Reflections - Part IX - The Truth About Gladiators ?

© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017

    Gladiators and the events in the arena have for long been the subject of misinterpretation - so what is the truth ?
Part IX of
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017

open images in a new tab to view full size

Academics are not always very well paid
One way to dramatically increase their income is to either make documentaries for TV or DVD companies – and another way is to publish a ‘startling’ new theory – overturning previously accepted paradigms.
Spartacus - TV Series
The route to documentary making is the one most favoured by academics in the field of Classical studies, particularly as a result of the new interest in ‘epic’ and 'gladiator' films.
The other route is often less lucrative, but more easily open to those who are not so naturally ‘photogenic’.
Professional Footballer
Such a ‘startling new theory’ regarding 'Ludi' (Games) and gladiators, is one suggested by Professor Steven L Tuck, of the University of Miami and headed - ‘fights to the death between enslaved gladiators never happened, according to a controversial new theory’ - (and should we ever say ‘never’)
The theory suggests that the fighters in the arena would have far more in common with the overblown histrionics of modern-day 'premier league footballers', or ‘WWE’ wrestlers: highly trained, overpaid and pampered professionals with throngs of groupies - and an interest in not getting too badly injured.
"Gladiatorial combat is seen as being related to killing and shedding of blood, but I think that what we are seeing is an entertaining ‘martial art’, that was spectator-oriented," Tuck glibly states.

