Development of the Munera

In this section you will learn

  • The first gladiatorial games in Rome
  • How fast they developed and the rise in the numbers of fighters involved
  • How the elite used these games in their funerals and other events
Mosaic Medallion showing a Thracian gladiator.

It is in the Mid-Republic that gladiatorial munera appear, and once they had first appeared, they were embraced; along with other events, they were vowed by relatives to commemorate close male kin as part of funeral celebrations; they could be held during the funeral or delayed until they would help the holder in a political campaigned. The first we know of occurred in 264 at games Decimus Junius Brutus held for his father; there three pairs of gladiators fought in the Thracian style.

To honor his father, Decimus Junius Brutus was the first one to organize a gladiatorial munus.

Livy, Periochae Book 16[1]

The three first gladiator fights were Thracians matched in three pairs as an offering made by the sons of Junius at their father’s grave.

Ausonius, Griphus 36-7

The numbers soon increased: in 216 22 pairs of gladiators fought at the funeral of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus:

After the death of M. Aemilius Lepidus, who had been an augur[2] and also consul twice, his three sons, Lucius, Marcus, and Quintus, celebrated funeral games in his honour for three days and exhibited twenty-two pairs of gladiators in the Forum.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 23.30.15

During his campaign against the Carthaginians in Spain in 206 BCE, Scipio Africanus the Elder had soldiers volunteer to fight as gladiators

In New Carthage, Scipio organized a gladiatorial contest to commemorate his father and uncle. But no gladiators took part: the fighters were men who descended into the arena to honour their commander or accept a challenge.

Livy, Periochae 28

By 200 BCE the numbers of gladiators fighting had increased to 50

At the death of Marcus Valerius Laevinus his sons, Publius and Marcus, gave funeral games in the Forum for four days; they also gave a gladiatorial munus in which twenty-five pairs fought together.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 31.50.4

By 183 BCE 120 gladiators fought at one event:

On the day of the funeral of Publius Licinius a public distribution of meat was made, and a hundred and twenty gladiators fought in the funeral games which lasted for three days and after the games there was a public feast. The couches[3] had been spread all over the Forum when a violent storm of wind and rain burst and forced most people to put up tents for shelter there. When the sky cleared, everywhere soon after they were removed, and it was commonly said that the people had fulfilled a prediction, which the seers had given, that it was necessary for tents to be set up in the Forum.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 39.46

In 174 BCE 74 gladiators fought in a munus given by Titus Flamininus

Several gladiatorial munera were given this year, most of them not very large; the one given by Titus Flamininus was far more lavish than the rest. 11 When his father died he gave this spectacle for four days, and it was accompanied by a distribution of meat, a funeral feast, and dramas. But even in this magnificent exhibition only 74 men fought.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 41.28

In the Late Republic the games grew increasingly spectacular. Politicians like Julius Caesar put on larger and larger munera, using all sorts of excuses.

Gaius Julius Caesar

When he was aedile Julius Caesar decorated not only the Comitium and the Forum with its adjacent basilicas, but the Capitoline Hill as well, and built temporary colonnades to display a part of his material. He provided venationes and stage-plays too, both with his colleague and independently. The result was that Caesar alone took all the credit even for what they spent in common, and his colleague Marcus Bibulus openly said that his was the fate of Pollux: “For,” said he, “just as the temple erected in the Forum to the twin brothers bears only Castor’s name, so the joint generosity of Caesar and myself is credited to Caesar alone.” Caesar also gave a gladiatorial show in addition to this, but with somewhat fewer pairs of fighters than he had planned; for the huge number he gathered from everywhere possible terrified his opponents so much that they passed a law a limiting the number of gladiators which anyone was allowed to keep in Rome.

Suetonius, Julius Caesar 10

When Cicero’s brother was in Gaul in November 54 BCE, fighting with Julius Caesar in the Gallic Wars, Cicero wrote this letter to him about games and the danger of holding too many of them, as he feared his friend Milo, an ambitious politician, was doing. (According to Cicero in his In Defence of Milo, over the course of his career Milo spent three entire fortunes on spectacles for the people.)

Now about Milo. Pompey gives him no support, and has thrown himself behind Gutta, saying also that he will get Caesar on his side.[4] Milo is alarmed at this, and no wonder, and almost gives up hope if Pompey is created dictator. If he assists anyone who vetoes the dictatorship with his entourage and bodyguard,  he fears he may attract Pompey’s hostility: if he doesn’t do so, he fears the proposal may be carried by force. He is preparing games on a most magnificent scale, at a cost, I assure you, that no one has ever exceeded. It is foolish for two or even three reasons to give games that were not demanded—he has already given a magnificent show of gladiators: he cannot afford it: he is only an executor, and might have reflected that he is now an executor, not an aedile. That is about all I had to write. Take care of yourself, dearest brother.

Cicero, Letters to Quintus 3.8.6

Julius Caesar had his own gladiatorial school in Capua; in this letter from Cicero to his friend Atticus written in January of 49 BCE, the same year and month in which Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon and began a civil war, Cicero talks about fears that those gladiators would break out and fight for Caesar against Pompey and the senatorial faction.

