The Noble Gladiator: Addressing the Elusive ‘VIRTUS’ in Gladiatorial Combat in Rome

(originally presented at the University of Toronto’s Sex, Gender, and Power Graduate symposium, February 2007)

Despite the best efforts of scholars like Susan Mattern and Marilyn Skinner, stereotypes about Roman masculinity have pervaded popular culture as innate aggression, destructive conquest, and outright bloodlust. Thomas Wiedemann, a formidable force in classical scholarship, wrote as recently as 1992 that “the universality of violence in the ancient world, as in most pre-industrial societies, is well attested: the gladiatorial games of the Romans glorified violence to the point where these games became the central ritual of public life” (Wiedemann, 1992, p.27). This single statement represents how complex the games in the Roman amphitheatre were to both ancient and modern societies, and how they are frequently described primarily through inherent stereotyping.

Ever since Heinrich Schliemann and other archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century rejuvenated interest in the ancient world, scholarship has been endless. Naturally, particularly among Western European scholars, the tendency has been to focus on the writings of Christian Romans such as Tertullian to develop the argument that the gladiatorial games were nothing more than immoral, sacrilegious acts of bloody violence. This is not ineffective, but it is easy to agree with someone else. Some of these same scholars added another dimension to their application of primary sources – they were interested in how ancient spectacles could be compared to the modern world. RM Chase’ 1927 article ‘De Spectaculis’ reveals a serious concern for changes in social morality and “what the world is coming to” (Chase, 1927, p.109). The fact that PA Brunt wrote about the Roman mob in the late 1960s which coincided with the socio-political upheavals affecting a large part of the world is also revealing (Brunt, 1966, pp.3-7). Michael Grant compares the gladiator shows to Nazism as “two [of the] most quantitatively destructive institutions” in human history (Grant, 1967, p.8). This is quite a potent statement to make. If from the earliest stages of study academics have compared gladiator shows with their own eras, there is something unanimously clear about the social implications of the games.

What is rarely addressed without this comparative bias is how the Romans themselves appreciated gladiatorial combats. The ubiquity of Tertullian aside, other primary sources such as Caesar’s comments on his own greatness, the De Spectaculis epigrams of Martial, and the playful analogies of Ovid bring a much more complex impression. Pride, awe, and sex figure highly in these texts, hence the reason for Tertullian’s vehemence. But he was not looking at the combats from the same perspective.

There is a subtlety to the pre-Christian Roman’s concept of his own masculinity and personal virtue and what better way to exemplify this than through one of the most prejudicial atmospheres for a modern audience: the amphitheatre.  Here, where men fought and died for the pleasure of the audience, Roman virtus – masculine virtue, courage, and civic and social perfection – was enacted.   It was performed with such exquisite vitality in fact that the Roman audience experienced a transcendent sublimity that reinforced the nature of their social world as they watched ‘non-persons’ (forgive the modern term) represent Roman excellence.

For the scope of this paper, I will confine myself to dealing with male gladiators, since the subject matter focuses on those virtues reserved exclusively for the male Roman audience. Suffice it to say however, much can be said about women’s involvement in gladiatorial spectacle, and that includes a vehement disagreement with the above statement. I will also refrain from descriptions of the different types of gladiators who performed in the amphitheatre in the first and second centuries CE because it is the contrast between combatants that, under scrutiny, is most illuminating.

To begin, the nature of prejudicial treatments of Roman character are found in the racial profiling of the past that has been discounted as a professional way to write history as well as from a means to emphasize philhellenism. The actions of a single member of a ‘race’ are no more indicative of the character of that ‘race’ than is ‘race’ a feasible way to describe a cultural group. Regarding philhellenism, the most popular images of Ancient Greece are of philosophers gesticulating intently in the gymnasion or the agora as they extend the limits of the human mind. Classical Greece is distinctively more cerebral than Imperial Rome.   But their intellectualism is visible because it is our own. On the other hand, only a small demographic of modern society enjoys watching people die for their own moral development. If I were to say that the death of a gladiator was only visible in the arena in accidental or unexpected circumstances, how does that change our perceptions of the combat?

What we know about gladiators is limited to amphitheatre sites throughout the Roman Empire, armour and decorative formalwear discovered at Pompeii, and the literature of Martial, Josephus, Pliny, and Tertullian among others. What is most quietly viable from the study of these sources is that the violence in the arena was clearly not the main concern of the Roman people in the same way that modern-day censors condemn the viability of certain media programs with violent content.

