Origins of Gladiatorial Munera

In this section you will learn

  • The many ancient theories of the origins of Roman gladiatorial games
  • How the Romans themselves explained where these games came from and why they liked them
Funeral Stele with Figure Guiding a Horse and Rider.

There were a range of spectacles in ancient Rome: gladiatorial shows; chariot racing; theatre; and so on. Of these spectacles gladiatorial munera are often seen as uniquely Roman; while, for example, the Greeks engaged enthusiastically in chariot racing (it was an Olympic event as well as being celebrated at a number of other games), they could not supply an origin for the munera. While we are uncertain of their true beginnings, we do know that our first records of gladiators in Rome show that gladiatorial fights were given as part of munera, games vowed by private individuals, usually to mark the death of a close male relative. As private games, the expense was borne entirely by the person holding them: unlike chariot racing or theatre you could not access public funds (you also did not need to have a current position as an elected magistrate, which turned out to be helpful for people who wanted to get favour among the people). Various origins were proposed for the munera; sometimes they were said to be an importation from Etruria; others said they came from the Samnites (an Italian tribe, once great enemies of the Romans). Modern scholars debate precisely where the games came from with very few agreeing on their initial source. However, it must be said that it was convenient for the Romans to insists shows of all sorts – including theatre – as coming from outside Rome, especially when passing moral judgment on the expense and lavishness of these events. In the passage below Tertullian (c.160-c 240), a Christian author, fumes about the origins of the gladiatorial games in an extract from his work On Spectacles. Tertullian came from Carthage and was vehement in his disgust at what he called idolatry; how reliable he is, given his agenda, is a moot point.

We still have to examine the most famed and popular spectacle: it is called munus from being an officium, for munus and officium are synonyms.[1] People in the past thought they were performing a duty to the dead with this form of spectacle after they moderated its nature with a more refined form of cruelty. Long ago, since they believed that the souls of the dead are appeased by human blood, they purchased captives or slaves of poor quality and sacrificed them at funerals. Afterwards, they preferred to disguise this unholy practice by making it something to enjoy. Thus, after they trained the people they had obtained these ways to wield the weapons they had as best they could (training them to learn how to die!), they then exposed them to death at the tombs on the day appointed for sacrifices in honor of the dead. And so it was that they consoled themselves with murder. That is the origin of the gladiatorial munus. But gradually their refinement developed along with their cruelty; these inhuman people could not rest satisfied or gain pleasure unless wild animals tore humans to pieces. What was then a sacrifice offered for the appeasement of the dead was no doubt considered a rite in honor of the dead. This sort of thing is, therefore, idolatry, because idolatry, too, is a kind of rite in honor of the dead: both are services rendered to the dead.

Additionally, demons live in the images of the dead. And now consider the titles also: although this type of exhibition has moved from being an act to honor the dead to one which honours the living (for example, those who hold quaestorships, magistracies, flaminates,[2] and priesthoods) still, since the guilt of idolatry taints the dignity of the title, whatever is carried out in the name of this dignity shares necessarily in the taint of its origin. We must also consider the paraphernalia which are thought to belong to the ceremonies of the actual offices as also being idolatrous. For the purple robes, the fasces,[3] the fillets,[4] and crowns–finally, also, the announcements made in meetings and on advertisements[5] and the final dinners[6] given the evening before games—have the Devil’s pageantry and the invocation of demons. In conclusion, what shall I say about that horrible place which not even perjurers can bear? For the amphitheatre is consecrated to more numerous and more terrible names than the Capitol, although the Capitol is the temple of all demons.[7] There as many unclean spirits live as there are seats. And to say a final word about the arts concerned, we know that Mars and Diana are the patrons of both types of ludi.

Tertullian, On Spectacles 12

The events the Roman historian Livy describes below took place in 308 BCE after the Second Samnite War; Livy places the origin of the games – and of the type of gladiator known as Samnite, which was later to die out – in Campania, to the South of Rome.

The Senate voted a triumph for the Dictator. The armour he had captured was by far the greatest sight in the procession and they thought them so magnificent that the gilded shields were distributed amongst the owners of the silversmiths’ shops to adorn the Forum. People say this is the origin of the aediles’ custom of decorating the Forum when the covered chariots of the three Capitoline deities[8] are conducted in procession through the Forum. The Romans used this armour to honour the gods, but the Campanians, who despised and hated the Samnites, made the gladiators who performed at their banquets wear it, and they then called these gladiators “Samnites.”

Livy, From the Founding of the City 9.40

Map of Italy at 500BC (
Map of Italy at 500AD. Capua is south-east of the centre.

The Romans sometimes said the games came specifically from Capua, a Campanian city, which was where most of the gladiatorial ludi (training schools) were later located.

It was then their [the people of Capua] ancient custom to make their feasts more exciting with the slaughter of men and they combined with their dining the vicious spectacle of armed men fighting. Often the fighters died right among the wine goblets of the feasters and their tables dripped with gushing blood.

