The Roman Spectacle: Gladiators, Death and the Colosseum. How did the Gladiatorial games evolve? Why were the ancient Romans obsessed with death and the spectacle? What was the intended purpose of the Colosseum?

The Roman Spectacle: Gladiators, Death and the Colosseum.

How did the Gladiatorial games evolve? Why were the ancient Romans obsessed with death and the spectacle? What was the intended purpose of the Colosseum? 
By: David Yanez  5-20-15

Jean-Léon Gérôme “Pollice Verso” 1872 Oil on canvas 38.0” × 58.7“
Location Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, United States 

This article will explore the ancient Roman fascination with the death spectacle as a cultural norm. I will attempt to understand the early evolution of the gladiatorial games in context to earlier ancient combat sports. Were the Roman death games unique in antiquity? Where they a natural evolution from ancient combat sports? Or, Where they strictly a Roman cultural manifestation? I will be looking for the social and political importance of the Colosseum and the spectacles held within. I will be researching over 30 sources of books papers, and articles, including ancient Greek and Roman literature, as well as current forensic examinations of archeological gladiatorial remains. Some books to be studied include Michael B. Poliakoff's, "Combat sports in the ancient world: Competition, violence, and culture." Donald G. Kyle's, "Spectacles of death in ancient Rome." and Katherine E. Welch's, "The Roman Amphitheatre: from its origins to the Colosseum." 

Though the Roman spectacles and the amphitheaters that housed them were vast in numbers and spread across the empire, my focus will not be on the history or evolution of the architectural form of these buildings. I will limit my research to the evolution of the death spectacle from ancient influences, with a focus on the Gladiatorial games; in addition the ancient Roman concept of death and their fascination with death and the spectacle; and finally the Colosseum, and its intended function in Roman society.  

The Gladiatorial Games 

When we think of the Roman spectacle, the first thing that comes to mind are the gladiatorial games, often associated with the Roman Colosseum and Christians being fed to the lions. Our popular visual notion of the gladiators comes from Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting called "Pollice Verso," meaning "with a turned thumb." Gerome placed careful consideration to historical accuracy when it came to his historical paintings. Ridley Scott the director of the movie 'Gladiator' was inspired by Gerome's painting for a scene in which the emperor gives a thumbs down, calling for the death of the gladiator.  But the accuracy of what we assume about the gladiatorial games and the Roman spectacle, like the thumbs down gesture meaning death, and Christians being fed to the lions, are simply not true. It is said that approximately 90% of the gladiatorial contests did not end in death, and that they did not fight to kill. The gladiators were often paid well, became famous and even won their freedom.  In his book, "A Companion to the Roman Empire" David S. Potter says: Clay models of gladiators look very much as if they were sold as "action figures," so that children could play gladiator at home. 

1ST CENTURY A.D. Christie’s auction house

In his book "Combat sports in the ancient world: Competition, violence, and culture." Poliakoff' defines sports and athletics as activity in which a person physically competes against another in a contest with established regulations and procedures. With the objective of succeeding in that contest under criteria for determining victory that are different from those that mark success in everyday life. (e.g. warfare) Sports as opposed to play and recreation cannot exist without an opponent and a system for measuring the success or failure of the competitor's performance. His definition of sports excludes the Roman gladiatorial games and instead classifies them as a form of warfare in which the gladiator fights to kill or disable his opponent and save himself in any manner possible. But, new research conducted by Fabian Kanz from the Austrian Archaeological Institute and Karl Grosschmidt from the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, contradicts Poliakoff's assessment of the gladiatorial fights. 

