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‘Everywhere there were wounds, moans, gore; one could only see danger.’ Thus, Pseudo-Quintilian in his Rhetorical Exercises, describing a gladiator’s first experience of the arena,' (Baker 83). As a gladiator would take his first steps into the arena he knew that his chances for survival were slim. On many occasions the crowd would decide the fate of a defeated gladiator. If the gladiator was brave and fought well, the crowd would let him live, only to have to fight again on another occasion.
Gladiators were merely putting on a show for the people, in the Coliseum which became the primary site for these spectacles. A battle in the afternoon would be considered prime time, and a battle in the morning would be an introduction. Mornings often consisted of wild animals fighting to the death. While the animals were fighting, venatores (wild beast fighters) would enter the ring with a variety of weapons to hunt them. The animals were usually killed (Baker 100).
In the first century BC, Cesar sent five hundred infantrymen into the arena against about five hundred elephants. The people of Rome were awed by such pugilism. A few years earlier Pompey had a similar episode that did not go well. The elephants were not the vicious beasts that the crowd anticipated. The people berated Pompey for this episode; however Caesar did not see any risk of unpopularity when he sent five hundred elephants to die (Baker 100).
I wondered, why would an Emperor want to get involved in these battles with gladiators? Why would a man who can have just about anything he wants risk his life in battle with a slave? Most gladiators were considered the lowest of the low. They had a status in society below even the slaves.
Down and outs or barbarians they may be, but just like well-brought up men, they’d rather take a hit than dodge away in cowardly fashion.
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Yet they were treated like celebrities, they were admired by men and boys, and they were adored by women. A successful gladiator was like a star football player today, without the fortune. Some Emperors entered the arena themselves, and took the role of gladiator or bestiarius. (Baker 115) These Emperors wanted the fame and respect that gladiators received in battle. Emperors would train, and only fight the best so that if they were victorious they would instantly get the respect that they wanted.
This made me wonder if there were there only male gladiators? I went to the library to research female gladiators. There was not much to find on female gladiators, however they did exist. I found that there were a few female gladiators, and it is believed that they were brought into the arena by eccentric Emperors such as Domitian. Domitian once staged a nocturnal performance in which female gladiators fought either women or dwarves by torchlight; which much have been included as comic relief from the life or death games. He believed that women should stay away from the arena, and he describes their get up in disgust:
“Purple dressing gowns and ladies’ oil, who does not know this? But who has never seen a woman behind her defiant shield repeatedly striking at the exercise pole with her sword precisely according to the rules of the game? Such a women deserves a clarion call – but that she is training for the real circus. A helmeted women like that thinks she can do anything. She is fleeing from her own femininity too, she loves power, although she doesn’t want to be a man either: that feels too cold! But if you ever have to sell your wives belongings, then you will make a great impression with a plumed helmet, dagger belt, gauntlets and a left shin-plate (Meijer 77).
There were women gladiators; however they were not taken seriously and were often used for comic relief.
I then became curious as to how gladiators prepared for a fight. Did they train? Or were they thrown into a fight to the death without training? I discovered that gladiators did train, and that there were gladiator schools that exclusively trained gladiators. The Ludus Magnus in Rome was the largest of the imperial schools. The schools arenas looked like amphitheatres with small seating accommodation. The schools had dining halls which gave the gladiators specially prepared food so that they would maintain muscle, and good health. Schools forbid sharpened weapons; trainers issued wooden weapons to gladiators for practice. If a gladiator is injured during practice combat, then the fight is stopped and the injured gladiator is helped. (Wisdom 21, 22)
Were gladiators the only people to face-off in the arena? Were there ever “celebrity death matches?” I found that trained gladiators were not the only people who fought in the arenas (Futrell 44). I wondered who else competed there. Emperors would show just about anything in the arenas if they thought that it would be entertaining. There is one story of Corbis and Orsua. Corbis and Orsua were local politicians who had a long-term rivalry. They decided they would resolve their rivalry with a final dual in the arena. The winner of the fight would dominate the local government. “Since they could not be dissuaded from their great madness, the spectacle they provided… was a lesson on how great an evil for mankind was the desire for power.” (Futrell 44)
Starting as slaves and becoming triumphant gladiators adored by all is more than an accomplishment. Like all athletes, gladiators trained and worked hard. However, a gladiator did not work hard to earn a big pay check like many athletes today. A gladiator worked and trained to keep himself alive. Every time a gladiator went to do his job (went into battle) he faced death. The utmost respect was given to successful gladiators who held the social status lower than that of a slave but became heroes in the arena.