Gladiatorial Games

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Gladiatorial Games

Like chariot racing, contests of gladiators probably originated as funeral games; these contests were much less ancient than races, however. The first recorded gladiatorial combat in Rome occurred when three pairs of gladiators fought to the death during the funeral of Junius Brutus in 264 BCE, though others may have been held earlier. Gladiatorial games (called munera since they were originally “duties” paid to dead ancestors) gradually lost their exclusive connection with the funerals of individuals and became an important part of the public spectacles staged by politicians and emperors (click here for some modern assessments of the cultural meaning of the arena). The popularity of gladiatorial games is indicated by the large number of wall paintings and mosaics depicting gladiators; for example, this very large mosaic illustrating many different aspects of the games covered an entire floor of a Roman villa in Nennig, Germany. Many household items were decorated with gladiatorial motifs, such as this lamp and this flask.


Gladiatorial contests, like chariot races, were originally held in large open spaces with temporary seating; there is evidence that some munera were held in the Roman Forum, for example. As the games became more frequent and popular, there was need for a larger and more permanent structure. Although the Circus Maximus was often pressed into service because of its huge seating capacity, the Romans eventually designed a building specifically for this type of spectacle (called an amphitheatrum because the seating extended all the way around the oval or elliptical performance area, which was covered with sand, harena). Early amphitheaters, both in Rome and elsewhere, were built of wood, but stone amphitheaters proved to be much more durable; the oldest stone amphitheater, built in Pompeii in the first century CE and seating approximately 20,000, is still well preserved (see also this view through an archway on the upper level, a section of stone seats with staircase, and the exterior walls with stairway). Like Roman theaters, amphitheaters were freestanding; because they did not require natural hills, as Greek theaters did, they could be built anywhere. A remarkable painting from a house in Pompeii depicts the amphitheater. In the tree-shaded area in front, vendors have set up temporary shops to sell food and drinks; the exercise-ground to the right was equipped with a large latrine so spectators could relieve themselves. This fresco depicts a specific event that took place in 59 CE, when a fight erupted between the Pompeians and the neighboring Nucerians (much like modern soccer brawls); in punishment for the riot, Nero imposed a ten-year ban on gladiatorial fights in the amphitheater.

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