Silius Italicus, Punica 11.51-54

However, others claimed the Etruscans to the north of Rome were the originators of the gladiatorial munera. In the following the Greek writer Athenaus quotes people on the various theories of the origins of single combat and gladiatorial games:

Some Campanian groups practice single combat at their drinking parties. But Nicolas of Damascus, one of the philosophers of the Peripatetic school,[9] in the hundred-and-tenth book of his History, relates that the Romans at their feasts practise single combats, writing as follows, “The Romans used to put on spectacles of single combats, not only in their public shows and in their theatres, having taken the custom from the Etruscans, but they did so also at their banquets. And so, peop1e often invited their friends to an entertainment, promising them, in addition to other things that they should see two or three pairs of single combatants. And when they had had enough of eating and drinking, they then called in the combatants: and as soon as one of them was killed, the guests clapped, being delighted at the show. In one case a man left it in his will that some beautiful women, whom he had purchased as slaves, should engage in single combat: and in another case a man desired that some youthful boys whom he had loved should do so; but the people would not tolerate such notorious proceedings, and declared the will invalid.” And Eratosthenes says, in the first book of his Catalogue of the Victors at Olympia, that the Etruscans used to box to the music of the flute.


Gladiators at a Banquet, by Giovanni Lanfranco

But Poseidonius,[10] in the twenty-third book of his Histories, says, “The Celts sometimes have single combats at their entertainments. After gathering armed, they go through their exercises, and make feints at, and sometimes they even go so far as to wound each another. And being irritated by this, if the bystanders do not stop them, they will proceed even to kill one another. But in ancient times,” he continues, “there was a custom that a hind quarter of pork was put on the table, and the bravest man took it; and if any one else laid claim to it, then the two rose up to fight till one of them was killed. And other men in the theatre having received some silver or gold money, and some even for a number of earthen vessels full of wine, having been guaranteed that the gifts promised would really be given and distributed them among their nearest and dearest, laid down on doors with their faces upwards, and then allowed some bystander to cut their throats with a sword.”

And Euphorion the Chalcidian[11] in his Historical Memorials, writes this: “However, among the Romans it is common for five minae to be offered to any one who chooses to take it, to allow his head to be cut off with an axe, so that his heirs might receive the reward: and very often many have returned their names as willing, so that there has been a regular contest between them as to who had the best right to be beaten to death.”[12]

And Hermippus, in the first book of his treatise on Lawgivers, asserts that the Mantineians[13] were the original inventors of men fighting in single combat, and that Demonax, one of their citizens, was the original one to come up with this idea;[14] and that the Cyrenaeans were the next to follow their example. And Ephorus, in the sixth book of his History, says- “The Mantineians and Arcadians were in the habit of practising warlike exercises, and even to this day they call the military dress and the ancient fashion of arming ‘the Mantineian’, since they invented it. And in addition to this, the exercises of single combat were first invented in Mantineia, and Demeas was the first to come up with the idea.”

Athenaeus, 4.153f-154a[15]

Wherever the fights came from, the Romans embraced gladiatorial combat very rapidly. The historian Tacitus blamed passion for the games and spectacles for taking the Roman people away from more important matters:

And indeed there are characteristic and specific vices in this city, which I think are formed in the mother’s womb: a love of actors and madness for gladiators and horses. How can someone totally occupied by and obsessed with these have time for the noble arts?

Tacitus, Dialogue on Oratory 29

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Fagan, Garrett. 2013. Gladiatorial combat as alluring spectacle. in A Companion to sport and spectacle in Greek and Roman society: 465-477.
  • Futrell, Alison. 1997. Blood in the arena: The spectacle of Roman power. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press: 9–19
  • Mouratidis, John. 1996. On the origin of the gladiatorial games. Nikephoros 9:111–134.
  • Wiedemann, Thomas. 1992. Emperors and gladiators. London: Routledge: 30–34.

  1. No, they’re not. Both mean duty, but munus also means gift, especially a gift given to the dead.
  2. A type of priesthood.
  3. Certain Roman magistrates (consuls, praetors, curule aediles, quaestors) were entitled to be accompanied by lictors who carried fasces, a bundle of rods with an axe sticking out. These symbolized their power to punish as part of their duties.
  4. The bands of wool priests and priestesses wore on their heads when performing ceremonies.
  5. We actually have some advertisements for these shows from Pompeii; see the section on advertising and marketing gladiators.
  6. The cena libera, a public feast given the night before ludi to gladiators and those who were due to be executed in the arena.
  7. The Capitoline Hill held many temples for various deities and in particular the temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
  8. The Capitoline triad: Juno; Jupiter; and Minerva.
  9. A philosophical school founded by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE; Nicolaus was a Jewish philosopher of the 1st century CE.
  10. A Greek philosopher and historian who lived c. 150s-50s BCE.
  11. Euphorion of Chalcis, a Greek historian born in the 270s BCE.
  12. It would be wise not to believe this or the claim in the previous paragraph. A minae is about 100 drachmas, and is not very much. The Greeks did not always think very highly of the Romans.
  13. Mantineia  was a city in Arcadia in Greece.
  14. Not actually a reliable historical fact.
  15. Quoting Nicolas of Damascus


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