Monday, 8 November 2010

The Origin of the Gladiators

The Games were vicious, violent and frequently vindictive. Hundreds of thousands of men and women died in the arena for the amusement of the mob and the ambitions of politicians.

Some of the victims who died on the sands of the amphitheatres were murderers and brigands, sentenced to death for their crimes. Others were prisoners of war or rebellious subjects of Rome sent to their deaths to provide an example to others who might be tempted to defy the might of Rome. But many of the dead were gladiators, men or women set to fight each other for the entertainment of the crowd. Thousands of these gladiators died each year, the death toll rising as each new politician or emperor tried to outdo the one before in the magnificence of the games in the arena.

The idea of setting men to fight and kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd is so brutal and bizarre that it is difficult to imagine how the bloody gladiatorial games began. In fact, the Romans had a very different attitude to these events than is often thought. The gory events of the arena were certainly entertainments, and were much appreciated for that, but in essence they were religious events which dated back to a time so ancient that the Romans themselves had largely forgotten their origins.

The gladiatorial fights were known to the Romans as munus, or munera in the plural, meaning an ‘obligation’ and in particular an obligation to the dead. They formed part of the funeral celebrations with which the living celebrated the life of a member of their family. The idea of gladiatorial contests as part of the munus owed to a deceased relative did not originate in Rome, though it was the Romans who developed the combats to the highest degree.

This is an extract from The Age of the Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

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