Using microscope analysis and CT scans of 67 gladiators remains, Kanz and Grosschmidt were able to determine that only one of the 67 gladiators studied had a wound associated with his death during combat. In addition, injuries to the back of the head were rare. These findings back up ancient Roman accounts that the gladiatorial games had established rules of combat, with no sneaky blows from behind. Sixteen of the bones examined showed signs of non fatal injuries that had time to heal, suggesting that the gladiators had excellent medical care. Ten of the gladiators had square like holes in the sides of their skulls giving credence to the theory that very badly wounded gladiators were killed by a hammer-wielding executioner. They argue that the blows to the side of the head match literary and other sources, and suggest an avoidance of eye contact at the time of their death. These mercy killings were most likely decided by the crowd or the emperor, but were not done by the gladiators themselves. Their research confirms that the gladiators most often did not fight to kill. Ancient fight records indicate that approximately 90 percent of trained gladiators survived their fights. The absence of many perimortal bone injuries, seem to confirm that the gladiatorial fighters, like modern sports celebrities, were valuable commodities that needed to be well taken care of with strict combat rules.

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Typical perimortem (P) defects found on the gladiator crania; /o, view on the outer table; /i, view on inner table; /in, imprinted bone; white scale bar = 10 mm. P03 massive blunt force traumawith concentric fracture line. P08 and P09 singular punctured sharp force trauma on the parietal bone,most probably caused a hammerhead as seen in left lower corner. P10a + b double punctured sharp force traumaon the right parietal and frontal bone, most probably caused by a trident as it could be seen in the right lower corner. Note that the distance between the two trauma is identical as between the two prongs of the trident. The raged appearance of P10a indicates That the middle spike of the used trident was barbed.

When I started my research I wondered whether the gladiatorial games evolved from ancient combat sports. There is a long history of ancient combat sports. In ancient Egypt stick fighting and wrestling were popular. In ancient Greece, wrestling, boxing and pankration were considered the heavy events and the most popular, but unlike the gadiatorial games, wrestling, boxing and pankration weren't a fight to the death, or were they? Like the gladiatorial games the ancient Greeks had rules of conduct associated with these games, for instance, in wrestling there was no finger breaking, or eye gauging, in boxing there was no grasping or clinching. In pankration there were only two tactics explicitly prohibited, biting and gouging. Despite the rules, many of the fights that were won, paid no mind to the eye gauging, finger breaking or biting, and in some cases ended in death. In the case of Greek boxing, a first century B.C.E. inscription says: "A boxer's victory is gained in blood."  

The story of Arrhichion is a story of a famous Greek pankration fighter, who was being suffocated to near death by his opponents leg hold, when his opponent relaxed his hold slightly on Arrhicion, giving Arrhicion the opportunity to dislocate his opponents leg joint or toe, causing him such pain that he lifted his hand up to admit defeat. But as he admitted defeat he had also strangled Arrhichion to death. Arrhichion was thus crowned the victor.  

Ancient Greek heavy events were associated with military training and the Spartans are said to have mastered all of these. Training in each of these heavy sports was as essential for a boys training as was academics. Unlike the Romans, Greek citizens fought in the armies of their city states and physical fitness was essential for military preparedness. The Greek heavy events eventually were practiced in Rome, but they never became as popular as the gladiatorial games. Perhaps because the Romans had an aversion to the naked fighting of the Greek games.

“The Wrestlers,” Artist unknown, late 3rd century B.C.E. Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy

My research into ancient combat sports have shown no direct evolution from anyone of the ancient sports to the Roman Gladiatorial games. But, it is believed that all these games do have a common origin in ancient Funerals. Ritual funeral games were common in ancient civilizations, like Sumeria and Mycenean Greek society. The Olympic games are said to have originated from these ancient funeral games. Similar games known as Aonachs were held in Ireland, and believed by some to date as far back as 1829 B.C., predating the Olympic games. Funeral games were held in honor of the recently deceased. Ancient Greek and Roman games were usually associated with religious festivals.  The Roman "Ludi" were annual great games organized by the state and associated with religious festivals, but the gladiatorial games were not associated with religious festivals. They have their origins in "Munera," which were originally part of the ceremonies associated with funerals. They were funeral games, which lost their original ritual significance later on in the Empire. 

