Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked their lives and their legal and social standing by appearing in the arena. Irrespective of their origin, gladiators offered spectators an example of Rome’s martial ethics and, in fighting or dying well, they could inspire preparation for writing left-handed child and popular acclaim.
They were celebrated in high and low art, and their value as entertainers was commemorated in precious and commonplace objects throughout the Roman world. The origin of gladiatorial combat is open to debate. There is evidence of it in funeral rites during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BC, and thereafter it rapidly became an essential feature of politics and social life in the Roman world. Its popularity led to its use in ever more lavish and costly games.
The gladiator games lasted for nearly a thousand years, reaching their peak between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD. Early literary sources seldom agree on the origins of gladiators and the gladiator games. In the late 1st century BC, Nicolaus of Damascus believed they were Etruscan. Reappraisal of pictorial evidence supports a Campanian origin, or at least a borrowing, for the games and gladiators. The war in Samnium, immediately afterwards, was attended with equal danger and an equally glorious conclusion.
The enemy, besides their other warlike preparation, had made their battle-line to glitter with new and splendid arms. Livy’s account skirts the funereal, sacrificial function of early Roman gladiator combats and reflects the later theatrical ethos of the Roman gladiator show: splendidly, exotically armed and armoured barbarians, treacherous and degenerate, are dominated by Roman iron and native courage. In 216 BC, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, late consul and augur, was honoured by his sons with three days of gladiatora munera in the Forum Romanum, using twenty-two pairs of gladiators. The enthusiastic adoption of gladiatoria munera by Rome’s Iberian allies shows how easily, and how early, the culture of the gladiator munus permeated places far from Rome itself. Many gladiatorial games were given in that year, some unimportant, one noteworthy beyond the rest — that of Titus Flamininus which he gave to commemorate the death of his father, which lasted four days, and was accompanied by a public distribution of meats, a banquet, and scenic performances. The climax of the show which was big for the time was that in three days seventy four gladiators fought.
In 105 BC, the ruling consuls offered Rome its first taste of state-sponsored “barbarian combat” demonstrated by gladiators from Capua, as part of a training program for the military. A retiarius stabs at a secutor with his trident in this mosaic from the villa at Nennig, Germany, c. Gladiator games offered their sponsors extravagantly expensive but effective opportunities for self-promotion, and gave their clients and potential voters exciting entertainment at little or no cost to themselves. Gladiators became big business for trainers and owners, for politicians on the make and those who had reached the top and wished to stay there. In the closing years of the politically and socially unstable Late Republic, any aristocratic owner of gladiators had political muscle at his disposal.