- how the gladiatorial games spread outside Rome
- how some, with little success, condemned the games for being non-Greek
- about laws in Roman colonies governing the giving of various munera
We tend to think of gladiatorial as particularly Roman and (sometimes) as disdained by the Greeks in the Eastern part of the empire; the truth is they were popular all over the Eastern and Western parts of the empire. Sometimes that had to do with the Romanization of provinces, but at other times it preceded the Roman government – and, in fact, the first gladiatorial show in the East was given by Antiochus IV, King of Syria (175-164 BCE). Note that despite Livy’s assurance that he only gave a gladiatorial show once, it seems clear from what he says that Antiochus gave such munera more than that:
In the magnificence of public shows of every kind Antiochus surpassed all former kings; these spectacles, with only one exception, involved Greek performers, the one exception being a gladiatorial contest exhibited in Roman fashion, which frightened the spectators, who were unused to such sights, more than it pleased them. However, by frequently giving these exhibitions, in which the gladiators sometimes only wounded one another and at other times fought to the death, he familiarised the eyes of his people to them and they learned to enjoy them. In this way he created amongst most of the younger men an enthusiasm for weapons, and while at first hired gladiators from Rome at a great cost, he now hired from his own people.
Livy, From the Founding of the City 41.20
The philosopher and holy man Apollonius of Tyana (1st century CE) attacked the Athenians for their fondness for gladiatorial munera and their use of the Theatre of Dionysus for such shows:
He also corrected the following abuse at Athens. The Athenians ran in crowds to the theatre beneath the Acropolis to witness humans killed, and the passion for such gladiatorial sports was stronger there than it is in Corinth today, for they would buy adulterers, fornicators, burglars, robbers, and kidnappers and similar rabble for large sums, and then they took them and armed them and made them fight with one another. Apollonius then attacked these practices, and when the Athenians invited him to attend their assembly, he refused to enter a place so impure and reeking with gore.
And he this said in a letter to them; he said that he was surprised that “the goddess Athena had not already fled from Acropolis, when you shed such blood before her eyes. For I suspect that soon, when you are conducting the pan-Atheniac procession, you will no longer be content with bulls, but will be sacrificing hecatombs of men to the goddess. And you, Dionysus, do you attend their theatre after such bloodshed? And do the wise among the Athenians pour libations to you there? No! Depart, Dionysus! Holier and purer is your Cithaeron.”
Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana 22
In the following the philosopher and orator Dio Chrysostom speaks to the people of Rhodes in the 1st century CE and compares them favourably with the Athenians and their love of gladiatorial combats.
Moreover, if you were superior to the Athenians in no other way, perhaps you would not find it necessary to feel any jealousy of them in this one matter and to consider how you might have a reputation better than theirs. But as the situation now is, there is no practice current in Athens which would not cause anyone to feel ashamed. For instance, in regard to the gladiatorial shows the Athenians have imitated the Corinthians so enthusiastically, or rather, have so surpassed both them and all others in their mad infatuation, that whereas the Corinthians watch these combats outside the city in a valley, a place that is able to hold a crowd but otherwise is dirty and such that no one would even bury any freeborn citizens there, the Athenians watch this fine spectacle in their theatre under the very walls of the Acropolis, in the place where they bring their Dionysus into the orchestra and stand him up, so that often a fighter is slaughtered among the very seats in which the Hierophant and the other priests must sit. And they refused to obey and did not even applaud the philosopher [probably Musonius Rufus] who spoke about this matter and rebuked them; on the contrary, they were so angry that, although in blood he was inferior to no Roman but enjoyed a reputation greater than any one man has attained for generations, and was admittedly the only man who since the time of the ancients had lived most nearly in conformity with reason, this man was forced to leave the city and preferred to go and live somewhere else in Greece. But you, men of Rhodes, would not tolerate anything of that sort, since you have is a law which orders that the executioner must never enter the city.
