A Gladiator in the SCA

By Tullus Attilius Balbus

If you have ever watched a Hollywood production concerning the Roman gladiators and wanted to know more to recreate a gladiator persona, this article was written for you. By familiarizing you with the gladiators of Rome, I hope to point you in the right direction on your way to becoming a gladiator in the SCA.

The gladiatorial matches originated from the Etruscans as a funeral game, traced back to the 6th century B.C. The duels constituted a human sacrifice to honor and appease the dead.

In 264 B.C. the first known public games were given to honor the father of Decimus Brutus during which three pairs of men fought. By the opening of the games being given by private individuals to the public, the gladiatorial matches were popularized and grew into the enormous, bloody spectacles for which Rome is infamously known today.

The first State-sponsored games were organized by the consuls in 105 B.C. The games were given the name Munera. The Romans knew the games by that name throughout their existence.

As the games grew in popularity, politicians sponsored them from their own private funds to gain political power and offices by entertaining the mob of Rome. Caesar is the most notable politician to use the games in such a manner in his rise to power. Having such an example, it is little wonder that the emperors of Rome continued the policy of appeasing and controlling eh mob by holding the games.

Before moving on to the different gladiatorial branches, a discussion of the gladiator's customs in the arena is most appropriate. The signal for the start of the actual gladiatorial match was a procession of the contestants circling the arena wearing purple, gold-embroidered cloaks. Each contestant was usually followed by a slave carrying the gladiator's armor. Upon reaching eh emperor's box, each gladiator would throw out their right arm and shout "Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!" (Hail, emperor, men soon to die salute you!)

Whether the gladiator fought as an individual or as a member of a team, specific rules were followed once an opponent was down. The fallen gladiator appealed for mercy by discarding his shield and raising a finger of his left hand. If the emperor was not present, the fallen gladiator's adversary either spared or condemned the defeated individual. In the Sovereign's presence, the crowd would advise their ruler. The shouting of "Iugula!" recommended the fallen gladiator to pay the penalty with his life. The ruler's signal determined the final outcome of the duel.

A poor fight by a fallen gladiator was tantamount to a sentence of death. If great skill and daring were shown during the contest and/or the gladiator was a favorite of the crowd, he would be allowed to live. A whimsical emperor could end the life of a fallen gladiator even if he had fought a magnificent duel and had fallen due to bad luck.

Should a particular gladiator become successful in defeating his opponents over a period of time, the fighter would be offered the Rudius (a wooden sword). From time to time, an individual would have a spectacular duel and would have the choice of freedom or continuing to fight in the arena.

The gladiators of the arena were highly trained. It took two years to complete the training to prepare an individual for the arena. During the initial period of training, each individual was evaluated to determine which branch of gladiatorial training he would undertake. The ability to perform certain tasks, speed, agility, strength and endurance were thoroughly tested before the final decision was made as to which style of training was to be taught to the individual.

Within the schools for gladiators, each branch was given its own barracks, and the schools provided doctores (weapons masters) for each branch, too. The individuals were usually past participants of the games who had won their freedom and knew their profession very well. Below the weapons masters, the other members of the school were divided into four different classes with the primus pilus being the highest and the tyro being the lowest.

If you are worried about your social standing with your contemporary SCA Romans, you should be wary of the gladiatorial persona. The Roman gladiator did not usually hold a high social standing within the community. The majority of the gladiators came from backgrounds of slavery, prisoners of war, criminals or ruined men. A few individuals of the esquites and senatorial classes did enter the arena, however. The Emperor Commodus (A.D. 162-192) fought and won over three hundred sixty matches as a secutor. (One wonders what would have happened to his opponent if Commodus had been killed.) If your contemporary SCA Romans play their personae's true and treat you as low-life scum, you have been warned. On the other hand, a successful gladiator could become the darling of the Roman social elite as long as he kept winning.

Moving on, we will now look at the individual styles of the premier branches. Each branch supposedly had their own particular type of armor that, along with their traditional foes, had a profound effect on their fighting styles.

The Samnite gladiator was named for an ancient enemy of Rome. His armor consisted of a helmet, a sleeve of leather straps or chain mail for his sword arm, a leather belt to protect his stomach, leather straps to protect the thighs, and a metal greave on his left leg. A half-cylinder scutum (shield) completed the Samnite's armor. His weapon was the gladius, a short sword from which the gladiators' name originated. Like the legionaries, he used his large shield to allow him to use the gladius in a thrust-and-cut style of fighting. The Samnite traditionally fought against his own class or the Thacians.

The Thracian was a lightly armored gladiator. He had a small buckler (a dished target or a small scutulum), usually leather straps to protect his thighs, and one or two greaves to protect the legs. The sica (a sword, curved or straight) was his weapon. The Thracian was an in-and-out, hack-and-slash fighter. Due to his lack of armor, the Thracian could not afford to go toe to toe with any of his foes in the arena.

With his trident and net, the retiarius was the most easily recognized of the gladiators. His defensive armor was a leather strap sleeve on his left arm with a metal shoulder piece embossed with a crab or some other aquatic symbol. His ability to hold an opponent at bay with the trident while snaring his foe with the net gave the retiarius a great advantage in his matches. As a result, the retiarius was the lowest rated of the premier branches. To the unknowing, the retiarius' skimpy armor is deceiving since his speed and agility were important factors in his victories.

The myrmillo was the retiarius' traditional opponent. As such, the myrmillo was the most heavily armored of the premier branches to overcome the advantages of the retiarius. The visored and grilled helmet with its fish motif was the identifying symbol of the myrmillo. The other defensive armor included a leather or chain mail sleeve, a metal-plated belt for his stomach, leather straps for the thigh protection and metal greaves on both legs. The myrmillo's half-cylinder scutum completed his armor along with a gladius for his weapon. The tactics used by the myrmillo in fighting the retiarius were to close early before his armor wore him down or to slowly stalk the retiarius in hopes of trapping his net and finishing him.

The secutor was the last of the premier branches to be developed. He was armed with the gladius. The myrmillo's helmet (minus the fish motif), a leather stomach-belt, a leather strap or chain mail sleeve, thigh protection of leather straps, leather greaves and a scutum were the secutor's armor. The lighter armor allowed the secutor to fight the retiarius at a faster pace than the myrmillo, but the armor still gave enough protection to counter the retiarius' advantages. The secutor was used to spice up the games by calling upon him to fight the other types of gladiators and provide a more entertaining event.

Other, lesser-known branches were used in the arena. The cruppellarius was so called for using a cuirass. The cimachaerus was a Florentine style fighter using two gladii. The dimachaerus fought Florentine using knives. The velite used the javelin. The Sagittarius was of course an archer.

Prisoners of war were sent into the arena without the benefit of training when they were plentiful. They were allowed to use their native weapons. At such times, the axe, club and two-handed sword were seen in the arena.

Having read this far, I am sure some individuals will disagree with my various descriptions of the different types of armor of the gladiatorial branches. I readily accept such criticism. I codified standard was not adopted for the armor of the gladiatorial branches.

From period to period, at different events in the same period, and even at an event on the same day, gladiators of the same branch would wear different styles of armor. During my research, I repeatedly came across a photograph of a particular gladiator's statue. In the three references, the statue was identified as three different types of gladiator. One reference simply dumped the shield and sword gladiators into two branches according to their shield size. If the experts cannot agree, I will understand any disagreements with my comments on the gladiators' armor and weapons.

Next issue we will have a Part II of the SCA Gladiator, which gives many practical suggestions for the implementation of a gladiator persona.


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