The Greeks and the Etruscans share a similar mythological story of Perseus or Phersu. In the Etruscan Tomb of the Augurs at Tarquinia, ritual scenes are depicted of Phersu wearing a pointed hat while his face is covered behind a mask with a long black beard. He holds a dog on a leash that is biting the leg of a man holding a club with his head covered. It is debated whether this scene supports Etruscan gladiatorial games, but it is evidence of Etruscan funerary games. The Etruscans were also lovers of the spectacle, which included chariot racing and wrestling. The Roman gladiatorial games are said to originate from these funerary games, which were ceremonies intended to honor the memory of the dead. The first recorded gladiatorial show took place in 264 BC: it was presented by two nobles in honor of their dead father. Campania Italy may have been the origins of the gladiatorial games. Frescos painted in 370- 340 B.C. depict various scenes at funeral games. Chariot races, fist fights, and a duel between two warriors armed with helmets, shields, and spears with what looks like a referee standing beside them. Campania is also the site were the first stone amphitheatres were built and home to the most important gladiatorial schools.

Tomb of the Augurs, Tarquinia, ca. 520 BCE. The Phersu Game. After Steingräber 1986, pl. 20 (T. Okamura).
 The practice of sacrificing slaves in order that they may serve you in the after life was practiced by the Egyptians, the Incas and the ancient Mycenean Greeks. I couldn't find evidence of Etruscan funeral sacrifices, but it is believed to have existed. There is though, evidence for Etruscan human sacrifice. The idea of shedding human blood at funerals is very old, and occurs in many ancient Mediterranean cultures. Shedding blood was a way of reconciling the dead with the living. The idea was that the death of a slave was owed to the deceased or to the Gods. It seems likely that the gladiatorial fights are a continuation of ancient funerary ritual sacrifices, which were practiced in funeral rites all over the ancient world. The practice of sacrificing prisoners of war was common in many ancient civilizations.

It is argued by Carlin A. Barton in the essay, "The Emotional Economy of Sacrifice and Execution in Ancient Rome," that a clear distinction between sacrifice and execution cannot be made in the case of Roman executions of prisoners of war. Rituals of condemnation, execution and sacrifice already existed in Rome prior to the gladiatorial games. Both sacrifice and punishment sought security for the community. The Christian author Tertullian writing in 200 A.D. condemns the Roman gladiatorial munera as so: (De Spectaculis, 12)  

"For of old, in the belief that the souls of the dead are propitiated with human blood, they used at funerals to sacrifice captives or slaves of poor value whom they bought. Afterwards, it seemed good to obscure their impiety by making it a pleasure. So they found comfort for death in murder."

Grace Brown, in her "Tertullian and the Roman Spectacula," suggests that Tertullian refers to the God Mars as being connected to the gladiatorial games, as well as Diana with the hunt. Tertullian also writes, (Apol. 9.5, Loeb) that at Rome there 'is a certain Jupiter, whom they drench with human blood at his own games. Minucius Felix (Oct.30.4, Leob, cf. 23.6) Claimed that "even today a human victim is offered to Jupiter Latiaris, and, as becomes the son of Saturn, he battens on the blood of a criminal offender." In his book "The game of death in ancient Rome" Paul Plass says that "Until about the time of Constantine, blood taken from the dead gladiators was still ritually poured by a high official onto a statue of Jupiter Latiaris, perhaps into its throat." Similar religious rituals can also be found in Mayan sacrifice's, where idol's mouths were smeared with the blood drained from the chests of sacrificial victims.(Brundage164) The association of the gladiatorial games with the spirits or deities of the underworld is clearly established. In Keith Hopkins 'Murderous Games' he says: "The religious component in gladiatorial ceremonies continued to be important. For example, attendants in the arena were dressed up as gods. Slaves who tested whether fallen gladiators were really dead or just pretending, by applying a red-hot cauterizing iron, were dressed as the god Mercury. 'Those who dragged away the dead bodies were dressed as Pluto, the god of the underworld. These remnant religious symbols attest to an origin of the gladiatorial games as having evolved from more religiously oriented funerary rituals, that were perhaps more closely associated with the gods, spirits or life in the underworld. 