The image of a gladiator most familiar to the modern world, apart from cinema, is the 1872 painting by Jean-Leon Gerome entitled “Pollice Verso” ( that depicts a physically powerful helmeted gladiator standing over his vanquished opponent waiting for the sign to kill from a mighty aristocrat unidentifiable in the throngs of wild spectators. Let us contrast that with an archaeological discovery that recently made news. A mosaic found in a villa at Wadi Lebda in Libya dubbed “The Exhausted Gladiator” has been called ‘worthy of Botticelli’ for its realism (Times Online, June 13, 2005). Archaeologist Mark Merrony has said that “the human expression is captured in a realistic manner hitherto unknown in Roman mosaics” (ibid).   In it, the gladiator stares across the arena at his slain opponent from a seated position, his helmet and weapon depicted in the image but off to one side, entirely separate from either the gladiator or the dead figure to his right. This is not a scene of violence, but of repose. If gladiators were such a bloodthirsty spectacle, why represent one in such an intellectually pensive situation? I do not believe the answer is that the owner of the villa who commissioned the mosaic wanted simply to avoid violent images in his house. There is ample evidence that this was rarely a deterrent, as Marilyn Skinner has spent decades researching and publishing (Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, 2005 and Roman Sexualities, 1997, for example).

The emotional element of amphitheatrical combat is much more compelling because it is so obvious. Martial, in his second epigram of the De Spectaculis Liber, praised the Emperor Titus for restoring the rightful property of the Roman people in such a way as to focus on the importance of the building and the sentiments of the audience within it. Knowing Martial’s biting humour, it is indicative of the seriousness with which the Roman people approached the amphitheatre that there is no entendre here. A number of important issues have arisen from these two examples. Let us address them in order.

In the “Pollice Verso”, the artist has emphasized the physique of the gladiator and the necessity of that physique with weaponry and armour and solitude in front of a massive audience. Gerome has also helmeted the gladiator, using for his model one of the artifacts discovered at Pompeii. The helmet is huge and completely obscures the face of the gladiator from the audience. It would have provided only minimal protection for the head since, regardless of how the fighter would do so anyway, the helmet is heavy and hard to see through. The helmet was not utilitarian but symbolic. Roman masculine virtue was reserved for a very select few and the thought of seeing the face of a scarred, world-worn slave exhibiting this virtus was more than the audience could socially conceive of. This also shows that the emphasis was not on the violence or the ‘vulgarity’ of the man but on the admiration of an action, an exhibition of what was most innately Roman.

The realism that Roman artisans were able to compel from a mosaic is in itself impressive. The realism they were able to give their gladiator subject brings vividness to their understanding of a gladiator’s nature. The gladiator in the mosaic from Wadi Lebda is totally visible and this augments the human quality of the combatant. He is not a senseless killer but part of a greater social environment that needs him more than can be described. That the artist was willing or paid to represent a gladiator in such a way is indicative of the Roman people’s understanding of this environment and, because it is found within a provincial villa, their willingness to engage in discourse on the subject.

This intellectual approach is perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that eliminates the bloodthirsty and innately aggressive stereotype of the Roman people and their spectacles. Material remains prove, unlike the fantasies of modern artists, that gladiators were not inanimate subjects: consideration was made in their regard. Primary sources deal just as extensively with conceptions and analyses of war which, as Susan Mattern explains, are the basis for the stereotype of aggression. “The Romans at all times valued victory and conquest, as part of a system in which aggression… was crucial for maintaining honour and security” (Mattern, 1999, p.208). Violence was a means to a moral end and praise was given to the end, not the means.

Finally, I turn to the gladiator himself. Most often slaves, though not usually prisoners of war as Michael Grant would have us believe (Grant, 1966, p. 28), gladiators had been dubbed infamis – a meaning that carried with it more social disgust than prostitutes do with today’s conservatives. These men were non-citizens, one of the worst ways to exist. Not only were they unable to be politically active, they were incapable of restoring dignity to themselves once it had been lost. Gladiators were socially and politically inert, and thus the perfect catalyst for the demonstrations of virtus that the Roman audience came to the arena to see. The very reason the public death of a combatant did not occur with the frequency we assume is because demonstrating virtus made a man worthy of his dignity. Wiedemann believes this is exemplified in the honour given to worthy gladiators of a death fit for a Roman citizen on the battlefield: death by the sword. Those who had fought well were allowed a death reserved for the permanent holders of the highest Roman virtues. Only insofar as it represented life, the blood sacrifice had been successful; the audience had received visible proof of the existence of virtuous perfection, and the gladiator had won back for himself some of the nobility which he had lost. Roland Auguet argues that the same blood spilt for the dead “could ensure a permanent revival… a real deification” of the man whose blood had been offered (Auguet, 1972, pp.22-23). The person in which Roman virtus resided was owed the right of a good death. Mortally injured, they were pulled into the dark chambers underneath the arena and met death through a quick blow to the back of the neck from something resembling a pick-axe. This has been, for centuries, a mercy-killing in the field for soldiers beyond hope. But death had been met facing a sword in battle, and a renown inconceivable for the social outcast had been achieved. The inevitable death of a gladiator had a continuous visceral and vital element to it, one which restored the faith of an urban empire in its commanding traditions. This is what the Roman audience hoped to bear witness to.