Dio Chrysostom, Orations 31.121-122
In Apuleius’ novel of the 2nd century CE, the Golden Ass, the hero is turned into a donkey; it is in that shape that he is relates the following story – he is being used as a pack animal by a band of robbers. (Those interested in the role of spectacle in the Apuleius should look at The Spectacles of Apuleius)
After we lost two of our companions, we did not like Thebes, but marched towards the next city called Plataea, where we found everyone was talking about a man named Demochares who planned to hold great games, where there would be a contest of all kinds of weapons. He was from a good family, incredibly rich, generous, and well deserved what he had, and had prepared many shows and pleasures for the common people. So great were his preparations that there is no one who could by wit or eloquence describe in suitable language all the different shapes of his preparations, for first he had provided gladiators from a famous , then all manner of swift hunters, then criminals without hope of reprieve whose had been condemned for their punishment to be food for wild beasts. He had ordered a machine made of beams fixed together, with great towers and platforms like a house, to move here and there, very nicely painted, which would contain all the quarry: he had ready a great number of wild beasts of many varieties, and he had brought from abroad those noble creatures that were soon to be the death of so many condemned persons. But among these great and lavish preparations, he spent the most part of his patrimony in buying up a vast number of great bears, which he had either trapped himself, or had spent a great deal of money on, or which were given him by different friends, who competed with each other to give him such gifts: and all these he kept and fed at very great cost. However, for all his concern for the public pleasure, he could not be free from the malicious eyes of envy: for some of the bears were almost dead because they had been caged too long; some were thin with the blistering heat of the sun; some languished with long lying, but all (having a range of diseases) were so afflicted that they died one after another, and there were almost none left, and you could see their wrecks piteously lying in the streets and all but dead. Then the common people, having no other meat to eat and forced by harsh poverty to find any new meat and cheap feasts, would come and fill their bellies with the flesh of the bears.
Apuleius, Golden Ass 4.13
In addition to Greek cities, Roman colonies put considerable effort into ensuring that spectacles not only took place, but that they took place on a suitable scale and in a regular fashion. A law from 44 establishing a Roman colony at Urso, southern Spain, took great care to ensure that the , the two magistrates who would be the senior magistrates in the colony, and the would know the extent of their responsibilities for giving games. (The inscription is written in legalese and hence can make for rather difficult reading, but the sections below show a concern that the correct amount of money is spent on the games, that they last for a decided time, and that the magistrates and citizens of the colony get their proper seats.)
70. All duumvirs (except the first to be appointed after this law) shall celebrate during their magistracy at the discretion of the decurions a gladiatorial munus or dramatic shows for Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and all the gods and the goddesses, or such part of these shows as shall be possible, over four days, for the greater part of each day. These persons shall spend no less than 2,000 sesterces of their own money and on these spectacles and for the said show each of the said persons shall expend from his own money, and from the public money it shall be lawful for each several duumvir to spend not more than 2,000 sesterces, and it shall be lawful for these persons so to do without prejudice to themselves, always provided that no person shall expend or make assignment of any portion of the money, which in accordance with this law properly shall be given or assigned for those sacrifices which are performed publicly in the forum or in any other place.
71. During their magistracy all aediles shall celebrate a gladiatorial munus or dramatic shows for Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, or whatever portion of the said shows shall be possible, over three days, for the greater part of each day, and during one day games in the circus or the forum for Venus, and on these spectacles and show each of these persons shall expend not less than 2,000 sesterces from his own money, and from the public fund it shall be lawful for each aedile to expend 1000 sesterces, and a duumvir or a prefect shall provide that the money shall be given and assigned, and it shall be lawful for the aediles to receive the same without prejudice to themselves…
125. At the games no person shall occupy any place given, assigned, or left to the decurions, from which it is proper for decurions to view the games, except the one who is at that time a decurion of the colony Genetiva, or who holds at that time a magistracy or authority or power by the votes of the colonists or by the command of Gaius [Julius] Caesar dictator, consul, or proconsul, or who at the time has some promagistracy or power in the colony Genetiva, or to whom it is proper for places to be assigned among the decurions by decree of the decurions of Genetiva, such a decree being passed when not less than one half of the decurions are present at the discussion. Nor shall any person, with malice aforethought, introduce or order to be introduced into the said place any others except the aforesaid persons. If any person with malice aforethought occupies such places in breach of this law, or introduces another person into the same, or orders with malice aforethought another person to be so introduced, for every such act against this law, he shall be condemned to pay 5,000 sesterces to the colonists of the colony Genetiva Julia and any of the colonists, at will, shall have the right and the power to bring an action, a claim, and a suit for that amount of money, in accordance with this law, in a recuperatory action, before a duumvir or a prefect. 126. Every duumvir, aedile, or prefect of the colony Genetiva Julia, or any other person of the colony Genetiva Julia, celebrating dramatic spectacles, shall accommodate the colonists of the colony Genetiva, resident aliens, guests, and strangers in such manner as the decurions decree and determine, without malicious deception, not less than fifty decurions being present when the said matter is discussed. Whatsoever is so decreed and determined by the decurions shall be legal and valid in accordance with this law. Nor shall the person celebrating the games seat the aforesaid persons, nor order the same to be seated otherwise or in other manner, nor give, nor apportion, nor assign places, nor order places to be given, apportioned, or assigned in another manner, nor shall he do anything nor order anything to be done, whereby the said persons shall sit otherwise or in another manner than in the places to be given, apportioned or assigned, nor whereby any person with malice aforethought shall sit in a place reserved for others. Any person acting in contravention of this regulation, for each and every other act, shall be condemned to pay to the colonists, at will, who shall have the right and the power to bring an action, a claim, and a suit for that amount of money, in accordance with this law, in a recuperatory action, before a duumvir or a prefect.
