General Misconceptions about Gladiators and Munera
by: Cleopatra Aeilia
The common knowledge of most people is generated by Hollywood epics and other sandal movies or TV series. Unfortunately they do not reflect the real antiquity at all but rather show what the directors think the audience expects the antiquity was like, even in modern productions they still stick to these old pictures. Hence there are still many misconceptions in the mind of the people, one example being the galley slaves as shown in Ben Hur although it is known that the ships were rowed by professional rowers, on war ships even low ranking soldiers. Let's focus now on the munera and gladiators:
Mix-up between venationes, damnationes, and gladiator fights
In the movies you always see a mix of venationes (the beast hunts), damnationes (the executions) and the actual gladiator fights. In the movies one follows the other without any distinctive order. Actually during the Imperial period the munera were structured as follows: They started in the morning with the venationes (beast hunts) which could be fights of beast against beast or professional hunter (venator) against beast. The venationes were not part of the munera in the Republican era but were integrated after the reform of Augustus. During Midday the damnationes in various forms followed. The Emperors tried to stage more and more exotic forms of executions often put into a mythological background. In the afternoon the highlight of the day's games finally took place - the gladiatorial fights. Contrary to what is shown in many movies, gladiators were not simple slaves but trained professionals which were recruited among slaves, prisoners of war and even volunteers. They could buy their freedom by saving their prize money which was theirs and not the lanista's. He already earned enough by renting his gladiators to the editor. The fights started with the pompa, the ceremonial march into the arena, accompanied by a music group, dignitaries, priests etc. Since the time of Augustus, it was regulated which gladiator type fought against which gladiator type. Fights were interrupted by the summa rudis (first umpire) or the secunda rudis (second umpire) if a gladiator gave the sign to give up. Gladiator fights were not a senseless slaughtering as Hollywood likes to put them.
"Morituri te salutant"
It is still stucks in the heads of many that gladiators greeted the editor (in Rome the Emperor himself) with the famous phrase "Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant." This sentence is recorded only once, and it was noxii who said this to Emperor Claudius at a naumachia on the Fucine Lake. When he answered with "aut non" ("or not") they thought he showed mercy and wanted to spare their lives and did not want to fight, but this was not the case and they were forced to fight.
For a gladiator to say "those about to die" would not make much sense because chances were pretty high that they might survive their fights even when losing it.
Sine Missione Fights
Gladiators were well trained professional fighters. The lanista put a lot of money into the training as well as in taking care of them after the daily training sessions in form of massage and hot baths and catering. Medici were employed to take care of the wounded.
The lanista rented his gladiators to the editor with whom he made a contract in which the prices per gladiator were fixed. There was also a reimbursement fee for every fallen gladiator in order to compensate his costs he had for training them. Hence it was very costly for the editor to decide on the death of a vanquished gladiator, he had to take economical reasons into consideration and not just the notion of the audience which he wanted to please.
Surely there were some sine missione fights but far from being every bout. Especially during the 1st century AD the chances were very high for a defeated gladiator to leave the arena alive.
Thumbs-up and Thumbs-down
This is another typical misconception created by Hollywood. In Latin exists the expression "pollice verso" which means "turned thumb".It is not clear though in which way the thumb should be turned hence the signs you could make with your hand to show if you preferred a gladiator to be spared or not are not clear. The thumb could have represented the sword and hence you would point it to your breast or make a throat cutting gesture in order to show you want the iugulatio. Most likely, it was a sign which was clearly visible for the editor in his box as well as for the summa rudis (umpire) who was standing in the arena next to the gladiators. To press the thumb onto the fist could mean to spare the life of the defeated gladiator - this was a lucky and healing gesture. Another sign could have been waving the mappa (cloth).
Women fought Dwarfs
It is mentioned in the ancient sources that Emperor Domitian hosted games with women and dwarfs appearing, and that women had to fight at night at torchlight. Very often this is interpreted that the women had to fight the dwarfs. The Canadian historian Stephen Brunet had a closer look in his article "Female and Dwarf Gladiators". Especially the poem "Silvae" by Statius makes it very clear that Domitian was hosting for the Saturnalia a lavish private festival in which female gladiators and dwarfs appeared. He states that the women fought after nightfall, therefore by torchlight, and fought so bravely that the audience thought they were watching Amazons fighting. As a separate part of the program the appearance of the dwarfs followed most likely as boxers with a more comical aspect which should be a contrast to the serious and bloody appearance of the gladiatrices. When looking at the gladiatura the Romans always wanted an equal balanced fight; this would not have been the case if the women were matched against the dwarf, then the women would have been physically in advantage. That was the same reason women did not fight men.
The so-called gregatim (mass fights) were not part of the actual gladiator fights but of the damnationes which took place around noon time. The damnatii or noxi used for that were supposed to be used as "cannon fodder" meaning to say those displays were set up in a way that the majority of the people involved in those mass fights were about to die. Very often these mass fights were mythological enactment but never anything from Roman mythology in case the "wrong" party loses. Because of that, the Romans used topics from Greek or Oriental mythologies. Sometimes these displays were very lavishly in form of a naumachia (sea battle) which took place at an (artificial) lake or where possible also at a flooded amphitheater. The scholars are still not sure about it if it was ever possible to flood the Colosseum.
Sometimes more than one pair of gladiators fought at the same time, but it was always the usual pairings fighting against each other. (For more details on the gladiator types see my essay "Gladiators: An Introduction.") In the year 30 AD under the reign of Caligula five pairs of secutores and retiarii had to fight each other until in the end one retiarius was left against five secutores, when he saw that he was outnumbered he was about to surrender, but his will to live was stronger and in the end he defeated them all. Such bouts would not happen very often because of the confusion of having five pairs fight each other and the fact that you can only focus on one pair.
Bernet, Anne: Les Gladiateurs, Editions Perrin, 2002.
Brunet, Stephen: Female and Dwarf Gladiators, in: Museion XLVIII - Series III, Vol.4, 2004
Junkelmann, Marcus: Das Spiel mit dem Tod - So kampften Roms Gladiatoren, Philipp von Zabern, 2000
Junkelmann, Marcus: Hollywoods Traum von Rom - "Gladiator" und die Tradition des Monumentalfilms, Philipp von Zabern, 2004