Roman Gladiators vs. the Gladiator Movie

Real Roman Gladiators Faced Death and Adulation in the Arena

Patrick Donovan/Getty Images

Common to Roman gladiators, the movie Gladiator, and American football is the attraction of violence. The following should help clarify where the Gladiator movie diverges most dramatically from the historical reality faced by a Roman gladiator. 

"Any fan of American football knows that one of the sport's primary attractions is its similarity to warfare. Its brutal violence is reflected in the martial language used to describe this game: aerial and ground attacks, blitzes, bombs, etc. Thanks to film, those of us so inclined are able to satisfy this all-too-human appetite by watching pretend violence in movies, which today abound with bloody murders, explosions and car crashes."
(depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/classics/gladiatr/culture1.htm) Cultural Meaning of Gladiatorial Combat

Gladiator Movie Plot

In May 2000, Gladiator opened in movie theaters. Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) is a successful general from the Battle of the Danube under Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), son of Marcus Aurelius, condemns Meridius to probable death by sending him into the gladiatorial arena.

Commodus isn't merely sending to an uncertain death the general he perceives as a threat to his throne. The new emperor himself enters the arena to ensure Meridius' permanent end.

If the plot seems a bit far-fetched, it's not -- at least in the most obvious way, because Commodus and probably another half dozen emperors did indeed set foot in the arena.

Why Would an Emperor Want to Be a Gladiator?

Why would an emperor or any other free Roman have entered such deadly combat? There are many reasons, but the adulation of the crowds has to be among the most compelling reasons to become a gladiator.

At first, gladiators were slaves, criminals condemned to death, and war prisoners. In time, free men volunteered to become gladiators. Brooklyn College's Roger Dunkle says it has been estimated that by the end of the Republic, half the gladiators were volunteers. There were even women gladiators. That Emperor Septimius Severus banned female gladiators suggests that by the beginning of the third century A.D., there was a sizable number of such "Amazons." Two of the mad emperors, Caligula and Commodus (the subject of the new movie), appeared as gladiators in the arena.

Seven other emperors who weren't demented, including Titus and Hadrian, either trained as gladiators or fought in the arena, as well.

The Gladiator Was Honored but Unrespectable

Anyone who became a gladiator was, by definition, infamis (whence: infamy), not respectable, and beneath the law. Barbara F. McManus says gladiators had to swear an oath (sacramentum gladiatorium): “I will endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword” (uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari, Petronius Satyricon 117). This consigned the gladiator to possible death, but also conferred honor, much like that of a soldier.

Not only was there honor for a gladiator, but there were adoring crowds, and, sometimes there was wealth (victors were paid with a laurel, monetary payment, and donations from the crowd) and a life of leisure. Some gladiators may have fought no more than two or three times a year and may have won their freedom within very few years. Because of the financial incentive, free men and even aristocrats who, having squandered their inheritance had no other comfortable means of support, would voluntarily become gladiators.

At the end of his service, a freed gladiator (as a token, he received a rudis), could teach other gladiators or a he could become a freelance bodyguard.

The plot is familiar: In today's movies, the ex-boxer, having survived dozens of bloody KO's with only a few disfigurements, becomes a manager or trainer at a boxing school. Some popular sports figures become sportscasters. occasionally, they become television or movie personalities or even politicians.

Editor

An editor is a person who gives something forth into the public, like a public game. In the Republic, the Editores were politicians who, wishing to curry public favor, would put on fights between gladiators and animal shows.

Today, municipalities build stadiums with tax dollars, a burden shared rather than being shouldered by a benefactor. The person with the status of the editor may be the owner of the sports team.

Arena

Onto the floor of the amphitheater sand was poured to absorb blood.

The word for sand in Latin is harena, from which our word 'arena' comes.

More information on gladiators:

Sources:

depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/classics/gladiatr/gladiatr.htm, Roger Dunkle on Gladiators

www.ualberta.ca/~csmackay/CLASS_378/Gladiators.html, Blood Sport