127. Regarding any dramatic shows in the colony Genetiva Julia: no person shall sit in the orchestra to view the performance except a magistrate or a promagistrate of the Roman people, or a Roman official charged with jurisdiction, or a person who is or shall be or has been a senator of the Roman people, or the son of such senator, or the overseer of the workmen of the magistrate or promagistrate holding the province of Farther Spain, or Baetica, or those persons who properly by this law shall sit in the place assigned to the decurions. Nor shall any person introduce into the said place nor allow to sit therein any persons other than the aforesaid persons.
Lex Ursonensis (ILS 6087)
A number of emperors spent money and effort in giving shows outside as well as inside the city of Rome
Caligula also gave shows in foreign lands, Athenian games at Syracuse in Sicily, and miscellaneous games at Lugdunum in Gallia; at the latter place also a contest in Greek and Latin oratory, in which, they say, the losers gave prizes to the victors and were forced to compose eulogies upon them, while those who were least successful were ordered to erase their writings with a sponge or with their tongue unless they elected rather to be beaten with rods or thrown into the neighboring river.
Not content with showing his proficiency in these arts at Rome, Nero went to Achaia, as I have said, influenced especially by the following consideration. The cities in which it was the custom to hold contests in music had adopted the rule of sending all the lyric prizes to him. These he received with the greatest delight, not only giving audience to the envoys who brought them before he saw anyone else, but even inviting them to his private table. When some of them begged him to sing after dinner and greeted his performance with extravagant applause, he declared that “the Greeks were the only ones who had an ear for music and that they alone were worthy of his efforts.” So he took ship without delay and immediately on arriving at Cassiope made a preliminary appearance as a singer at the altar of Jupiter Cassius, and then went the round of all the contests.
To make this possible, he gave orders that even those which were widely separated in time should be brought together in a single year, so that some had even to be given twice, and he introduced a musical competition at Olympia also, contrary to custom. To avoid being distracted or hindered in any way while busy with these contests, he replied to his freedman Helius, who reminded him that the affairs of the city required his presence, in these words: “However much it may be your advice and your wish that I should return speedily, yet you ought rather to counsel me and to hope that I may return worthy of Nero.” …He also drove a chariot in many places, at Olympia even a ten-horse team, although in one of his own poems he had criticised Mithridates for just that thing. But after he had been thrown from the car and put back in it, he was unable to hold out and gave up before the end of the course; but he received the crown just the same. On his departure he presented the entire province with freedom and at the same time gave the judges Roman citizenship and a large sum of money. These favours he announced in person on the day of the Isthmian Games, standing in the middle of the stadium.
Suetonius, Nero 22-24
In almost every city Hadrian built some building and gave public games. At Athens he exhibited in the stadium a of a thousand wild beasts, but he never called away from Rome a single or actor. In Rome, in addition to popular entertainments of unbounded extravagance, he gave spices to the people in honour of his mother-in‑law, and in honour of Trajan he caused essences of balsam and saffron to be poured over the seats of the theatre. And in the theatre he presented plays of all kinds in the ancient manner and had the court—actors appear before the public. In the Circus he had many wild beasts killed and often a whole hundred of lions. He often gave the people exhibitions of military Pyrrhic dances and he frequently attended gladiatorial shows.