The need for Roman society to witness acts of virtus is demonstrative of a certain intellectualism within their society that is unfamiliar to us and thus easily misread. The desire to see what it was that made the Romans a successful imperial community is not totally alien to us. That the Romans used a physically violent medium to treat this imperative is however deterring. Masculine virtue through violence and death is not what modern audiences would consider applicable or even stomach-able, but in a world where violence was just another part of life, it was a way to make the experience accessible to all elements of society.

The gladiators, by their dress and fighting style, represented the vial into which the virtus sacrifice could be poured. The traditional match-ups of a murmillo with a thraex and a retiarius with a secutor exemplify the focus on skill over brute force in these combats (Kohne and Ewigleben, 2000, pp.48-49, 59-61). Each pair looked unevenly matched, but this was the result of the audience’s desire to see thought and skill; they were made intentionally uneven to force this display. It is easy to believe that they were faced off in this unfair manner to ensure the death of one and that it was merely the anticipation of the death blow that the audience wanted to see. This over-simplifies the audience’s interest in how the combat concluded. Of course the completion of the fight was important – how can one’s opponent display virtuous prowess if there is no end to the test? The fact that gladiatorial combats became almost exclusively munera sine missione – to the death – over time draws attention to this since society had decided that death was the only way to truly witness virtus personified. It does not however mean that death was lusted after. The visceral experience of virtus was the goal, and witnessing it was made all the more potent in the intense revelation of death.

Herein lies the truly visceral nature of the gladiatorial games, not in stereotypical bloodthirstiness, but from an understanding that is innately human that virtue is more real in how a man faces death than in how he faces life. A gladiator, fully aware that entering the arena could be one of the last things he does, takes action and fights his opponent. If he does so bravely, exemplifying strategy, skill, and courage, he transcends the boundaries of the social world that were so clearly delineated when the combat began. And the enthralled audience joins his transcendence realizing that virtue does not exist in a single kind of person but in the actions of any person.

Selected Bibliography

Alberge, Dalya (correspondent). June 13th, 2005. “Roman Mosaic ‘Worthy of Botticelli’”, in The Times Online. London.

Auguet, Roland. 1972. Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Bailey, D.R. Shackleton (editor and translator). 1993. Martial. Epigrams, Vol.1 Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MASS: Harvard University Press

Benario, Herbert W. “Amphitheatres of the Roman World”, in The Classical Journal, Vol.76, No.3 (Feb.-Mar. 1981), pp. 255-258

Brunt, P.A. “The Roman Mob”, in Past and Present, No. 35 (Dec. 1966), pp. 3-27

Chase, R. M. “De Spectaculis”, in The Classical Journal, Vol, 23, No.2, (Nov. 1927), pp. 107-120

Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking. Berkeley: University of California Press

Garnsey, Peter. 1996. Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Grant, Michael. 1967. Gladiators. New York: Delacorte Press

Graves, Robert (translator). 1957. Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Great Britain: Penguin Books

Green, Peter (translator). 1982. Ovid: The Erotic Poems. Toronto: Penguin Books

Hoffman, Carl. 2000. “The Evolution of a Gladiator: History, Representation and Revision in Spartacus”, in Journal of American and Comparative Cultures, Vol.23, Issue 1. pp.63-70

Kohne, Eckart and Cornelia Ewigleben (editors). 2001. Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press

Mattern, Susan P. 1999. Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. Berkeley: University of California Press

Potter, D.S. and D.J. Mattingly (editors). 1999. Life. Death and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. Michigan: University of Michigan Press

Poynton, J.B. “The Public Games of the Romans”, in Greece and Rome, Vol.7, No.20 (Feb. 1938), pp. 76-85

Skinner, Marilyn B. 2005. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Ward-Perkins, J.W. 1981. Roman Imperial Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press

Wiedemann, Thomas. 1992. Emperors and Gladiators. London: Routledge

Wiedemann, Thomas. 1981. Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press


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