"Blood spilt in early funeral rites was a conduit of purification that carried the soul from one world to the next, and the memory of the deceased would join the Di Manes (ancestors). Tertullian also writes that the fresh blood of dead gladiators was considered a cure for epilepsy. Several early medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator's blood or liver to cure epileptics as well. The origins of such superstitions likely lie in Etruscan funeral rites. Although the original ritualistic influence of these rites, faded during the Roman Republic,  gladiators' blood continued to be sold and sought after for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial games, the blood of executed criminals was sought after to take the place of the gladiators. The spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may have been responsible for the belief in this cure, but Blood of the dead was seen as a cleansing mechanism for the dead and possibly for the living.  

Ancient funerary games influenced the Roman the Ludi, which were religious festivals dedicated to the gods. But ancient funerary sacrificial rituals were more of an influence upon the Roman gladiatorial games, which eventually evolved into something purely Roman. 

Detail from an early 2nd-century Roman sarcophagus depicting the death of Meleager
Death in Ancient Rome 

Death in ancient Rome was no stranger to the average Roman. Rome was almost constantly at war in its early history and this atmosphere of war was certainly carried into its overseas Imperial expansion, which most certainly brought back to Rome another form of death known as disease acquired from conquered civilizations. For the average Roman child within its first five years, death would take nearly half of its young playmates along with its young siblings, and grandparents, even the death of a parent or a beloved caretaker. Widows and orphans were a common feature of roman society and many legal institutions were intended to provide for them. In ancient Rome people perished at a rate no longer seen in modern western democracies. The estimated death rate in ancient Rome was 40 to 45 per 1000 persons, as compared to 8.15 per 1000 persons in the United States. The Roman Empire constituted roughly 45- 60 million people, nearly one-fifth of all persons living on the planet then. But even with this high mortality rate, over population may have been a factor due to the equally high reproductive rate of the Empire.

 Ancient sources refer to widespread plaques under Domitian and Hadrian, but the early Empire was apparently spared a true pandemic until A.D. 165, when  a roman army brought back with it a disease which started the Antonine Plague. Some speculate that this disease was smallpox. The plague raged for a quarter of a century and in 189 at the height of its second outbreak in the city of Rome, an eyewitness accounts that it caused 2,000 deaths per day. The plague devastated most of the empire with an estimated death toll of 10% of the population or higher.

 At a time of such extraordinary hardship in this pre-industrial society, where life expectancy at birth was somewhere around 25 years or less. The Roman Empire at the time, was full of death, disease, hunger, over population, and a constant atmosphere of war. Those that survived, faced the challenges of survival and found solace in ritual practice. Belief in supernatural beings as being responsible for any inexplicable phenomenon was common. Rituals provided a model for order in a world full of disorder, death and the unforeseen forces. Rituals provided a means for humans to interact and relate to these unforeseen forces and higher powers, in an attempt to bring order and control. Monumental Roman architectural works were one means to control nature, and rituals such as the Ludi and the gladiatorial games were a means to bring order to a society in need of order. Blood spilt in the pursuit of such order was justified in the many ritual spectacles held throughout the Empire, but more so in the Colosseum.  

Colosseum, model in the Museo della Civilta Romana

The Colosseum and the Spectacle 

In Katherine Welch's, "The Roman Amphitheatre: from its origins to the Colosseum," she gives a good introductory survey of authors that have written about and contributed to the study of Roman amphitheatres, the Colosseum, and the Roman spectacle. She argues that it is the deep rooted nature and pervasiveness of the bloody spectacles throughout the Empire, that holds the key to understanding the importance of the genesis of amphitheatres in Roman culture. 

In his essay "Murderous Games," Keith Hopkins argues that the arena spectacles helped to maintain the traditional warlike spirit of the Romans, and served as a substitute for war, as well as helped to maintain an atmosphere of violence, even in peace. The amphitheatres and the spectacles held within were venues for political dialogue between emperor and the people, as well as magistrates and dynasts who competed for power. To quote Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard in their book the Colosseum:
"It stood at the very heart of the delicate balance between Roman autocracy and popular power, an object lesson in Roman imperial state-craft. This is clear from the very moment of its foundations: its origins are embedded in an exemplary tale of dynastic change, imperial transgression, and competition for control of the city of Rome itself." 