Historia Augusta 19.2-8
The Greek satirist Lucian (2nd century CE) also tells of a novel form of spectacle that one Cynic philosopher, Proteus Peregrinus, came up with at the Olympic games: self-immolation. Lucian hated Peregrinus so his spin cannot exactly be trusted, but the story does show that Greeks would watch some rather horrific events.
On our arrival at Olympia, we found the vestibule full of people all talking about Proteus. Some were criticizing him, others praised his intention; and most of them had come to blows about it when, just after the heralds’ contest, in came Proteus himself, with a multitudinous escort, and gave us a speech, all about himself – the life he had lived, the risks he had run, the trials he had undergone in the cause of philosophy. He had a great deal to say, but I heard very little of it; there was such a crowd. Presently I began to think I should be squeezed to death in the crush (I saw this actually happen to several people), so off I went, having had enough of this sophist in love with death, and his anticipatory epitaph. Thus much I heard, however. Upon a golden life he desired to set a golden crown. He had lived like Heracles: like Heracles he must die, and mingle with the upper air. ‘It is my aim,’ he continued, ‘to benefit mankind; to teach them how contemptible a thing is death. To this end, the world shall be my Philoctetes.’ The simpler souls among his audience wept, crying, ‘Live, Proteus; live for Greece! ‘ Others were of sterner stuff, and expressed hearty approval of his determination. This discomposed the old man considerably. His plan had been that they would never let him go near the pyre and that they would all cling about him and insist on his continuing a compulsory existence. He had the complexion of a corpse before, but this wholly unexpected blow of approbation made him turn several degrees paler and he trembled–and stopped speaking.
Think of my amusement! It was impossible to feel pity for such morbid vanity: among all who have ever been afflicted with this scourge, Proteus stands pre-eminent. However, he had a fine following, and drank his fill of notoriety, as he gazed on the host of his admirers; poor man! He forgot that criminals on the way to the cross, or in the executioner’s hands, have a greater escort by far. And now the games were over. They were the best I had ever; seen, though this makes my fourth visit to Olympia. In the general rush of departure, I got left behind, finding it impossible to procure a conveyance. After repeated postponements, Proteus had finally announced a late hour of the night for his exhibition. Accordingly, at about midnight I got up (I had found lodgings with a friend), and set out for Harpine; for here was the pyre, just two miles and a half from Olympia, going East along the racecourse. We found on arrival that the pyre had been placed in a hole, about six feet deep. To ensure speedy ignition, it had been composed chiefly of pine-torches, with brushwood stuffed in between. As soon as the moon had risen–for her presence too was required at the glorious spectacle–Proteus advanced, in his usual costume, accompanied by the chiefs of the Cynics; conspicuous among them came the pride of Patrae, torch in hand; nobly qualified for the part he was to play. Proteus too had his torch. They drew near to the pyre, and kindled it at several points; as it contained nothing but torches and brushwood, a fine blaze was the result. Then Proteus–are you listening, Cronius?–Proteus threw aside his bag, cloak, and club–‘ his club of Heracles–and stood before us in scrupulously unclean linen. He demanded frankincense, to throw upon the fire; being supplied he first threw it on, then, turning to the South (another tragic touch, this of the South), he exclaimed: ‘Gods of my mother, gods of my father, receive me with favour.’ And with these words he leapt into the pyre. There was nothing more to be seen, however; the towering mass of flames enveloped him completely.
Again, sweet sir, you smile over the conclusion of my tragedy. As for me, I saw nothing much in his appealing to his mother’s gods, but when he included his father’s in the appeal, I laughed out loud; it reminded me of the parricide story. The Cynics stood dry-eyed about the pyre, gazing upon the flames in silent manifestation of their grief. At last, when I was half dead with suppressed laughter, I addressed them. ‘Intelligent sirs,’ I said, ‘let us go away. No pleasure is to be derived from seeing an old man roasted, and there is a horrible smell of burning. Are you waiting for some painter to come along and take a sketch of you, to match the pictures of Socrates in prison, with his companions at his side?’ They were very angry and abusive at first, and some took to their sticks: but when I threatened to pick a few of them up and throw them on to the fire to keep their master company, they quieted down and peace was restored.
