Have you ever watched the movie, Gladiator? When I last watched I realized that most of the Gladiators in the movie did not wear helmets although the real Gladiators definitely wore helmets.
That got me thinking. Did Gladiators wear helmets only for protection or were there also other, more hidden, reasons?
Helmets did offer protection and made the appearance of the Gladiator more impressive. Additionally, they masked the faces of the Gladiators which had a disinhibiting effect when two men who knew each other well were forced to fight.
Let`s find out more.
Did Gladiators wear helmets?
Before we dive into why Gladiators wore helmets, what these helmets were made of, and why they were often lavishly decorated we have to talk about the use of helmets in general.
All types of Gladiators we know of except for the Retiarius were wearing helmets.
Please check out my article here where I go into detail about the 6 types of Gladiators historians can clearly identify.
The reason why only the Retiarius did not wear a helmet is debated.
Some historians claim that fighting without a helmet was a visual sign for a lower prestige among the different types of Gladiators. Other historians reject that idea by pointing to depictions of Retiarii wearing tunics during their fights.
Now you probably ask yourself why wearing a tunica should be proof of higher prestige.
The idea behind that theory is that most Gladiators, more on the exception in my article here, fought with a bare chest. That means neither a breastplate nor a tunica!
The reason for that surprising lack of upper body armor can be found in the answer to the question of why Gladiators fought. I would like to recommend you my article here for more information on why Gladiators fought.
The nakedness of the Gladiators was a way to visually draw a line between the half-naked Gladiators, most but not all of them were slaves, and the tunica-wearing visitors of the fights.
Wearing a tunica during a fight made a Retiarius more similar to a Roman citizen. Because of that, the theory of a Retiarius being a type of Gladiator with a lower prestige is widely refused.
The helmet of a Murmillo
It is actually pretty easy to keep different types of Gladiators apart when you look at their helmets.
Please check out the following video to see the helmet of a Murmillo. Pay special attention to the crest of the helmet. That high crest that kind of looks like a fish-fin and doesn`t have an arch is typical for the helmet of a Murmillo!
And if you are interested in how the helmets of the other 5 most popular Gladiator types looked (and how to keep them apart) I would like to recommend you my article here.
Why did Gladiators wear helmets?
Gladiators wore helmets for protection, the Intimidation of the opponent, and to hide their faces from their opponent.
I think that protection is a pretty obvious point that doesn`t need a lot of explanation.
The helmet did not only protect the Gladiator from stabs and thrusts with the sword and lance but also from blows with the shield.
It is assumed that a popular tactic of the Gladiators was to deliver blows with their shields against the visors of their opponents. And although the helmet prevented the bearer from serious injuries a strong blow against the helmet was certainly effective in disrupting the opposing gladiator.
Here you can find my article with a video that shows how the already mentioned 6 different types of Gladiators fought.
But in some cases the leval of protection was also a disadvantage. For example when we look at the helmet of the Secutor. More on why his helmet was disadvantage in my article here.
Impressing the viewer
It is important to realize that Gladiator fights were held with a purpose. Now that purpose changed over time, more on the purpose of Gladiator fights during early Rome, the Roman republic, and the Roman empire here in my article.
But for most of the time, the organizer of the Gladiator fights wanted to gain popularity among the voters.
That by the way worked really well since Gladiator fights were incredibly popular. Find out 10 less well-known facts why Gladiator fights were so popular in my article here.
There was only one problem with the strategy of using Gladiator fights for improving one’s own popularity:
The people always wanted to see something new and they quickly became used to regular gladiator fights.
One of the ways to impress the visitors was to present extremely lavish armor. And since Gladiators didn`t wear breast armor, more on that here, and shields would have been too heavy if lavishly decorated the helmets and shin guards were the only spots for lavish armor.
Caius Julius Caesar for example gave his Gladiators silver armor to make them shinier and to impress the voters even more.
For more information on Julius Caesar, for example, the answer to why Caesar did not want to be king, I would like to recommend you my article here.
But let`s now turn to the last and most surprising reason why Gladiators wore helmets.
Hiding the face for a disinhibiting effect
It is important to realize that many Gladiators knew each other personally when they faced each other in the arena, more on the different buildings Gladiators fought in here.
When a roman nobleman wanted to organize Gladiator fights he would often approach only one lanista (=owner of a Gladiator school). Because oft hat the Gladiators that would fight each other were often familiar with each other, sometimes even close friends.
And while not every Gladiator fight was fought until death, more on that here, and fatal injuries during a fight were rather rare there was still a certain amount of Gladiators who were killed after their defeat.
I would like to recommend you my article here for more information on the 5 ways a Gladiator fight could end for the participants.
And here you can find out more about the unexpected low mortality rate of Gladiators and how & why that mortality rate changed during the time of the Roman republic and the Roman empire.
Helmets that covered the face of a Gladiator made it easier for his opponent to not see a friend with whom he had trained and shared meals for years but just another enemy.
That is also the reason Gladiators did not immediately take their helmets of after the fight. As presented in my article here, a defeated Gladiator was sometimes denied mercy and had to be killed by his victorious opponent.
The lethal blow was usually received in a kneeling position while the victorious Gladiator would push his sword into the neck of the defeated man.
As long as the helmet covered the face of the defeated Gladiator it was much easier for the victorious Gladiator to execute his opponent. Especially if his opponent was a friend of his!
What were Gladiator helmets made of?
Gladiator helmets were made out of bronze and were often decorated with driftings and feathers. Only the helmet of the Secutor wasn`t decorated and completely smooth.
The Gladiator helmets that were found in Pompeji have a sheet thickness of 1-3 millimeters. Now that might sound pretty thin for a helmet that was supposed to protect its bearer.
But it was actually sufficient for 2 reasons.
- Gladiators did not use heavy concussion weapons like maces. Apart from the occasional blow with the shield, the helmet didn`t really have to withstand a lot of heavy thrusts. The swords that Gladiators used were quite light and short. We would probably not even call them swords but daggers! More on that here in my article.
- The drifting of the bronze sheets had actually another reason apart from decoration. The corrugated sheet effect made the helmets with driftings much more resistant than a flat sheet of bronze would have been.
The helmet of the Secutor, one of the 6 most popular Gladiator types, did not have any drifting on it. The reason for that was the designated opponent of the Secutor. Gladiators didn`t fight randomly chosen Gladiators.
Every type of Gladiator only faced another type of Gladiator, more on that in my article here. So the Secutor would only fight against a Retiarius.
The weapons of the Retiarius were the reason why the Secutor wore a helmet without any decoration.
More on how the equipment of the two participants of a Gladiator fight was chosen to equal out strengths and weaknesses in my article here.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Rome. Please feel free to also check out my article here where I go into depth about the expansion of the Roman republic.
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).