Throughout the seven centuries during which gladiators fought in Rome there were changing fashions in equipment, armour and fighting methods. Some of these were popular for only a short time, others persisted for generations. All the ways of fighting and types of equipment were designed to thrill the audience and make the games as spectacular as possible. Their usefulness to the gladiators themselves was at best incidental.
Whatever the type of gladiator, the design of their armour followed a general pattern. The head and neck were usually heavily protected by metal helmets which would have been proof against almost any weapon used in the arena. The legs were protected by metal greaves on the shins and often by leather or fabric padding on the thighs. The arms were also protected by armour of one sort or another. The body, however, was generally left bare. This is in direct contrast to the usage of armies throughout the pre-firearms age. Soldiers tended to wear armour that protected their bodies, while often leaving the limbs unarmoured.
The way in which gladiator armour was set out shows the demands of the games. The audience wanted to witness a thrilling combat between skilled fighters and expected it to last for some time. Fights are thought to have gone on for 15 or 20 minutes as three or four combats to the hour seems to have been normal.
Such a contest was unlikely if the legs or arms were vulnerable to weapons. A quick stab to the opponent’s sword arm could have rendered him incapable of carrying on the fight but would not necessarily have caused serious damage nor put his life at risk. It was to avoid these minor but disabling injuries that the armour to the arms and legs was used. Leaving the torso unarmoured, however, made this the obvious target for an attacking gladiator. Scoring a hit on the torso is more difficult in combat than striking the limbs. To make a hit would have required skill of a high quality. Also desirably, from the Roman point of view, a blow to the torso was life threatening and would certainly have ensured plenty of blood flow from a wound.
By keeping the limbs covered and the torso exposed, gladiators were encouraged to put on the type of show the crowd wanted to watch. High levels of skill would necessarily have been on display because the unskilled gladiators would have been dead. Combats were unlikely to have been cut short by a chance wound to a limb and so would have lasted long enough for the audience to be satisfied. And, when a wound was inflicted, the crowd had the added excitement of seeing plenty of blood and knowing the wound might prove fatal.
The armour made for the gladiators was special not just in its distribution on the body but also in the way it was designed. In theory many gladiators wore armour and carried arms based on those of distinct nationalities, such as Samnites, Gauls or Thracians. In fact the equipment was exaggerated for effect and often decorated with excessively showy plumes and crests that would not have been used by real soldiers.
This is an extract from The Age of Gladiators by Rupert Matthews.