Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 02, Part 1 of 9

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

IN THE EARLY DAYS when the games were merely athletic contests there were no gladiatorial combats. Gladiators were introduced by accident.

Two brothers named Marcus and Decimus Brutus wanted to give their dead father a really bang-up funeral. The brothers were wealthy patricians, the ruling class in Rome, and providing outstanding funeral rites for a dead parent was an important social obligation.

The usual processions, sacrificed animals and prayers weren't enough for the brothers, but Marcus came up with an idea.

"There was an old custom, dating back to prehistoric times, of having a few slaves fight to the death over the grave of some great leader," he reminded his brother. "Why not revive it to show how much we revere the memory of the old man?"

Decimus turned the suggestion over in his mind. Originally this ceremony had been a sort of human sacrifice and the souls of the dead slaves were supposed to serve the chieftain in the next world.

The fighting was to make sure that only brave men capable of being good followers would follow the dead leader. Educated Romans like the Brutus brothers didn't believe this old superstition but the dead man had been a great soldier and fond of rough sports.

"Nothing would please father more," he admitted. "If the priests agree, we'll do it. Our social position will be definitely established."

The priests had no objections and half of Rome turned out to watch the fight. Three pairs of slaves fought and the crowd loved it. The brothers became the most popular men in Rome for having put on such a good show.

Politicians, eager to be elected, decided to put on similar exhibitions. The following statistics will show how fast the idea caught on:

264-B.C.: 3 pairs of slaves.

216-B.C.: 22 pairs of slaves.

183-B.C.: 60 pairs of slaves.

145-B.C.: 90 pairs fought for three days.

Soon it was taken for granted that anyone running for office had to put on slave fights—the bigger the better.

Promoters began to buy up able-bodied slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war; especially, for these fights. The promoters would then rent the men out at so much per head to any ambitious politician. These professional slave-fighters became known as "gladiators," meaning "swordsmen."

As long as only a few gladiators were engaged, the fights were generally given in the Forum, but when several dozen fought there wasn't enough room.

So the fights were moved to the Circus and the gladiators staged their combats as an extra attraction together with the chariot races, the acrobats, the wild animal trainers, and the other performers.

Unless the show was subsidized by some wealthy man in honor of his ancestors, an admission fee was charged and the whole affair was strictly a business proposition; but later politicians started putting on the shows for free to get votes, or the government staged them to keep the mobs quiet.

Unfortunately, no gladiator was kind enough to leave a collection of memoirs or, if any did, the manuscript hasn't survived. However, we know plenty about them as many of the Roman writers; such as, Suetonius, Martial, and Tacitus described the fights in considerable detail.

We know, for example, that one of the most famous gladiators was named Flamma and, although we know very little else about him except a list of his outstanding triumphs, we can by combining stories about several of the gladiators give a reasonably accurate picture of one of these professional killers.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Two, Part 2 is next.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents