his friend (& maybe even his lover).
Now the Etruscans were not Greek. But during the Etruscan expansion from around 700 to 500 BC large parts of Italy, including the Greek south (the area of Campania) fell under Etruscan control.
You can find more information on the Etruscan expansion and how early Rome was influenced and impacted by it in my article here.
And that information leads to an interesting theory!
Maybe the Etruscans found out about Gladiators when they stretched their influence into Campania and adopted the custom of Gladiator fights. An maybe that custom spread over the entire sphere of Etruscan Influence including Rome.
Now that theory is quite convincing. Unfortunately, I wasn`t the one that came up with it. It was actually the Historian Ville who came up with that theory.
That would also explain why there are no paintings of Gladiators in Etruscan graves but a lot of these paintings in graves in Campania.
So let`s leave the Etruscans, head south to Campania, and take a closer look!
Campania as the origin of Gladiator fights
In antiquity, Campania, the area of the modern-day Italian province of Campania with its capital Naples, was a fertile area that was heavily influenced by the Greeks.
The ancestors of these south Italian Greeks had left mainland Greece during the Great Colonisation (around 750-550 BC) and had started city-states (so-called poleis) all over the Mediterraneum including southern Italy (the so-called Magna Graecia).
The greek city-states in southern Italy and Sicily became known as Magna Graecia (= large Greece).
Many Italian cities like Cumae, Paestum, Ischia, and also Herculaneum, another city that together with Pompeji was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, were founded by these Greek colonizers.
By the way, that Greek Colonisation would later indirectly start the Greco-Persian Wars. Here you can find my article with more information on how these events were connected.
But let`s now focus on the origins of Gladiators in Campania.
As already mentioned. Human sacrifices were pretty normal in the archaic greek time. Achilles sacrificing 12 Troyan Noblemen on the Grave of his fiend (and maybe lover Patroclos) during the Troyan War is just one example.
It seems likely that the Greeks who settled in Magna Graecia, more specifically Campania, kept these traditions alive.
That thesis is also backed by wall paintings in graves that show duels between armored warriors. While these duels are frequently depicted the death of one of the fighters is only shown in one painting.
That also is a similarity to the Roman Gladiator fights. The mortality rate of the Roman Gladiator fights was also much lower than most people think. More on that here in my article.
Another clear indicator that these paintings are showing funeral scenes and not war is that depictions of boxing matches and referees are also shown alongside the duels.
Once again, the presence of referees is a similarity that these Campanian duels share with the Roman Gladiator fights. Here you can find my article with more information on the referees and the rules of the Roman Gladiator fights.
Another data point is that the roman writer Livy (64/59 BC – 12/17 AD) mentioned that in 308 BC Roman allies in Campania had forced Samnite POWs to fight against each other at a feast.
Now in the paragraph above, I mentioned a theory after which the Etruscans experienced the tradition of Gladiator fights in Campania and then brought them to Rome.
That seems quite possible since until 510 BC Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings, more on that here in my article.
Especially since a lot of Roman traditions, for example, the practice of foreseeing the future by examining the innards of sacrificed animals were adopted from the Etruscans.
And also many parts of the Roman religion, for example, the god Saturnus (his Etruscan counterpart was called Satre), were adopted from the Etruscans.
So in conclusion: It seems likely that the tradition of Gladiator fights originated in the greek influenced southern Italy (Campania).
It was later adopted by the Etruscans after they had stretched their influence to Campania (from 700-500 BC). The Etruscans would then bring the tradition of Gladiators to Rome, where the first Gladiator fight was held in 264 BC.
When did Gladiator fights come to Rome?
The first-ever Gladiator fight was held in 264 BC at the funeral of a former consul.
I wrote an entire article where I go into depth about why Gladiators fought at that event and how the reasons why Gladiator fights were organized changed in the following centuries to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Here you can check out that article!
So after we found out about the origins of the Gladiator fights you might wonder how Gladiators fought. If you do you might want to check out my article here where I present how Gladiators fought (and why it didn`t have anything to do with how movies portray Gladiator fights).
If you should be more interested in how a day of gladiatorial games worked and why it contained so many more events than just the Gladiator fights you can check out my article here.
And here you can find more information about the different buildings Gladiators fought in (especially before the famous Colosseum was constructed in 80 AD).
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).