Gladiator fights are the first topic that comes to mind when we are talking about ancient Rome. But while many movies portray the fight between Gladiators the question of why Gladiators fought remains a mystery.
Let`s find out why Gladiators fought.
During the early days, Gladiators fought at funerals to honor the deceased. Due to their popularity organizing gladiator fights became a popular way for politicians to gain popularity among the voters. Gladiator fights were also a way for the crowd to interact with their politicians/ the emperor.
Why did Gladiators fight?
It is important to see that the reason why gladiators fought changed over time.
I will outline the reasons why gladiators fought along the timeline of Rome, beginning in the early days of Rome, making my way through the time of the roman republic and ending in the time of the Roman Emperors.
For the sake of better clarity, I will focus on the Gladiator fights inside the city of Rome.
Please note that gladiators fought all over the Roman empire, more on that here in my article.
Why did Gladiators fight in early Rome?
Although gladiator fights are usually connected to ancient Rome they didn`t originate in Rome! Like many other things (chainmail, aqueducts, and streets come to mind) the Romans adopted good ideas and improved them.
And the gladiator fights are no exception!
There is a debate to that day if Gladiator fights were originally invented by the Etruscans (who lived in the area north of Rome) or by the Greeks in Campania (south of Rome).
If you are interested in a more detailed analysis of the origins of the Gladiator fights you can check out my article here.
The first time gladiators fought in Rome was in the year 264 BC at the funeral of the deceased consul Iunius Brutus Pera. His sons had organized 3 pairs of gladiators who fought to honor the deceased.
The first gladiator fights that are mentioned in the sources were held in the year 264 BC.
A former Consul, Consul was the highest political office with real power, named Iunius Brutus Pera had died and his sons organized three pairs of gladiators.
These gladiators were named „bustuarii“, a name that is derived from the word „bustum“ (=Grave).
It is highly likely that these 6 gladiators didn`t fight ON the grave but a few days after the official funeral. Now one might ask why men would fight (and try to kill each other) at a funeral.
The importance of Gladiator fights at funerals
The question of why one would want men to fight to the death at a funeral is legitimate. The answer can be found in the Roman religion or better in the roman idea of death and the afterlife.
The Gladiator fights at funerals were called munus (duty) and it was seen as the duty of the (wealthy) family of the deceased to organize fights between gladiators to ease the transition of the deceased into the afterlife.
The Idea was that the blood that was shed by the gladiators would calm and reconcile the spirit of the deceased person and would ease his way into the afterlife.
By the way, the idea that the shedding of human blood at a funeral would reconcile the spirit of the deceased person wasn`t exclusive to the Romans.
Even Homer, the ancient Greek writer who is best known for the Trojan War reports that the Greek hero Achilles shed the blood of 12 Trojans at the funeral of his close friend (maybe even his lover) Patroclus.
Ancient writers like Tertullian claim that gladiator fights developed from that kind of archaic human sacrifice. More on that here in my article where I look at the origins of the gladiator fights.
That theory is highly debated, especially since Tertullian as an early Christian had an interest in portraying the gladiator fights in a certain (bad) way. Do you wonder how the spreading of Christianity made the gladiator fights disappear? You can find the answer here in my article.
After the first gladiator fight in 264 BC, the number of gladiators that fought at funerals increased drastically.
When the former Consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus died in 216 BC 22 pairs of gladiators fought at his funeral. And a few years later, in the year 183 BC, 60 pairs of gladiators fought at the funeral.
So you can see that the number of gladiators (and the costs that noble families were willing to shoulder) increased dramatically.
But why did they increase so drastically?
During the time from 264 BC to somewhere around the middle of the second century BC, gladiator fights were purely held to honor the deceased, not to entertain the public.
The rivaling noble families tried to trump each other with the costs (and the number of gladiators) that they would spend for a funeral.
Once again, these gladiator fights at the funeral were called „munus“ (= duty) for a reason!
