Ancient Rome’s gladiators have both fascinated and horrified generations of historians in equal measure. The concept of the gladiator came from the funerals of rich and powerful, where slaves were forced to fight as a funeral gift for the departed shade. Ambitious politicians, such as Julius Caesar, realised what a powerful tool these fighters could be in gaining popularity from the masses, and the gladiator was born.
The Romans loved to match gladiators with different fighting styles against one another, in order to produce the most dramatic and exciting contests. Therefore there were a number of different types. Here are ten of them:
Thraex “The Thracian” Relatively lightly armoured, the Thraex carried a curved blade, small round or square shield, and helmet. He was given small leg greaves as well, but the rest of his body was otherwise unarmoured and therefore a tempting target. The Thracian needed to be light on his feet and be able to rely on his dexterity to survive in the arena.
Murmillo “The Sea Fish” Often matched against the lightly armoured Thracain was the murmillo, a heavily armoured opponent. Accompanying the stylised large helmet with sea fish crest, they would have a long arm guard of overlapping metal plates called a manica and tall oblong shield similar to that of a legionary. The murmillo fought with a short Roman sword called a gladius and represented a formidable opponent.
Retiarius “Net fighter” To try and net the fish, the murmillo often faced a retiarius who was armed with net and trident. If you are a fan of the film Spartacus, you probably think this a good number, but in reality only the most highly trained and proficient of fighters could make this unusual combination of weapons work for them – one for the specialists.
Hoplomachus “The armed fighter” Similar to the murmillo, with a manica arm guard of overlapping plates, and large helmet this time plumed with feathers. The main difference this time was that his shield was much smaller, so to make up for the lack, he was given an extra weapon – a spear to throw at his opponent before closing in to engage his opponent with his gladius.
Secutor “The Pursuer” Okay, this is when the Romans started to get nasty. To even the contest between the retiarius and his opponent, they gave the net fighter’s “Pursuer” a helmet that restricted his view to two small eye-holes. This was to offset the advantage he held with his heavy armour (same as a murmillo). If you think that the secutor’s lot was bad however, it was nothing compared to the poor andabatae who was only given one eye-hole. He needed to be guided to the place of combat as his view was so restricted. Then he could be beset upon by more agile fighters whilst he flailed about in vain trying to keep off his unseen attackers. However, the andabatae wasn’t considered a true gladiator, more an amusement for the crowd. Hilarious, I’m sure.
Bestiarius “The beast fighter” The gladiator’s didn’t only fight each other. A lot of the most popular contests involved gladiators fighting lions, tigers, bears, or any other fearsome animal they could induce to put up a fight. The thought of killing such beautiful creatures seems abhorrent now, but to Romans, nature was seen as something brutal and threatening, so they were proud to show they held mastery over it.
Cestus “The fist-fighter” Bored of gladius and trident? Why not a good old fashioned fist-fighter. Except that this being Rome, the fist-fighters wore boxing gloves with spikes on the knuckles – you couldn’t expect the Roman crowd to go without at least some blood.
Gladiatrix “female Gladiator” The gladiators were not all male, you could find female variants of virtually all types. Initially, they were used as a novelty item to amuse the crowd, but later became more popular. Of particular interest was having a female gladiator fight wild beasts. The use of female fighters became associated with indulgence and opulence on behalf of the benefactor staging the show, and as there is evidence of some of the female gladiators being forced to fight topless, there was almost certainly an erotic glamour to these fights.
Dimachaerus “Bearing two knives” I couldn’t resist putting one of these rare gladiators in my own novel Roman Mask. The Dimachaeri fought with two curved swords (siccae), one in each hand, and therefore needed to be genuinely ambidextrous. Due to his offensive capabilities he was only likely armoured, with only a light helmet, leather arm guard and leather leg greaves. Due to their rarity, they’d not be matched against one another, but matched against a Thraex or the more heavily armoured Murmillo and Hoplomachus.
Eques “The Horsemen” Battles between men on horseback could make a spectacular show, as horsemen from the furthest edges of the Empire fought. They would be armoured in scale armour, or later with a manica, and small shield. They could use a variety of weapons, but most commonly a lance, throwing spear, or long sword named a spatha. Among those who made an entry, was the essedarius who fought in a British war chariot after Julius Caesar brought them back to Rome after his campaigns there.