Although the Greek influence on Roman architecture is obvious in many of its spectacle buildings, the Colosseum and subsequent amphitheatres afterwards were distinctively of Roman architectural form as were the activities that were held within them. The spectacle and games originally associated with religious festivals and with funerary rites soon came to symbolize Roman identity.  

Domus Aurea, (Image from National Geographic, article “Rethinking Nero”

The Flavian amphitheatre or the Colosseum, was built by Vespasian and Titus on the grounds of the Domus Aurea. The Domus Aurea was the extravagant palace complex of the former Emperor Nero, which was built appropriating Roman land after two thirds of the city burned in AD 64. The Colosseum was built on the site of Nero's man made lake. The building of the Colosseum was a political act in itself. It sent the message by Vespasian that he had returned the land that Nero took, back to the Roman people. Monumental architecture was usually an instrument of memory, but the Flavian amphitheatre's size and presence was intended to wipe away the memory of Nero and preserve the memory of Vespasian. But in the long run, Vespasian failed, when the Flavian amphitheatre started to be called The Colosseum in the middle ages. Most likely the name was a reference to the giant statue of Nero, that stood near the Flavian amphitheatre until the fourth century, called the Colossus. It seems that wiping away the memory of an emperor was harder than it seems. Vespasian's worst nightmare was realized when Rome's greatest amphitheatre would be known as the monument which stands on the site of Nero's lake next to the Colossus.

The Colossus Neronis: Art: Jaime Jones.
Source: Marianne Bergmann,
 Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University.

Regardless of how Medieval people remembered the Flavian amphitheatre, the contemporary world remembers it as the largest and bloodiest Roman arena in history, and the myth of persecution is still preached by Christians. In her book "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom," Candida Moss argues that the Christian narrative of martyrdom and persecution is a 4th century fabrication. Although some Christians were indeed victims of execution by the State, she argues that they were not singled out or targeted by the State specifically. Only during Emperor Diocletian’s reign, laws were enacted forbidding Christian worship, calling for the destruction of churches and Scriptures, and denying Christians certain legal rights. But in the first 300 years of the Christian church this specific targeting only amounted to roughly ten years. There are no eyewitness accounts of Christians being thrown to the lions. While many Christians were thrown to the dogs and other animals and killed in cruel and inhuman ways. They were among the many state executions carried out against all offenders to the state. Christians for the most part, were not singled out as a group.

On the Coliseum's official opening day, it is said that the extravaganza of bloodshed, fighting, and beast hunts, lasted a hundred days. On one day 3,000 men fought. 'On one single day' 5,000 animals were killed, according to Titus the biographer. Modern scholars have re-interpreted that to mean 'on every singe day' of the performances, raising the animal death toll to 500,000. It is argued by Donald G, Kyle in "Spectacles of death in ancient Rome," that the animal remains were routinely handed out to the Roman citizens as a good source of protein, which was lacking in most Romans diet. The Roman citizens of the time would have been grateful for the spectacles for filling their bellies, and exciting their spirits. The vast numbers of wild animals killed during the hundreds of years of animal spectacles in the Roman empire are estimated to be in the millions, which must have been responsible for the extinction of many species.

Christians Flung To The Wild Beasts
Source: D. Rose, Edited by H. W. Dulcken: “A Popular History of Rome” (1886)


The Colosseum and similar arenas, and the games held within, were a social mechanism for holding a society and Empire together in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Death was part of the norm, and the ethical morality of the time was in its human infancy. We of course see ourselves today as morally superior, as compared to the ancient Romans, but we still execute criminals, we still ritually kill animals in the arenas of Spain and Latin America. We slaughter millions of animals per year and subject them to horrible conditions. We face our own economic difficulties in addition to disease hunger and over population. We've seen executions associated with religious beliefs, as in the case of 911 and more recently by Isis. The ancient Romans empathetic capacity for love, compassion and forgiveness, was no different than our own today. Society is evolving and so is its ethics and morality. In two thousand years our descendents may look back at our contemporary Western Empire and say: How horrible, how cruel was their society, but thank our society nonetheless, as we thank the ancient Roman society for its progress in the form of technology, culture and ideas. 


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