The Real Gladiators

Kathleen M. Coleman cleared up misconceptions about the Roman gladiators at this year’s annual J. Reuben Clark III Lecture in Classics and the Classical Tradition.

Gladiators_from_the_Zliten_mosaic_3PROVO, Utah (Mar. 31, 2016)—The gladiator is a powerful image in modern culture, and a violent one at that. Films like Spartacus and Gladiator have cemented the Roman warrior as a bloody figure in the public consciousness, and the colosseum as deathtrap. The two are often pointed to as evidence of mankind’s progress from a barbaric past into a more enlightened age, where such exploitation would never go publicly condoned.

“You may well feel that there no values attached to something as brutal as gladiatorial combat,” said Kathleen M. Coleman, James Loeb professor of the classics at Harvard University. Honored as this year’s speaker at the annual J. Reuben Clark III Lecture in Classics and the Classical Tradition, Coleman spoke with the goal to “strip away some of the mythology that has accrued thanks to Hollywood around this subject.”

According to tradition, the first gladiator match took place not in the Colosseum, but at a graveside 264 BC, as part of a funerary celebration. Though originally memorial in nature, gladiator matches became more commemorative over time, eventually becoming a political tool. The tradition sprouted of hosting matches in order to commemorate occasions such as the emperor’s birthday or other civil events. But even that commemorative nature gave way to the sheer spectacle that gladiators had to offer.

Eventually, gladiator matches took place in all corners of the Roman Empire, hosted by local rulers for their people. “The people who put on these games were giving a gift to the population out of their own resources,” Coleman explained. “We even have one inscription where some little local magnate in some little town in southern Italy ran out of money to put on the games that he was supposed to put on as a function of his office. And the emperor bailed him out because it was so important that he should be able to do this.”

Why were rulers so eager to expend their resources on these public events? “They get glory out of it. Glory and a following,” Coleman said. Rulers who hosted these matches easily gained the respect of their subjects; on occasions when citizens praised their rulers, they made specific mention of the games they had hosted and the details of the matches.

Though many films and other representations treat the gladiators themselves as expendable cannon fodder, almost the opposite was true. “You have to remember, gladiators were highly trained, very expensive and . . . an investment,” Coleman said. She explained that according to one scholar, “if you rent gladiators and return them to their owner relatively ok so that they can fight again after their wounds are patched up, then you pay one fiftieth of what you would pay if you killed one.”

This complicates one of the most popular images of the arena: a gladiator stands over his opponent as the crowd shouts out for the loser’s death, only for the regent to confirm their demands with a thumb pointed down.

In reality, the arena was a much more tightly controlled area than that. Many battles were actually dramatizations, the fights themselves were highly disciplined, complete with a summa rudis, a senior referee who ensured that everything was done to regulation. And entering the arena wasn’t nearly the death sentence that films make it out to be.

“It’s generally believed that 10 percent of combat may have ended in a fatality, which means that five percent of gladiators, since there were two fighting, would have died,” Coleman said. When the moment came for the loser’s fate to determined, 95 percent of losers were reprieved – in other words, allowed to live.

So what ultimately drew people to the arena to see match after match? Why did the government put so much effort into supporting such a highly regulated sport? As Coleman said, “The arena . . . encapsulates that feeling that ‘we can still do it! We can still control things! We are a militant people.’”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.