The Rudis: The Symbol of a Roman Gladiator's Freedom

The Importance of a Wooden Sword in a Roman Gladiator's Life

Thumbs down in a gladiatorial fight, 1910, author unknown

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A rudis (plural rudes) was a wooden sword or rod, which was used in Roman gladiator training both against the palus (a post) and for mock combats between sparring partners. It was also given, along with palm branches, to the winner of a gladiatorial battle.

Gladiators as Enslaved People

Gladiators were enslaved people who performed a ritual battle between life and death for the attending Romans. The code of the gladiator was to defeat one's opponent without inflicting serious injury. The owner/judge of the games, called the munerarius or editor, expected gladiators to fight properly and according to established rules. There was a risk of death in combat to be sure, from a fatal cut or stab-wound, by loss of blood, or resulting infection. Animals were hunted and killed and some people were executed in the arena. But most of the time, the gladiators were men confronting and overcoming the threat of death through bravery, skill, and martial excellence.

Freedom for the Gladiator

When a Roman gladiator won a battle, he received palm branches for the victory and the rudis as a gesture symbolic of his freedom. The Roman poet Martial wrote of a circumstance in which two gladiators named Verus and Priscus fought to a stalemate, and both received rudes and palms as a reward for their bravery and skill.

With his token rudis, the newly liberated gladiator could begin a new career, perhaps as a trainer of future fighters at a gladiatorial school called a ludus, or perhaps serving as referees during gladiatorial combats. Sometimes retired gladiators, called rudiarii, would return for a final fight. For example, the Roman emperor Tiberius put on celebratory games in honor of his grandfather, Drusus, at which he induced some retired gladiators to appear by paying each of them a hundred thousand sesterces.

Summa Rudis

The most elite of the retired gladiators were dubbed summa rudis. The summa rudis officials wore white tunics with purple borders (clavi),and served as technical experts to ensure that the gladiators fought bravely, skillfully, and according to the rules. They carried batons and whips with which they pointed out illegal movements. Ultimately the summa rudis officials could stop a game if a gladiator was going to be too seriously wounded, compel gladiators to fight on, or defer the decision to the editor. Retired gladiators who became summa rudis evidently achieved fame and wealth in their second careers as officials of the combats.

According to an inscription in Ankara, Turkey, a summa rudis named Aelius was one of a group of famous ex-gladiators awarded citizenship from several Greek towns. Another inscription from Dalmatia praises Thelonicus, who while a retiarius was freed with the rudis by the generosity of the people.

The Roman writers Cicero and Tacitus both used the wooden sword rudis as a metaphor when comparing oratory in the Senate versus what they considered lesser or practice oratory as a speaker using rudes rather than iron swords.


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Gill, N.S. "The Rudis: The Symbol of a Roman Gladiator's Freedom." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). The Rudis: The Symbol of a Roman Gladiator's Freedom. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Rudis: The Symbol of a Roman Gladiator's Freedom." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).