Curious reflections were running in my mind, Cronius, as I made my way back. ‘How strange a thing is this same ambition!’ I said to myself; ‘’it is the one irresistible passion; irresistible to the noblest of mankind, as we account them,–how much more to such as Proteus, whose wild, foolish life may well end upon the pyre!’ At this point I met a number of people coming out to assist at the spectacle, thinking to find Proteus still alive; for among the various rumours of the preceding day, one had been, that before entering the fire he was to greet the rising sun, which to be sure is said to be the Brahmin practice. Most of them turned back when I told them that all was over; all but those enthusiasts who could not rest without seeing the identical spot, and snatching some relic from the flames. After this, you may be sure, my work was cut out for me: I had to tell them all about it, and to undergo a minute cross-examination from everybody. If it was some one I liked the look of, I confined myself to plain prose, as in the present narrative: but for the benefit of the curious simple, I put in a few dramatic touches on my own account. No sooner had Proteus thrown himself upon the kindled pyre, than there was a tremendous earthquake, I informed them; the ground rumbled beneath us; and a vulture flew out from the midst of the flames and away into the sky, exclaiming in a human voice
‘I rise from Earth, I seek Olympus.’
They listened with amazement and shuddering reverence. ‘Did the vulture fly East or West?’ they wanted to know. I answered whichever came uppermost. On getting back to Olympia, I stopped to listen to an old man who was giving an account of these proceedings; a credible witness, if ever there was one, to judge by his long beard and dignified appearance in general. He told us, among other things, that only a short time before, just after the cremation, Proteus had appeared to him in white raiment; and that he had now left him walking with serene countenance in the Colonnade of Echoes, crowned with olive; and on the top of all this he brought in the vulture, solemnly swore that he had seen it himself flying away from the pyre,–my own vulture, which I had but just let fly, as a satire on crass stupidity!
Lucian, The Death of Peregrinus
- Carter, Michael. “Gladiators and Monomachoi: Greek Attitudes to a Roman ‘Cultural Performance’.” In Sport in the Cultures of the Ancient World: New Perspectives, edited by Zinon Papakonstantinou. New York: Routledge, 2010.
- Athen Theatre of Dionysus © Photo by Berthold Werner is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Map – spainportugal30ad © TimeMap of World History is licensed under a All Rights Reserved license
- Gaius Caesar Caligula © Photo by Louis le Grand is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Lucianus © William Faithorne is licensed under a Public Domain license
- An annual festival with athletic games in honour of the goddess Athena. ↵
- The cult statue of Dionysius was taken to the theatre so he could watch the games; his priests sat in the orchestra. ↵
- This is the Greek Thebes, not to be confused with the one in Egypt. ↵
- Decurions were members of the colony’s senate. ↵
- As the Capitoline Triad these were often linked together. ↵
- The colony’s name was colonia Julia Genetiva. ↵
- Singing, lyre-playing, and acting. ↵
- The circuit of the four major crowd games (Delphi, Nemea, Olympia, Isthmia) was called the periodos. As the games did not overlap with each other, Nero had them all moved into the same year so he could go from one to other and perform at each. ↵
- The first competition at Olympia was that of the heralds who would then go on to announce events and winners at the games. ↵
- Heracles committed suicide on a pyre and was then raised into the heavens and became a god. The pyre was lit by his friend and squire Philoctetes. ↵
Literally “gift”, “duty”, or “favour”, particularly one owed to the dead. As gladiatorial shows were given to honour the dead and in accordance with vows they were called munera. A munus in this sense was a private obligation and thus the cost was paid by whoever vowed it, not the state. Later the munera were integrated into the other games and incorporated into imperial spectacles.
A ludus may refer to any type of school, including a gladiatorial one. Ludi also refers to games, the public games held as part of religious rituals.
‘One of the two men’ (in plural ‘the two men’) is a term used for any dual magistracy. When used in reference to Italian towns and Roman colonies it refers to the chief magistrates (the local equivalent of the Roman consuls).
The first rank on the cursus honorum, the course of public offices, these magistrates were in charge of maintaining public buildings and space and supervised and organized the public festivals. There were two types of aedile, curule, and plebeian.
Beast hunts, sometimes in staged settings. A wide range of domestic and exotic animals were hunted. Although dangerous, a venatio was not necessarily fatal for the hunters, who were given weapons and had some protection.
A trained beast hunter. Not to be confused with criminals who were thrown to the beasts as a form of execution; although fighting wild animals is never going to be a safe endeavour, these were trained professionals, who were armed. There was a ludus in Rome dedicated to training them, the Ludus Matutinus. Venatores were usually part of the morning show.