Reproduction Roman Oil Lamp
Original Roman Marble Bas Relief

Professor Tuck focused on fighting methods used by pairs of gladiators in one-to-one combat, as opposed to mass battles or staged events, and examined 158 (only?) images that show combat, such as a gladiator pinning his opponent, his shield and sword on the ground.
Such gladiatorial art adorns many kinds of Roman artefacts, from lamps, gems and pottery to large-scale wall paintings, mosaics and marble reliefs.
In this Mosaic there are two examples of the Theta symbol
beside very dead looking Gladiators
Geek Theta
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
Interestingly, there are images, both in the form of mosaics, wall-paintings and graffiti that appear to provide incontrovertible evidence that gladiators were killed in the arena.
The Romans used the Greek alphabetical character 'theta', (theta is the first letter of the Greek word θάνατος - thanatos - translated as death), as an abbreviation for the word 'death', 'dead' or 'killed', and it is believed that they marked their 'Games programs' with this sign, keeping a track of which combatants were killed - possibly in relation to their (officially illegal) betting activities.
This Mosaic features two examples of the Theta symbol -
along with the names of the various gladiators
However, on contemporary images (as enumerated above), this sign also often appears, in many cases accompanied by the name of the combatant concerned - and here is evidence, if such were needed, that combatants were often killed in the arena, and that such contests were not 'staged', 'phoney' encounters, so beloved of such current organisations as the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) or similar groups.
Further proof of regular death involving gladiators in the areana can be provided by reference to the work of the famous classical physician, Galen.
Galen, for some considerable time, held the position in Pergamon as physician to the gladiators of the High Priest of Asia, one of the most influential and wealthy men in Asia.
Galen claims that the High Priest chose him over other physicians after he eviscerated an ape, and challenged other physicians to repair the damage.
When they refused, Galen performed the surgery himself and in so doing won the favour of the High Priest.
Gladiator 'Killed Outright'
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
During his four years in Pergamon he learned the importance of diet, fitness, hygiene and preventive measures, as well as living anatomy, and the treatment of fractures and severe trauma, referring to their wounds as "windows into the body".
Only five deaths among the gladiators occurred while he held the post, compared to 'sixty' in his predecessor's time, a result that is in general ascribed to the attention he paid to their wounds.
(and it should be remembered that these figures only refer to fighters 'wounded' and recovered from the arena - and not to those who were killed outright).
Now it has also been suggested (see below for more details) that only 'noxii' were killed in the arena.
While it is true that 'noxii' were executed in the arena, they were not given elaborate gladiatorial clothing and equipment, as is shown in images such as those presented here - so the images in question, irrefutably showing dead gladiators, and do not represent 'noxii'.
The activities staged in the arena
were 'deadly serious'
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
The activities staged in the arena were 'deadly serious', in both senses of the word, with profound political, cultural and particularly religious implications - and any 'entertainment value' was simply a by product, unplanned and unsought for.
'Killed in Combat'
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
Professor Tuck goes on to suggest, on the basis of his 'research' that gladiators must have represented a massive capital outlay (?) for their owners - (a suggestion that can be easily disputed – see below).
Now, according to Professor Tuck, it makes no sense at all for the gladiators, at such (proposed) cost, to be killed in combat, because it would be like 'throwing money away', (which, of course, Roman aristocrats were often quite happy to do – as many of them were fabulously wealthy - like Marcus Octavianus Gracchus, the 'hero' of the 'Story of Gracchus').
Gladiators, Tuck suggests, were meant (by whom?) to be ‘recognised’ (to what purpose ?), similar to the famous sports-people of today, and they had great status, comparable to the highest levels of professional athletes.
It should be noted here that in ancient Roman culture, there was a class of individuals known as 'infamia' (in-, 'not,' and fama, 'reputation').
These individuals were defined as suffering a loss of legal or social standing.
As a technical term of Roman law, infamia was an official exclusion from the legal protections enjoyed by a Roman citizen, as imposed by a censor or praetor.
More generally, especially during the Republic and Principate, infamia was informal damage to one's esteem or reputation.
Dancing Slave-boy
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
A person who suffered infamia was an infamis (plural infames).
Infamia was an 'inescapable consequence' for certain professionals, including prostitutes and pimps, entertainers such as actors and dancers, and 'gladiators' (who, according to Tuck had 'great status').
Infames could not, for instance, provide testimony in a court of law.
They were liable to corporal punishment, which was usually reserved for slaves (and they often were slaves).
A passive homosexual who was 'outed' might also be subject to social infamia, though if he was a citizen he might retain his legal standing.
Roman Mosaic - Naked Gladiators
The reason for these groups to be singled out and despised as infames was related to Roman views mainly regarding aspects of sexuality and autonomy. All the 'professions' listed above (with the exception possibly of pimps - although they were 'facilitators') practised their 'art' by using their body - in public - and in most cases all or part of that body was exposed. This was completely contrary to the Roman sense of decency and decorum. While it was acceptable for slaves to behave in such ways, it was not permitted for citizens. (Adult Roman citizens would not even dance in private - let alone in public - hence the problem with the emperor Nero performing in various ways). Even actors and 'mimes' were included, because, apart from the fact that they may appear partly or even completely unclothed, they would also allow themselves to speak and act as persons other than themselves, and this also was considered to be reprehensible, and a denial of ones autonomy.
So much for  Professor Tuck's claim that gladiators had 'great status'.
However, Professor Tuck goes on to claim that:
"By that fact alone they are not disposable, and their owners would not expect to lose their investment every time somebody stepped out into the arena.”
This obsession that Professor Tuck displays with the gladiator, (or any other type of combatant in the arena) as a valuable investment reveals a stunning lack of understanding of the basic economic facts of the ancient world.
It is true that gladiators were, by and large, 'privately owned', and so the vast majority were slaves.
The first significant point arising from this fact is that those who appeared in the arena were not paid - either during their training or when they were 'performing' – (slaves were not paid - and any money or gifts that they received technically belonged to their master) - although they may, on winning a contest, have been paid a small sum of ‘prize money’ (small to the owner - but seemingly large to a slave).
Gladiatorial School
with Practice Arena
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
Surprisingly (perhaps), their training cost their master next to nothing, as their trainers were also slaves (who were not paid).
The doctors, and masseurs who attended the trainees and performers were slaves – (and were therefore not paid).
The dieticians, cooks cleaners, guards, armourers accountants and whatever, at the gladiatorial schools were slaves, (and were not paid).
This of course was the economic motivation behind the entire institution of slavery.
Food, wine, oil for lamps, clothing and weapons and armour all had to be paid for (unless the master produced the items from his own estates, using slave labour) – but for most of these items costs were minimal – and by and large, the owners were fabulously wealthy, and these costs meant next to nothing to them.
The only real cost was the initial purchase of the slaves.
The most expensive slaves to buy in Roman society were beautiful, (and often well educated), boys, (in some cases literally worth their weight in gold).
Attractive teenage girls, (mainly used for high class, private sex), came next on the list.
Slave Sale
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2017
reproduced with permission
Beautiful Educated Boys
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
After that came well educated Greek male slaves – artists, sculptors, architects, engineers, doctors, teachers, - even chefs and hairdressers, and those who could be trained to manage businesses.
Further down the list would come suave male slaves, to act as household and personal slaves.
Coming quite near the bottom of the price list would be strong, healthy young male slaves who could be used for security, as bodyguards – also manual workers – and possibly also gladiators.
The fact that must be borne in mind, however, is that after the purchase, (and that would not involve a large outlay for a boy to be trained up as a performer in the arena), the further costs were minimal – and the returns could be enormous.

