The Roman Gladiator
History & Origin
Like sporting events in many ancient cultures, Roman gladiatorial combat originated as a religious event. The Romans claimed that their tradition of gladiatorial games was adopted from the Etruscans, but there is little evidence to support this. The Greeks, in Homer's Iliad, held funeral games in honor of the fallen Patroklos. The games ended not in the literal death of the participants, but in their symbolic death as defeated athletes, unlike succeeding Roman gladiatorial combat.
The Roman historian Livy wrote about the first known gladiatorial games, held in 310 BCE by the Campanians (9.40.17). These games symbolized the re-enactment of the Campanians' military success over the Samnites, in which they were aided by the Romans. The first Roman gladiatorial games were held in 246 BCE by Marcus and Decimus Brutus in honor of their father, Junius Brutus, as a munus or funeral gift
for the dead. It was a relatively small affair that included
the combat of three pairs of slaves in the Forum Boarium (a cattle
market). From their religious origins, gladiatorial games evolved
into defining symbols of Roman culture and became an integral
part of that culture for nearly seven centuries. Eventually gladiatorial
games reached spectacular heights in the number of combatants
and their monumental venues.
For instance, in 183 BCE it was traditional to hold gladiatorial games in which 60 duels took place. By 65 BCE, Julius Caesar had upped-the-ante by pitting 320 ludi, or pairs of gladiators, against one another
in a wooden amphitheater constructed specifically for the event.
At this point, gladiatorial games expanded beyond religious events,
taking on both political and ludic elements in Rome.