Gladiatorial events were a token of Roman civilization. A brutal form of sacrifice adapted from the earlier civilization of the Etruscans, who believed when a person dies, his spirit relies on a blood sacrifice to survive in the afterlife. The first event to take place in Rome was in 264 BC, when Decimus Brutus held a sacrifice to honor his dead father (a Roman gladiator). Soon after, these events became an undeniable part of the Romans lives, used for political power and general entertainment. A gladiator’s life was far from easy. Most were slaves, prisoners of war, or hardened criminals; therefore, they were not free men.
Often times they were trained and forced to take part in the events, hoping for their freedom if they were to conquer their grim fate and survive for a few years (wik). This was depicted in the most recent movie, Gladiator. In this film, Russell Crowe plays Maximus, who starts out as an army general under Marcus Aurelius, until Commudus murders his own father out of spite for his father’s loyalty to Maximus and not him. He then inherits the title of king. and condemns Maximus to a gruesome fate as a slave or gladiator. Though this doesn’t sound like the ideal life, to some at the time it was appealing, so much so that some free men degraded themselves so they could battle in the games. Was it for basic living? Possibly, but more than likely it was for the fame and prestige of a gladiator. These free men were known as “professional gladiators.
Training was hard for these great warriors; they often trained at special gladiator schools, the largest of which was connected to the great Coliseum by underground passages. Here they learned how to fight skillfully with swords, daggers, nets, chains, and an array of other weapons and were rightfully endowed with the best medical care around. These schools were privately owned at first but were soon adopted by the state to prevent them from turning into armies that could threaten the empire. An individual on average would fight about three times a year and, for the rest of the time, travel with the troop. The troops swore an oath to their master and traveled from city to city looking for work (Roman Gladiator). The social class of the Gladiators was rather ironic in itself. On one hand, they were considered slaves, which is the lowest class in a social structure, but on the other hand, some gained popularity and were looked upon as great warriors and heroes. Some rose to celebrity status in a short time, as in the movie when Maximus became a hero in the public eye, worthy of praise of greater importance than even the king himself.
In the movie, this was a direct result of the downfall of Commodus, but this isn’t factual, as Maximus is a fictional character. It just demonstrates the influence the Gladiators had on the public; he was the “Rockstar of the Roman Empire. Like anything else, these shows were often times politically based to gain support for an emperor. Aside from this, they made for great entertainment to divert one’s thoughts from everyday troubles. What better way than to see masses of people brutally slaughtered? In reality and the movie alike, the gladiators wore crude armor, not of military status, to depict the difference in class. Nonetheless, they were equipped with the armor and weapon that best suited their situation, as not all battles were the same. Some simply involve a pair of warriors battling until one concedes defeat. At this point, others watching the fight would decide their fate. Sometimes the audience would give the signal, other times the sponsor would decide (wik). In Gladiator, the Emperor Commodus is shown pointing his thumb down if he wishes for the loser to die or a thumbs up if he wishes for him to live.
This is accurate, though the gesture used by the Emperors in ancient Rome isn’t known. Some battles, however, were not this simple. Sometimes the audience would have the privilege of making this important decision; if they believed both fighters fought admirably, they would allow both fighters to live so they could enjoy seeing them in another fight (wik). At times, hundreds of warriors would charge headlong into battle in the center of the arena. There is a very good scene in the movie where Maximus and his troop are fighting another group of troops who are better equipped for battle.
Many times, battles were fixed like this, where one side was obviously biased and was supposed to come out victorious. Of course, in the movie, they construct different strategies and in fact defeat the opposing force. Later, there is a scene where Maximus is ambushed by lions in the middle of battle. This illustrates the Emperor’s views that a great show was much more important than a fair fight, and this isn’t just Hollywood; that’s how it really was. It wasn’t uncommon for beasts such as tigers and bulls to be present in gladiatorial events either (civ). Today, evidence of these battles still exists, most noticeably in the Coliseum. This huge circular arena was the pinnacle of the Roman gladiatorial games, and though it isn’t fully intact, it is a great reminder of ancient culture.
Though today these games seem inhumane and unnecessary, to their ancient culture they were a vacation from everyday stress. Even the Emperor was said to understand that though money and grain would satisfy an individual, large spectacles were necessary for the “contentment of the masses” (civ).
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