Martial Tells the Story of Gladiators Priscus and Verus

The Roman Coliseum
Manuel Breva Colmeiro / Getty Images

In 2003, BBC produced a television docudrama (Colosseum: Rome's Arena of Death aka Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story) about Roman gladiators that The Naked Olympics writer Tony Perrottet reviewed, in Television/DVD: Everyone Loves a Bloodbath. The review seems fair. Here is an excerpt:

"The early phases of the show are squarely embedded in the time-honored tradition of gladiator movies, so much so that there is an inevitable sense of déjà vu. (Is that Kirk Douglas slaving away in the quarries? Doesn't that gladiator look a bit like Russell Crowe?) The rustic prisoner's first glimpses of imperial Rome, the initial matches in the gladiatorial school--all are part of the tried-and-true formula. Even the music seems familiar.
Still, this new foray into the genre quickly distinguishes itself from its forebears."

That final sentence bears repeating. I would recommend watching this hour-long show if it ever comes back to television.

The climax of the show is a dramatization of a known Roman fight between gladiators Priscus and Verus. When they fought each other it was the highlight of the games for the opening ceremonies of the Flavian Amphitheater, the sporting arena we usually refer to as the Roman Colosseum.

The Gladiator Poem of Marcus Valerius Martialis 

We know of these capable gladiators from a poem by the witty Latin epigrammatist Marcus Valerius Martialis aka Martial, who is usually referred to as coming from Spain. It is the only detailed -- such as it is -- description of such a fight that has survived.

You'll find the poem and an English translation below, but first, there are some terms to know.

  • ColosseumThe first term is the Flavian amphitheater or Colosseum which was opened in 80, a year after the first of the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, the one who had built most of it, had died. It does not appear in the poem but was the event's venue.
  • RudisThe second term is rudis, which was a wooden sword given to a gladiator to show that he was freed and released from service. He might then start his own gladiatorial training school.
  • The FingerThe finger refers to a type of end to the game. A fight could be to the death, but it could also be until one of the combatants asked for mercy, by raising a finger. In this famous fight, the gladiators raised their fingers together.
  • ParmaThe Latin refers to a parma which was a round shield. While it was used by Roman soldiers, it was also used by the Thraex or Thracian style gladiators.
  • CaesarCaesar refers to the second Flavian emperor, Titus.

Martial XXIX

English Latin
While Priscus drew out, and Verus drew out the
contest, and the prowess of both stood long in
balance, oft was discharge for the men claimed with
mighty shouts; but Caesar himself obeyed his own
law: that law was, when the prize was set up, to
fight until the finger was raised; what was lawful he
did, oft giving dishes and gifts therein. Yet was an
end found of that balanced strife: they fought well
matched, matched well they together yielded. To
each Caesar sent the wooden sword, and rewards to
each: this prize dexterous valour won. Under no
prince but thee, Caesar, has this chanced: while
two fought, each was victor.
Cum traheret Priscus, traheret certamina Verus,
esset et aequalis Mars utriusque diu,
missio saepe uiris magno clamore petita est;
sed Caesar legi paruit ipse suae; -
lex erat, ad digitum posita concurrere parma: - 5
quod licuit, lances donaque saepe dedit.
Inuentus tamen est finis discriminis aequi:
pugnauere pares, subcubuere pares.
Misit utrique rudes et palmas Caesar utrique:
hoc pretium uirtus ingeniosa tulit. 10
Contigit hoc nullo nisi te sub principe, Caesar:
cum duo pugnarent, uictor uterque fuit.

Martial; Ker, Walter C. A London : Heinemann; New York: Putnam

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Martial Tells the Story of Gladiators Priscus and Verus." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Martial Tells the Story of Gladiators Priscus and Verus. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Martial Tells the Story of Gladiators Priscus and Verus." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).