Gladiator fights were extremely popular in ancient Rome. And yet at some point, they disappeared. But what happened? Were they banned or did they just fade out of existence?
Let`s find out!
There was not one specific date after which Gladiator fights disappeared. While multiple emperors tried to prohibit Gladiator fights it took the dwindling interest of the roman citizens during the 4th and 5th century AD to end the practice of Gladiator fights.
Roman criticism of the Gladiator fights
The rejection of gladiator fights is not a Christian phenomenon of the late Roman empire.
Not only Christians critiqued the Gladiator fights, Roman aristocrats like Cicero, Seneca, and Tacitus were also critics of the gladiator fights.
It is important to note that the motivation for Roman aristocrats like Cicero to critique the gladiator fights were different from the critics Christians had.
Cicero was not so much against the fights as that he despised the men who fought them. It is important to understand that gladiators, like prostitutes, were the subject of the infamia. That meant that they were seen as people who work in dishonorable jobs.
By the way, for conservative roman aristocrats like Cicero, any form of manual labor was seen as dishonorable work!
For Cicero, the gladiator fights had a certain educational aspect. While he despised the men who fought in the arena he also admired their bravery.
Now that might sound like a contrast but it makes perfect sense!
Due to their social background, click here for my article with more information on if all gladiators were slaves, the gladiators were the lowest of the low inside the roman social structure.
But although Gladiators were these dishonorable men they still were able to show bravery and excellent swordsmanship!
Ciceros’ idea was that a Roman who visited the gladiator games, more information on how the gladiator fights worked here in my article, should realize that even a gladiator without honor was able to show bravery and unconcern while facing death.
The roman visitor should then realize that he as a Roman should above all be able to show the same qualities as a(enslaved) Gladiator.
Seneca on the other hand does not criticize the gladiators. His criticism applies to the crowd that watches the whole day of entertainment without questioning and intellectually processing the event.
Also, Seneca mostly critiques the executions during the lunch break, more on that here in my article, not the gladiator fights themselves!
Just like Cicero, Seneca admired Gladiators for their bravery and their willingness to accept death without any form of begging for life.
So in conclusion: Roman aristocrats like Cicero despised the person of a gladiator but admired his bravery and willingness to face death that he saw as educational for the viewers.
With that in mind, it doesn`t surprise that gladiator games would not disappear until the time of the late Roman Empire.
But what happened during the late roman empire that made gladiator fights disappear?
When were Gladiator fights banned?
The first ban on gladiator fights was issued by emperor Constantine on 1. October 325 AD and lasted until 328 AD. It wasn`t until 393 AD that due to shrinking viewer numbers the gladiator fights slowly disappeared until their end before the year 440 AD.
The number of gladiator fights had already drastically dwindled during the 3. Century AD. More on the reasons why later.
In the year 325 AD the roman emperor Constantine, who had shown great sympathy for Christianity, issued the first prohibition of gladiator fights.
But that prohibition didn`t last long and it only affected the eastern parts of the roman empire. Italy and Rome were not at all prohibited from hosting gladiator fights. And even in the east, for example in Antioch (capital of the roman province of Syria), gladiator games resurfaced in the year 328 AD.
It seems highly likely that Constantine mostly issued the prohibition of gladiator fights to increase the number of criminals that were sentenced to working in the mines.
Do you wonder how Gladiators and sentenced criminals are connected? You can find the answer here in my article!
In Italy and Rome gladiator fights continued despite Constantines` law. And Constantine’s successors also had no intentions of prohibiting gladiator fights in Italy.
And while gladiator fights were soon allowed again in the east the eastern bishops made sure that Christians did not help in the preparation and organization of the gladiator games.
In the second half of the 4th century, the number of gladiator fights shrank drastically without any political intervention.
Emperor Theodosius I. prohibited all pagan festivals, including gladiator fights, in 392 AD. But in the year 393 AD gladiator fights were still held.
Honorius, the son of Theodosius, banned the gladiatorial schools in 399 AD. It seems possible that Honorius tried to stop the professional training of gladiators hoping that untrained gladiators would not entertain the crowd. And that dwindling public interest would result in the disappearance of the gladiator fights.
If you are interested in the grueling training routines gladiators had to follow you can check out my article here.
Against popular belief, Honorius I. did not prohibit gladiator fights!
It is highly likely that gladiator fights were never officially and finally prohibited but just dwindled in importance and audience until they would no longer serve their original purpose.
Click here to find out more about why the gladiator fights were held at all.
Why did Gladiator fights disappear?
We already established that there was no final date after which gladiator fights were forever forbidden. Gladiator fights just disappeared over time as their audience dwindled.
There are two reasons for the disappearance of the gladiator fights:
The extremely expensive gladiator fights during the 3. Century AD must not overshadow the fact that the situation of the roman empire was tense.
While the eastern part of roman Empire (Greece, Syria, Egypt, and so on) was pretty well off the western part suffered.
The invasions of germanic tribes led to an economic downfall. The money was tight and the expanses of the gladiator fights were easy to cut.
Because of that, the number of gladiator fights in the western part of the roman empire sank. But the number of gladiator fights also dwindled in the prosperous eastern part of the roman empire!
The reason why the number of gladiator fights dwindled in the eastern part of the roman empire wasn`t so much of economic but of religious nature.
During the 3. Century Christianity became more and more popular and turned from a small sect into an important religious movement. And the growing number of Christians had no appreciation for gladiator fights. That had several reasons:
- The christian leaders were concerned that people of the lowest social standing could influence men with much higher social standing
Similar to Cicero the early christian leaders despised the men who fought as gladiators. More information on who the gladiators were and how free men could end up as gladiators here in my article.
And yet these men who were at the bottom of the social pyramid were celebrated by their audience.
- The chance to be granted mercy
The early Christians believed that only God should be able to grant mercy. The problem was that a defeated gladiator could also ask for and receive mercy from the crowd. More information on that and the 5 ways a gladiator fight could end here in my article.
That by the way is also the reason why the early Christians did only reject the idea of gladiator fights, not the practice of animal hunts or public executions. More on those topics here in my article.
- Many Christians had died in the arenas
Another reason why many Christians hated the gladiator fights was that many of their brothers in faith had been killed during the gladiatorial events.
Now that was not exactly true although it is a misconception that survived until today. Let me clarify:
Gladiator fights were strictly regimented, more on the rules of gladiator fights here. A gladiator would only face another gladiator. The Christians who were killed in the arena died during events that were separated from the gladiator fights.
There was not one date after which no more gladiator fights were held. And while multiple emperors tried their best to prohibit gladiator fights it took the dwindling interest of the roman citizens to end the practice of gladiator fights.
I hope you enjoyed our short trip into the world of the Gladiators. Do you wonder why Gladiators fought at all? You can find the answer in 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).