But that motivation changed during the middle of the second century BC!
Why did Gladiators fight during the Roman republic?
We just established in the last paragraph that gladiator fights were originally held at the funeral. But for some reason that changed.
First of all, it is important to know that Rome rapidly expanded during the second century BC.
Early Rome had to struggle to grow from a couple of small settlements between superpowers to the dominant power in Italy. Please read my article here for more information on how Rome was actually founded.
The roman expansion, for example, the three punic wars (264-146 BC), had transformed Rome into a global power and had made the leading class extremely rich!
And that wealth had to be presented to the ordinary citizens of Rome. More and more time, money, and gladiators were invested to show everybody that the deceased was truly a member of the Roman upper class.
And the lower classes of Rome loved it. To this day Historians, history teachers, and sociologists have a hard time trying to explain why Romans loved these brutal fights so much.
By the way, I also gave it a try to explain why gladiator fights were so popular. Please feel free to check out my article here.
There is one report from the year 160 BC by the Roman writer Terence who claims that the audience of a theatre hastily left as rumors about a gladiator fight spread.
The number of gladiators that would fight at one funeral would explode and soon funerals with hundreds of gladiators were not uncommon.
And that increase combined with the roman lust for gladiator fights opened a new opportunity. The aristocrats recognized that paying for extravagant funeral games increased their popularity among the people of Rome.
The gladiator fights were still linked to the funeral of a famous relative but the reason why the fights were held switched from honoring the dead to entertaining the crowd.
But why was it beneficial for the son of a deceased politician to increase his popularity? Let`s find out!
Why did politicians sponsor Gladiator fights
The reason why politicians during the Roman republic were so keen on sponsoring Gladiator fights was the political system of Rome. To get voted into office the candidate would have to offer entertainment to the crowd
The system itself is quite complicated and confused even non-roman contemporaries.
The (Greek) writer Polybios, one of the best sources when it comes to the early Roman republic, describes it as follow:
Rome has elements of a monarchy, an oligarchy, and democracy. While the two Consuls that are voted for one year have the power of a monarch they are controlled by a council of aristocrats (that’s the senate).
And every politician and senator has to be voted by the people of Rome (the democracy part).
The cursus honorum
The cursus honorum was a mandatory hierarchy of public offices a politician had to run through before he was able to run for the desirable and financially rewarding offices of praetor and consul.
|– Lowest-ranking office
– Voted for 1 year
– Entry into the Senate
– No Salary
|– Not mandatory
– But nobody would be vote das praetor who didn`t organize lavish (and expensive) gladiatorial games
– No Salary
|– Voted for 1 year
– Would govern a province after his year of service
– Chance to get rich as a governor
|– Voted for 1 year
– Would govern a province after his year of service
– Chance to get rich as a governor
To become a senator you had to be voted into the office of Quaestor!
After the one year of service as Quaestor, you would then be a senator for a lifetime (or at least until the censores would expel you for drastic misbehavior). Please check out my article here where I go into much more detail about the political Institutions & offices of the Roman republic.
But in order to gain further public offices, you would have to climb up the cursus honorum.
By the way, since political offices in ancient Rome did not pay a salary you (or your family) had to be extremely wealthy to finance a political career.
The voters had grown accustomed to the frequent gladiator fights at funerals and they usually remembered who had presented them the best fights when they were voting.
So in order to reach higher (and lucrative) political offices roman politicians had to increase their popularity by spoiling the voters with more and more extravagant gladiator fights.
But even though everybody knew that during that time the gladiator fights were used for gaining popularity they were still strongly connected to their origin as funeral games.
That led to truly bizarre events.
In 65 BC Caius Julius Caesar, more on him here in my article, wanted to organize gladiator fights for his deceased father.
But Caesars` father had died 20 years earlier in 85 BC.
So it was totally clear that the Gladiator fights were held to gain the popularity of the crowd and not to appease the spirit of the deceased.
