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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.

Fresco showing gladiators

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.

 

Table of Contents > Who were the Gladiators?

Inside Connection

Complementary Resources

CTCWeb Resources
The Movie "Gladiator" in Historical Perspective

The Ancient Olympics

Roots of English: an Etymological Dictionary

Maecenas: Images of Ancient Greece and Rome

Knowledge Builders
Aphrodite (Venus), Music & Dance and more.

Teachers' Companions
Aphrodite (Venus), Music & Dance and more.

Other Resources
Roman Civilization: The Gladiator

Roman Gladiatorial Games

Gladiators

Global Glossary Terms
- munus
- Caesar
- Patroklos
- Livy
- gladiator
- ludus

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