The Gladiators

Gladiators: Spartacus

The Rise and Fall of Spartacus

 Spartacus marble 1830 Musée du Louvre

Although there is some speculation as to where Spartacus originated from, the general consensus amongst experts is that he was a Thracian from the northeastern part of Greece. Some historians claim he was an auxiliary in the Roman army who deserted before being captured and sold into slavery. Other historians claim he was just captured by the Romans and sold into slavery without ever serving in the army. Due to his size and strength he was bought by Lentulus Batiatus, a man who owned a ludus, a gladiator school, near Capua.

He trained and fought as a gladiator for an unknown period of time before leading a rebellion of 70-80 gladiators in 73 BCE. As metal weapons were forbidden from the gladiators until game days, the rebels used kitchen knives to overpower the guards. Once they were free of the ludus, however, they overran a wagon full of gladiatorial weapons and armor. They proceeded to ransack and plunder the region surrounding Capua, growing in number as more and more slaves rallied to their cause. Fellow gladiators Crixus and Oenomaus (known as Doctore in the STARZ original series Spartacus), were elected as co-leaders of the rebellion along with Spartacus.

After terrorizing Capua, the slaves withdrew to the base of Mount Vesuvius and set up camp. The Senate in Rome didn’t consider the revolt a serious matter at this point in time and sent a force of militia to quell the uprising. They besieged the slaves on Vesuvius, attempting to starve them into defeat. Spartacus showed the first of many feats of strategic genius by making ropes out of vines, climbing down the other side of the mountain and attacked the Romans in the rear, completely routing them. They defeated a second force sent against them and with each victory, the rebellion grew in number (now approximately 70,000) and gained more and more armor, weapons and other resources. The winter of 73-72 was spent training the new recruits in the art of war and by the end of winter the slaves were ready to march.

Spartacus wanted to lead the slaves to northern Italy and to freedom whereas Crixus wanted to remain and pillage the south. The grand rebellion split with Crixus leading 30,000 men to stay and ransack the country and Spartacus leading the rest to freedom. The Senate in Rome had other ideas, however, and sent two enormous forces under Roman consuls (the highest rank a Roman could achieve in the Republic) to defeat the slaves. Crixus’ force in the south was caught and defeated and Crixus himself was killed. This left Spartacus the sole leader as Oenomaus had either been killed or left earlier in the uprising. Spartacus’ force met each legion in battle and defeated each individually. 300 captive Romans were forced into a makeshift arena to fight to the death as revenge for the death of Crixus. The consular legions regrouped at Rome, launched a new attack against the slaves and were once again defeated.

At this point Spartacus does something that modern historians don’t have much of an explanation for. The road to freedom in the north was wide open for the slaves; but, they turned and marched into southern Italy in 71 BCE. A man by the name of Marcus Licinius Crassus was given command of 8 legions, totally 40,000-50,000 fully trained Roman troops, and told to end the rebellion. The size of the force proves that Rome was terrified of the slave army. Crassus split 10,000 men off and told them to move behind the slaves but not engage them. They legion commander disobeyed, attacked Spartacus’ army and was defeated.

The Roman legions finally began to win minor engagements; however, wearing down the slave’s number, moral, and discipline. Spartacus began negotiations with Cilician pirates to ferry his men to Sicily. The pirates betrayed him though, by taking the money and leaving. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation with the arrival of several new legions in Italy under the skilled leader Pompey, Spartacus decided to turn and launch a head on assault on the legions of Crassus. He was finally soundly defeated and the slave army broke up with every man, woman and child running for their lives. 6,000 slaves were captured and crucified along the road between Capua and Rome but Spartactus’ body was never discovered.

Gladiator Styles & Pairings

Gladiator Mosaic 320-30 AD Villa Borghese

Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, gladiators were not given random weapons, sent into the arena and told to fight. When someone became a gladiator, they were assigned a specific type and style of fighting and practiced it constantly. A specific type of gladiator only fought another specific type of gladiator as determined by well established rules. These pairings were intended to provide the combatants with offsetting strengths and weaknesses in an effort to give the best showing. Although underground fights could do what they wanted, official “games” (as they were called) were very strict with following the rules.