I write this letter, though suffering from slight inflammation of the eyes, as I am just about to leave Cales for Capua. Lucius Caesar brought Caesar’s message to Pompey on the 23rd, while the latter was at Teanum with the consuls. His proposal was accepted, but on condition that he withdrew his garrisons from the towns which he had occupied outside his province. If he did this, they said in their answer that we would return to Rome and conclude the negotiation in the Senate. I hope for the present we have peace: for Caesar is not quite easy about his mad enterprise, nor our general about the amount of his forces. Pompey has told me to come to Capua and assist the levy, to which the Campanian settlers are not making a very eager response. Pompey has very cleverly distributed Caesar’s gladiators (about whom I gave you some incorrect information on the authority of a letter from A. Torquatus) at Capua among the heads of families, two to each family. There were 5,000 shields in the ludus: they were said to be contemplating breaking out. Pompey’s measure was a very wise precaution for the safety of the Republic.

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 7.14

Here is Caesar’s account of the situation:

At Capua they [the senatorial forces] first began to take courage and to rally, and determined to raise levies in the colonies, which had been established under Julian law: and Lentulus[5] brought into the public market place the gladiators which Caesar maintained there for the entertainment of the people, and confirmed them in their liberty, and gave them horses and ordered them to accompany him; but afterward, being warned by his friends that everyone was criticizing his action, he distributed them among the slaves of the district of Campania, to keep guard there.

Julius Caesar, Civil War 1.14

Remains of the Roman Forum

The games that Julius Caesar held for his daughter in 46 BCE were incredibly elaborate and involved creating tunnels under the Forum to channel animals and gladiators to temporary arenas set up there. They were also held years after her death, marking a new stage in the near complete detachment of the games from funeral ritual.

Within this same period he lost first his mother, then his daughter, and soon afterwards his grandchild.[6] Meanwhile, as the community was horrified at the murder of Publius Clodius,[7] the Senate had voted that only one consul should be chosen, and expressly named Gnaeus Pompey [the Great]. When the tribunes planned to make him Pompey’s colleague, Caesar urged them rather to propose to the people that he be permitted to stand for a second consulship without coming to Rome, when the term of his governorship drew near its end, to prevent his being forced for the sake of the office to leave his province prematurely and without finishing the war.[8] On the granting of this, aiming still higher and flushed with hope, he neglected nothing in the way of lavish expenditure or of favours to anyone, either in his public capacity or privately. He began a forum with the proceeds of his spoils, the ground for which cost more than a hundred million sesterces. He announced a combat of gladiators and a feast for the people in memory of his daughter, a thing quite without precedent. To raise the expectation of these events to the highest possible pitch, he had the material for the banquet prepared in part by his own household, although he had let contracts to the markets as well. He gave orders that whenever famous gladiators fought without winning the favour of the people, they should be rescued by force and kept for him. He had the novices trained, not in a gladiatorial school by professionals, but in private houses by Roman equestrians and even by senators who were skilled in fighting, earnestly begging them, as is shown by his own letters, to give the recruits individual attention and personally direct their exercises. He doubled the pay of the legions. Whenever grain was plentiful, he distributed it generously and in unlimited quantities to them, and now and then gave each man a slave from among the captives.[9]

Suetonius, Julius Caesar 26.1-3

Bibliography and Further Reading

In addition to the below most biographies of figures like Julius Caesar and Pompey will discuss their use of spectacles in some detail, as they were of considerable political use. The same is true of many histories of the Roman Republic and especially of the Late Republic.

  • Edmonson, Jonathan 1999. The cultural politics of public spectacle in Rome and the Greek East, 167-166 BCE. Studies in the History of Art 56: 76–95.
  • Flower, Harriet. (2004). Spectacle and political culture in the Roman Republic. In H. Flower (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 322-344.
  • Kyle, Donald. Sport and spectacle in the ancient world. Wiley-Blackwell: 268-288.
  • McDonnell, Myles Anthony. 2006. Roman manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. (This might not seem like it belongs, but it is very useful to understand the importance of some values like virtus

Media Attributions

  1. Livy’s history is not extant for this period; what we have are summaries of the content called the Periochae.
  2. The augurs were priests whose role was to advise on bird omens; it was a prestigious college of priests (one of 4 in Rome) and membership was by nomination and election. 
  3. Romans dined reclining on couches.
  4. Milo (full name: Titus Annius Milo). ran for the office of consul in 53; as it happened, riots and the imposition of the tribunes’ veto a number of times meant that the elections couldn’t be held. We know nothing else about Gutta and he may not even have ended up running. Because of the chaos of that year which meant the continual postponement of the elections, the Romans considered appointing Pompey as dictator until things calmed down enough and elections could be held (the dictatorship could only legally be held for six months).
  5. One of the consuls, who was attempting to recruit troops.
  6. Julia, Caesar’s only daughter, was married to Pompey the Great. She died in childbirth and the child did not survive long.
  7. A very powerful Tribune of the Plebs from an old and distinguished family, he had originally been born a patrician, but had himself adopted by a plebeian so he could hold that office; Cicero loathed him as he was responsible for Cicero’s exile in 58. He was killed in 52 BCE by Milo after their entourages met on the Appian Way. Clodius was wounded in the shoulder by a gladiator named Birria who was part of Milo’s entourage and then dragged wounded from an inn and murdered on the road. The use of gladiators as bodyguards and members of street gangs controlled by politicians was common during this period.
  8. Julius Caesar wanted to run for consul without leaving Gaul (his province) because while he was in his province and still held imperium, no one could prosecute him. There were a large number of people who were waiting for him to enter Rome (for which he would have to give up his imperium) so they could bring various cases against him. It was Roman law that in order to run for consul you had to be in the city of Rome, hence Caesar’s request.
  9. That is if they enslaved people during a war, he gave each soldier a slave from the prisoners, rather than selling them all, which was the usual practice. The money from such sales was supposed to make its way in part to the state.


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Spectacles in the Roman World Copyright © 2020 by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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