follow the link below for more information in this blog about slaves in ancient Rome:

Bryn Walters BA, the Director of the 'British Association for Roman Archaeology', is reported as agreeing with Professor Tuck's ‘startling new theory'.
Bryn Walters writes that: "Gladiators were entertainers, ‘sports stars’, and they were the 'privately owned', pampered 'stars' of their day.
(presumably Walters means, by 'privately owned', 'slaves', as only slaves could be owned - and slaves were at the bottom of the social pile - so they were hardly 'stars', but rather just chattels.)
Walters continues: "They did not go into the arena to die, because they cost far too much for that to happen on anything like a regular basis (how many times can a person die ?).
Senators, wealthy businessmen and emperors were hardly going to have their best sporting stars butchered in the arena to appease the masses.
The only people that, (he means ‘who’ – badly educated), died were those that (who) were sent into the arena to be executed (?), and they were prisoners, convicts, criminals and those captured from wars and skirmishes."
Execution of a Noxii
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
What Walters is talking about here are ‘noxii’ - and to a certain extent he is right – but those ‘captured in (not from) war and skirmishes’ became – in most cases – slaves, and were a prime source for the gladiatorial schools.
Where Bryn Walters goes wrong here, along with Professor Tuck, however, is in imagining that the modern concept of ‘sports stars’ was a concept relevant to, or understood in Roman society.
There is literary evidence (particularly grafitti) that some Romans (male and female, patricians and plebs), did become infatuated and obsessed with some arena performers - but such attitudes were generally considered pathetic and unacceptable, as any form of adulation of a slave - an 'infamia' was considered ridiculous.
As can be seen, this bears no relationship to the admiration for usually exceptionally wealthy and influential modern 'sports-stars'.
As an aside - as part of this ‘startling new theory', it is suggested that Ancient literature, indicates that attending gladiator fights was considered a more ‘intellectual’(?) pastime (should that not be a ‘morally uplifting pastime’) than going to the theatre, with fights promoting principles of bravery and honour, while drama was just 'entertainment'.
This, however, is a gross (and common) misunderstanding of the original literary sources.
The excuse that gladiatorial combat, etc. ‘promoted principles of bravery and honour’ was a common excuse given by the Roman upper classes for the maintaining of the tradition of the Ludi – and their attendance at such displays.
However, this further suggestion 'torpedoes' the initial, and essential contention of  Professor Tuck's theory, namely that the combats were not 'ad mortem' - but just 'entertainment'.
If no one was in danger of being killed, where was the 'bravery and honour' on the part of those competing ?
The one important and essential fact, however, that Professor Tuck and Bryn Walters ignore is in the matter of the origin of the Ludi (Games), and the gladiatorial contests.
Etruscan Munera - Note: two of the combatants are wounded
As has been stated before (in previous articles in this blog), 'gladiatorial' contests probably had their origins in either Eturia or Samnium (or both areas), taking the form of 'munera' - which were a form of 'funeral gamese'.

follow the link below for more information:

The purpose of the funeral games was to provide a 'blood sacrifice' to placate the infernal spirits - a blood sacrifice that was the result of the deaths of  combatants - 'swordsman' (in Latin, a gladiator - from 'gladius' - a sword).
The 'di inferi' or 'dii inferi' - ('the gods below') were a shadowy collective of ancient Roman deities associated with death and the underworld. The epithet 'inferi' is also given to the mysterious 'Manes'. The 'Manes' or 'Di Manes' are chthonic deities thought to represent souls of deceased loved ones.  They were associated with the Lares, Lemures, Genii, and Di Penates, as deities that pertained to domestic, local, and personal cults. The munera was a 'service' given to these deities in the form of freshly shed human blood - the blood of captives or slaves (often much the same).
Combatants in an Etruscan Munera
(note that the combatants fight naked
and both are wounded - one probably fataly)
So, at the very core of the Roman Games (ludi) were the deaths of gladiators - the contests 'ad mortem' - to the death.
Such contests were sanctioned and demanded by the 'mos maiorum' - the unwritten tradition of the ancestors.
According to Suetonius: "All new that is done contrary to the usage and the customs of our ancestors, seems not to be right."
However, because the 'mos maiorum' was a matter of custom, not written law, the complex norms that it embodied evolved over time - and the munera evolved into the Ludi.
The ability to preserve a strongly-centralised sense of identity while it adapted to changing circumstances permitted the expansionism that took Rome from city-state to world power.
Mosaic - Gladiators - North Africa
The preservation of the 'mos maiorum' depended on consensus and moderation among the ruling elite.
An essential part of the 'mos maiorum' was the tradition of the 'munera' and the 'Ludi' - and the combats 'ad mortem'.
Professor Tuck's 'startling new theory' is - it seems - just another example of projecting our preconceptions and assumptions onto an era that - as has been stated previously - was radically different - in almost every way - to the present day.
Repeatedly events in the past are misrepresented - and often deliberately.
Roman historians, such as Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, and Publius (or Gaius) Tacitus, (to name but two),writing long after times of the subjects that the were defaming, endlessly twisted 'facts' in order to satisfy their aristocratic and republican prejudices. 
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Or, in another context, read an account of the Napoleonic period by a French author, and then an English author, and you would be forgiven for thinking that the Napoleon that they were writing about were two completely different individuals.
Equally, even the recent history of the Second World War has been appallingly distorted by the 'victorious' powers.
Equally, in our own time, the Romans were depicted (particularly in the fifties and sixties) as 'freedom trampling' precursors of National Socialism or Communism, persecuting both Jews and Christians (and all 'freedom loving peoples').
Now, with the likes of Professor Steven Tuck et al, the Romans are seen as 'common sense entrepreneurs', providing healthy, 'star-studded' entertainment for the 'fun-loving' Roman populace.
The error is - as always, in projecting our prejudices onto the past - and indulging in 'sloppy' research which enables us to project images of previous cultures that we will find acceptable to our current mores, and sense of 'political correctness'.
To reiterate - the Romans were not just 'guys like us' - dressed in togas.
They lived in a totally different world, materially, psychologically and spiritually, and the Ludi are a prime example of this 'other world'.

for a more detailed explanation regarding the origin of gladiatorial combat
and the relationship between deaths in the arena and the Roman concepts of munera, ritual and sacrifice, go to:
(fully and explicitly illustrated)

 Professor Steve Tuck

Professor Steven L Tuck - B.A. in History and Classics from Indiana University - Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan - Assistant Professor in the department of Classics, Miami University.

Bryn Walters BA
British Association for Roman Archaeology
Bryn Walters BA - Regarded as a maverick by many colleagues (a title he is extremely fond of), he specialises in Roman rural architecture and villa interpretation, and has been responsible for some very significant discoveries through fieldwork over the years. He has excavated widely in Britain, and published several research papers at home and abroad. He was for three years visiting lecturer to the University of Bath where he taught Romano-British Archaeology and Egyptology, a subject he has read with passion since childhood, and has conducted tours to Pharaonic and Roman sites along the Nile.

No comments:

Post a Comment