Meet the Gladiators

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The remains of the gladiator barracks at Pompeii, and graffiti carved outside the Nucerian gate, reveal a lot about the lives of gladiators. Some appreciated their profession, others would rather die than fight. Image by Wknight94 CC BY-SA 3.0.

Gladiators are an endless source of inspiration for modern TV and cinema. Russell Crowe’s Gladiator (2000) was the first to bring the ‘sword and sandal’ epic back into fashion, with his gladiator Maximus battling for his life and honour in the Colosseum.

But Maximus was a fictional character. The only real well-known gladiator is Spartacus, mainly because of films such as the eponymous Kirk Douglas classic and more recently HBO’s “Blood and Sand,” “Vengeance,” and “War of the Damned” (2012).

Spartacus is well known because of his sensational story, but the stories of other gladiators do survive in ancient literature and archaeology. They may not be as exciting and dramatic as that of Spartacus but they reveal something of the real lives of Rome’s other gods of the arena.

Marcus Attilius, the Free Volunteer

Not every gladiator was a slave. A series of graffiti scenes outside the Nucerian gate at Pompeii records the names of Pompeian gladiators who competed in games at Nola. Most had single names, which identifies them as slaves, but one bore the praenomen (first name) and the gens, or clan name, of a free man. His name was Marcus Attilius.

Why would a free man “put his life’s blood up for sale,” in the words of Livy, and take to the arena? True, some regarded gladiators as the Roman equivalent of rock stars. But they were also reviled, tainted by the blood they spilled. A free volunteer not only sacrificed his self-autonomy for the period of his contract, he gave up his civil rights and his honor.


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It is most likely that Marcus Attilius took to the arena because he desperately needed the money. Whatever the reasons, the graffiti tells us a great deal about his career in the arena. He is depicted with a gladius, long shield, and short shin plates protecting his legs, making him a murmillo. The graffiti also tells us the number of contests fought and won.

“M. Attilius, t(iro), v(icit); Hilarus Ner(onianus), (pugnarum) XIV, (coronarum) XII, m(issus).” This inscription shows that the Nola games were the first for Attilius: he is referred to as “tiro-a novice.” Though matched against Hilarius, a slave and veteran of the arena with fourteen fights under his belt, twelve of them victories, Attilius won.

“M Attilius, (pugnarum) I, (coronarum) I, v(icit) L Raecius Felix, (pugnarum) XII, (coranarum) XII, m(issus)” shows that Attilius’s luck held. This inscription, which refers to him as “pugnarum I”  (fought one), records his next fight. His opponent was L Raecius Felix, another successful gladiator who had fought and won twelve fights. Once again, Attilius was the victor. Given his obvious skill with the sword, perhaps Attilius was an ex-soldier fallen upon hard times.

In this portion of the Zliten floor mosaic in Libya, a murmillo faces a Thracian. The murmillo has a shield, and plates to protect his legs from injury. Work by unknown artist.

Urbicus, the Husband and Father

Often, gladiators belonged to burial clubs, which ensured their remains were interred with respect. Most gladiators’ graves bore a simple stone stating their name and perhaps the number of their fights, but the stars of the arena could afford something more detailed to ensure their immortality. These more elaborate gravestones provide information about these stars, not just in, but outside the arena.

One gravestone, recorded in the Inscriptions Latinae Selectee, preserves the story of Urbicus, a gladiator from Florence.

“For Urbicus, a secutor. Primus Palus from Florence, he engaged in thirteen fights and lived for twenty two years. He is survived by two daughters, Olympia aged five months and Fortunensis by his wife, Lauricia who lived with her respected husband for seven years. I urge you to kill the man who defeated me! His supporters will preserve the memory of Urbicus with honour.”

The gravestone shows that as a primus palus, Urbicus was not only a champion, but also a family man, something not usually associated with gladiators. From his name, we can deduce that Urbicus probably began his career as a servile gladiator. By his death, he had earned his position as a free man. The clue here is that he was married, for slaves could not contract recognized unions.

Sergius, the Survivor

Not every gladiator died in the arena. Some, such as Flavius Sigerius of Caesarea, continued until forced to retire, in Sigerius’s case at the age of sixty. On the whole, life for the survivors was not easy. Like Sigerius, most who achieved their freedom signed up again or became trainers: once they ceased to be a gladiator, they became nothing.

Carvings on the gravestones of successful gladiators often provide a lot of information about their careers and even their families. This is the gravestone of the gladiator Urbicus. Photograph used with permission from Giovanni Dall’Orto.

For those survivors rendered unfit for the arena, prospects were bleak. Juvenal’s Satire VI gives an account of a gladiator, Sergius, who eloped with a senator’s wife, Eppia. Eppia sacrificed not only her husband but her family and honour to leave with Sergius for Alexandria, all because, according to Juvenal, he was a gladiator.

Sergius, however, had little else going for him. He must have been a success in the arena because he survived to retire at 40. But his time as a gladiator was over: besides damage to his face from his helmet and a weeping eye, he had an injured arm that forced his retirement.

Finding a rich lover was a stroke of luck for Sergius. But Juvenal warns that the luck may well have run out, for when Sergius left the arena, he lost his sole attraction – his profession. His allure would soon wear off.

Click to Read Page Three: The Suicides

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© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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