The life and death of the Gladiator has been popularized in pop culture by movies like Spartacus and Gladiator. A picture has been painted of fierce warriors, battling to the death under the gaze of elites and commoners alike. However, the actual rules and lives of the gladiators themselves are not as well understood as popular notion would have us believe, and it is important that we interpret the life and death of the gladiator without letting our own preconceptions bias them. However, archaeologist can use the gravestones and graves of gladiators to create more nuanced and evidence based interpretations of their lives.
Gladiators were armed combatants who battled each other or animals as a form of entertainment. They were popular during the Roman Republic and Empire, dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE. Textual evidence for the appearance of the gladiator argues that it was an Etruscan import, but there is debate over what time. The earliest archaeological evidence is a number of frescoes from a tomb in Paestrum dating to the 4th century. The first types of gladiatorial games were dedicated to ancestors. They were celebrations of military victories used by sons to commemorate their dead fathers. During the 1st century BCE, the state began to sponsor the combat as a form of military training. Towards the end of the Roman Republic, the games became a form of self promotion for elites. Limits were placed on the games as a way to prevent this, and reinforce the combat as being commemorative.
Gladiators were primarily soldier prisoners, enslaved during military campaigns. Through the gladiator training, they were given a chance to fight for their freedom and regain their military honor. Another sources for gladiators was criminals and slaves who were sentenced to death. Finally, individuals could volunteer and get paid for their involvement in the games. There is evidence for female gladiators, both in texts and archaeology. At Halicarnassus, a marble relief depicts two Ethiopian females named Amazon and Achillia fighting one another. Texts from Ostia reinforce this, praising the elite for using women in their games. Females were expected to fight in the same manner as the males, and were expected to be trained as well. For any gladiator, regardless of sex, age or the way that they became a gladiator, death was the expected and honorable outcome.
Mortuary archaeologists can support interpretations of gladiators through their physical remains and their gravestones. In 2004, archaeologists excavated a Roman cemetery, dated to the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE in York, Britain. The cemetery contained the remains of 80 individuals, 75 of which were adults males. The males were much larger in height than the average Briton, and some bore injuries. One skeleton had the marks of a large carnivore on the scapula and illium, suggesting he was attacked by a lion or tiger. Only one adult female was found, and she was very tall for the time period and location, as well as heavily muscled. Three of the individuals are distinctively not of European origin, and all three were buried together without their heads. Evidence from this cemetery suggests that there were five classes of gladiators found based on their muscle markers, injuries and pathologies. Other remains from Ephesus of adult males thought to be part of a gladiator cemetery have injuries indicative of battling with tridents, attacks from four pointed daggers, and blunt force trauma from clubs and hammers.
Head stones and grave markers are also important in the interpretation of human remains. Given the amount of warfare during the Roman Republic and Empire, the funerary context and headstones are pivotal in interpreting primarily male cemeteries as gladiator burial places and not solider cemeteries. The burials of gladiators were usually prepared for them by their friends or collegia if they were trained gladiators. The gravestone of Flamma is evidence for this process. The stone reads:
“Flamma, secutor, lived 30 years, fought 34 times, won 21 times, fought to a draw 9 times, defeated 4 times
a Syrian by nationality.”
Beneath the epitaph is an entry which reads “Delicatus made this for his deserving comrade in arms”. This supports the idea that gladiators died with honor and were buried by friends. Gravestones also reveal information about the death of the gladiators and the rules of the game. In a recent issue of the Journal for Papyrology and Ancient Epigraphics, Dr. Michael Carter discusses the headstone for a Roman gladiator’s grave which doesn’t follow normal convention. Instead of reading of his victories or friends, the stone says: “After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately. Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.” Carter has interpreted this to mean that the summa rudi, the referee, allowed the opponent a second chance to defeat the gladiator after he had already beaten him. It was during this second match, illegally allowed by the ref, that the gladiator was killed by Demetrius.
Using all available evidence to interpret the past is important, especially when dealing with a topic which has been as popularized as the gladiator. By combining archaeology, bioarchaeology and textual evidence, we can create more accurate appraisals of Roman life. The main problem is that popular notion can bias our interpretations, so we must be aware of this.
For more information on the York Gladiators, I would highly suggest checking out the National Geographic episode of “Gladiators: Back from the Dead”. While it does take the interpretations a bit beyond the available evidence, it does show the process of how bioarchaeologists arrive at their conclusions, and what the actual gladiator cemeteries look like.
National Geographic. 2009. Gladiators Back from teh Dead. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/gladiators-back-from-the-dead-4654/facts#tab-Overview
Andrew Curry. 2008. The Gladiator Diet. Archaeology Magazine. http://www.archaeology.org/0811/abstracts/gladiator.html
Roman Colosseum. 2008. Death of a Gladiator. http://www.roman-colosseum.info/gladiators/death-of-a-gladiator.htm
Owen Jarus. 2011. Roman Gladiator’s Gravestone depicts Fatal Foul. Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/14650-roman-gladiator-tombstone-epitaph.html