Below are the most common and well known types of gladiators and their usual pairing:

Cestus – Fought with spikes imbedded in leather wrappings around their hands. Fought other cestus or occasionally unarmed noxii.

Murmillo – Similar to the Thraex, the murmillo wore a helmet with basic arm and leg protection but carried a tall, oblong shield like the ones carried by Roman legionnaires and a gladius short sword. The murmillo commonly fought the thraex or hoplomachus.

Hoplomachus – Wore a helmet with basic arm and leg protection, a very small, round shield, a gladius and a spear. The hoplomachus commonly fought the thraex or murmillo.

Noxii – Although not considered gladiators, the noxii were still fighters in the arena. Made up of criminals and other undesirables the Emperor and his officials wanted to be rid of, the noxii fought in deplorable conditions with little to no means to defend themselves. Noxii fought animals, other noxii, trained gladiators in “mock fights”, etc.

Retiarius – The retiarius wore no head or leg protection and only had an arm and shoulder guard as armor. This gladiator carried a weighted net, trident, and dagger into battle. The retiarius commonly fought the secutor and sometimes the murmillo.

Secutor – The secutor was armed almost exactly like the murmillo. The only difference in weapons and armor is that the secutor had a very tight fitting, smooth helmet to keep the net of the retiarius from catching. Commonly fights the retiarius.

Thraex – Wore a helmet with basic arm and leg protection, a small shield, and a curved sword called a sica. The thraex commonly fought the murmillo or hoplomachus.

The arenas of ancient Rome, more specifically the Coliseum, were specially designed to allow fights of all kinds: from the standard gladiator match to fights with animals and even large scale naval battles. The marvel of engineering that is the Coliseum is only overshadowed by its bloody and brutal history.

Gladiators in Ancient Rome

Ancient Roman Gladiators

People of all walks of life were either driven or pulled to become a gladiator in Ancient Rome. Some were taken captive on the battlefield and sold into slavery; others willingly gave up their freedom in repayment of debts, crimes or simply to seek fame and fortune. Even emperors competed in gladiatorial games. Wherever you can from before, the life of a gladiator was harsh (emperors competed in the games occasionally but where never true gladiators) but the rewards were great.

                     Ancient Roman mosaic
A slave was bought by an ianista, or head of a gladiator school, and taken to their new master’s ludus, the actual school, where their training would begin. Although female gladiators did occasionally exist, the lion’s share were men. Freemen could negotiate a contract with an ianista, offering service as a fighter in exchange for money or debt payments. Training was brutal and demanded, discipline harsh and sometimes lethal, and you lived or died by your skill in the arena. Despite this, gladiators were not cruelly treated by their masters as they were a significant investment. They often got to keep their prize money, had a steady diet and place to live, good medical care, received many “pleasures of the flesh,” and could even gain their freedom.
                                                                                                                               Mosaic, Gladiatorial combat scenes, Verona.

It is a common misconception that all gladiator matches ended in death. An enormous effort was put into the training and well being of gladiators so to guarantee a death in every match was impractical. A fighter could signal defeat at any point by raising one finger to seek missio, or the sparring of the gladiator’s life. If he had fought well or was a favorite of the crowd he was often sparred. Matches even had a referee to separate the fighters, allow breaks for rest, or even stop the match entirely. This is not to say, however, that the matches were safe. The fights were brutal and frequently resulted in horrible wounds and accidental (or deliberate) deaths which is why most gladiators died in the arena eventually. Despite this, the fame and fortune that came with success in the arena was a powerful allure to freemen and slaves alike.

                                                              Mosaic, Gladiators, Musée Saint-Remi à Reims

After a long, loyal, and successful run, gladiators were occasionally granted freedom and presented a wooden sword, rudis. Although most died long before turning 30, those that gained their freedom could easily have a long and successful life as a trainer, bodyguard, etc. In most cases, however, gladiators were seen as below slaves and kept separate from the citizens. They were even buried in different burial grounds. Gladiator matches were eventually banned in the 4th and 5th century CE and more or less ceased completely with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE.

by Alex Smith, MRL staff writer
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