Caesars Gladiator fights in the year 65 BC are also interesting for another reason.
Caesar wanted to present the incredible number of 640 Gladiators. The Senate on the other hand was not overly keen on having 640 professional, well-trained killers (more on how gladiators trained here in my article) inside of Rome.
Since Rome did not have a police force and tradition prohibited the staying of military units inside of Rome the senators feared that Caesar could use his gladiators for a rebellion.
You can find more information on why the military was not allowed inside of Rome here in my article.
Limiting the number of gladiators that one individual could present was the first step in a development that, during the Roman empire, would chance the reason why gladiators fought.
But more on that in the next paragraph!
Oh and if you wonder if Caesar was elected in 65 BC even though he was not able to present the number of gladiators he had wanted:
Yes, Caesar was elected as Aedile in 65 BC. And because he could not present as many gladiators as he had hoped he decided to spend the money otherwise.
He gave his gladiators silver armor! That must have been a truly spectacular sight.
By the way, Gladiators had fixed types as which they would fight. You can find more information on the different types of gladiators in my article here.
And if you wonder how gladiators fought (and you want to see videos of reenacted gladiator fights) you can check out my article here. And here you can find out more about the hard training gladiators had to endure.
Why did Gladiators fight during the Roman empire?
So as mentioned, during the roman republic Gladiator fights were organized by politicians to rise in the favor of the voters and to secure their election.
But that started to change after Caesar became dictator. Do you wonder why Caesar was content with the title of dictator and why he didn`t aim for the title of king? You can find the answer here in my article!
The reason why gladiators fought completely changed with the rule of Augustus, Caesars’ heir.
Augustus did his best to not be seen as a sole ruler. He for example called himself „primus inter pares“ (first among equals). Now that is obviously a contradiction but it kept up the illusion that the old republic had been restored.
But while Augustus tried his best to make it appear as if he was not a sole ruler he also made sure that he alone was in control.
And one main concern of his was that another man could become more popular, overthrow Augustus, and take his place as emperor.
His solution was simple. He knew that the crowd loved gladiator fights so as long as he was able to present more Gladiators than any other person he should be safe.
In 22 BC Augustus decided that only the praetores could organize gladiator fights two times a year and he limited the number of gladiators that every praetor was allowed to present to 120.
Now, these limitations were only for Rome. The priests and noblemen of cities outside of Rome were still allowed to organize gladiator fights.
The gladiator games that Augustus organized himself were obviously not limited to 120 gladiators.
The best source to learn more about the gladiator games that Augustus organized is his report, the „res gestae“. The „res gestae“ is a first-person record in which Augustus sums up his life and his accomplishments. It`s a short booklet that I can highly recommend!
In the res gestae Augustus claims that he organized a total of 18 gladiatorial games in which around 10.000 gladiators fought. He also claims to have held 26 animal hunts.
Do you want to learn more about the animal hunts and the animals that had to take part in them? Please check out my article here.
The emperors that followed after Augustus also knew about the popularity of the gladiator fights.
And although the emperor Tiberius, the direct successor of Augustus, did barely finance gladiator fights (Historians estimate that he was suffering from depression and had no interest in appearing at crowded gladiator fights), his successors continued the tradition of gladiator fights.
Especially the emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) knew about the value of the gladiator fights for keeping the people calm.
By the way, all these fights were mostly held in the Forum Romanum. The famous Colosseum was not started until the year 70 AD by the roman emperor Vespasian!
For how many years did Rome have Gladiator fights?
Gladiator fights remained a major part of the attempts of the Roman emperors to keep the people happy and to prevent rebellions.
Gladiator fights were held in Rome from 264 BC to the first half of the 5th century AD, so almost 700 years.
It wasn`t until the 5th century that the gladiator fights disappeared. Do you want to find out why the gladiator fights disappeared? You can find the answer here in my article.
I hope you enjoyed your short trip into the fascinating world of ancient Rome.
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).